If you had to give the team and season any sort of overall grade, it would have to be Incomplete. There were still just too many holes to fill, that were not taken care of by free agency or the draft. So there are some common themes running through this analysis of all the positions.
Quarterbacks: For the second consecutive season, the Raiders overpaid and traded for a veteran QB (Matt Flynn in 2013; Matt Schaub this season), anointed the vet as the starter going into preseason, then benched said vet by the start of the season for an untested rookie. In 2013, that turned the entire season into a tedious back-and-forth between Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin, with Flynn being cut after one game (and later leading the Packers to a huge comeback win in Dallas, on Mark Davis’ dime).
This season, it went a lot better for the QB position, as Derek Carr shows every sign of being a diamond in the rough. Carr showed great poise and pocket awareness, getting sacked just 24 times in 599 pass attempts. His 348 completions, 3,270 yards, 21 TDs, and 12 INTs place him among the top rookie quarterback seasons.
It’s true that a good chunk of those stats came in garbage time, as there were several games that were essentially out of reach early in the second half, and opposing defenses let up a bit. However, that Carr was able to put those numbers up at all, with a historically bad running game and no real #1 wide receiver, is something of a minor miracle. With more and better weapons — and the Raiders have the #4 pick in the coming draft, and about $70M to work with in free agency — Carr should be an integral part of leading the team back to the playoffs.
As for Schaub and McGloin, neither saw any significant playing time. McGloin went 12-19-129-1TD-2INT in his only appearance, against Miami in Week 4, while Schaub threw an interception on a fake punt attempt against Cleveland, and 5-9 for 57 yards and a pick-6 in the Rams blowout. (In fact, Schaub’s total output with the Raiders was 5 completions in 10 attempts, with 3 sacks and 2 interceptions.)
The thing with Schaub is not that the Raiders picked him up in the offseason — there really weren’t many free-agent QBs available — but that he came at too high a cost, $8.5M and a 6th-round draft pick. This is as much on the coaching and management staff as it is on Schaub himself; it was simply too much to pay for an 11th-year QB coming off his worst season.
Running Backs: Another instance of being penny-wise and pound-foolish, re-signing Darren McFadden for the veteran minimum, bringing in Maurice Jones-Drew for not much more, and then insisting on riding that tandem long past the time it was obvious that neither back was going to make anything happen.
Again, it’s more on coaches/management than the players themselves — both McFadden and Jones-Drew were clearly running hard every time they had the ball. But inexplicably, even though both backs had always been most effective getting out toward the edge, one cut and go, they kept getting called to run right up the middle. If the coaches wanted to run a power system, then they should have gotten power RBs.
By the time they finally came around to giving Latavius Murray a shot, the season was lost, but at least Murray proved to have real game-breaking potential, as he showed in his first start against the Chiefs. Murray will need a solid complementary back to keep him fresh, but he’s another future player to build around.
Fullbacks Marcel Reece and Jamize Olawale did well, to the extent that they were used, Reece averaging 4.0 yards per carry, and both backs had receiving touchdowns (Reece 1 TD, Olawale 2 TD).
Tight Ends: Mychal Rivera was a prime target for Carr, finishing the season 2nd on the team in receptions (58) and touchdowns (4) and 3rd in receiving yards (534). Rivera was critical in some games, almost disappeared in others. Huge drop-off after that; Brian Leonhardt had 6 receptions for 35 yards and 1 TD, David Ausberry was injured most of the season, appearing briefly in the Miami game. They can and should find a solid #2 TE in the middle rounds of the draft.
Wide Receivers: James Jones (73 receptions, 666 yards, 6 TDs) and Andre Holmes (47-693-4) carried most of the workload, though with Carr spreading the ball around in what was mostly a short- to medium-passing scheme, there were few big plays. (Although Carr did finish the season with the 5th most pass attempts over 20+ yards, but 28th in deep-ball completions, which is partly on Carr and partly on the receivers.) Brice Butler (21-280-2) continues to show potential when he’s used, and Kenbrell Thompkins (15-209-0) had a few key receptions in the later weeks of the season.
Though Jones is a solid possession receiver, and Holmes has terrific size and speed, neither of them would be more than a #3, maybe a #2 on most other NFL teams. There were simply way too many drops by receivers throughout the season.
One big question is whether Rod Streater, who was injured most of the season and didn’t play beyond Week 3, can regain his lead receiver role next season. The Raiders may also want to consider drafting Alabama WR Amari Cooper with their #4 pick, or pulling in a top-drawer free agent such as Jeremy Maclin. Denarius Moore seems to have played his way off the team, and it’s curious why they just didn’t cut him mid-season and use the roster spot to address one of the other holes.
Offensive Line: LT Donald Penn turned out to be one of the team’s better free agent signings this season, and 3rd-round pick Gabe Jackson jumped in immediately at left guard. The right side of the line is another story. Center Stefen Wisniewski appears to be on his way out the door, and there were more than a few fumbled exchanges between him and Carr throughout the year. Free agent Austin Howard, who was a solid right tackle with the Jets (Tony Sparano was Howard’s line coach), was for some reason moved in to guard, apparently to give Menelik Watson time at right tackle. Watson ended up playing in the first 12 games of the season, starting nine. The concern is that Watson, who missed most of last season after being drafted in the second round, might have trouble fulfilling that potential due to injuries.
All told, the line as a unit did an admirable job in minimizing sacks (Carr was sacked just 24 times all season), but some of this was also due to the high-number of quick, short pass plays called. And as good as the pass protection was, the run blocking was questionable at best — offensive coordinator Greg Olson habitually called shotgun pass plays on 3rd&1 or 2, showing a lack of confidence in the line’s ability to push, and Austin Howard frequently got blown back on running plays, indicating that he might be better off at his natural RT spot.
Defensive Line: For this unit, it was really a tale of two halves — the first half of the season, they were on their way to giving up a record number of rushing yards, and had just a couple of sacks. But in the last eight games, especially in their three victories, they tightened up and performed better, especially Justin Tuck. Unfortunately, the other high-profile defensive signing, LaMarr Woodley, turned out to be a bust, managing just 3 solo tackles and 2 assists in 6 games, before getting injured. Of course, this might be in part due to Woodley, who had been a stand-up linebacker for most of his career, being used as a down lineman. Again, especially with free-agent signings, maybe it’s a good idea to get the player best suited for your scheme, rather than one who made his mark doing something else, and trying to convert him.
Linebacker: One of the more snake-bitten units of the team as far as injuries go. Middle linebacker Nick Roach suffered a concussion in preseason and did not play, forcing the team to use Miles Burris in the mike spot. Burris plays hard, and improved in later games, but was burned again and again in coverage all season, as offenses took advantage of Burris’ tendency to over-pursue (though he was a very close second on the team in tackles; Burris’ 110 came in just behind Charles Woodson’s 112). Number five draft pick Khalil Mack started strong and finished stronger, notching 75 tackles, 4 sacks, and a forced fumble despite being double-teamed much of the time. Sio Moore also had a solid year (90 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 fumble) before a late-season injury. Hopefully Roach will be ready to return next season; if not, the MLB position should be a priority in free agency.
Defensive Backs: The lack of continuity at the cornerback position — three different tandems in three seasons — has at least in part undermined defensive coordinator Jason Tarver’s efforts to rebuild the defense. Free agent CB Tarell Brown had a good year overall, but the team might be better off developing rookie T.J. Carrie and last year’s 1st-round pick D.J. Hayden, both of whom showed promise and potential in their efforts. The ageless Charles Woodson led the team in tackles (112) and interceptions (4). Strong safety was a Bermuda triangle of injuries, starting with Tyvon Branch before the season even began, and going through Usama Young and Larry Asante, both of whom had some good games before getting hurt, before bringing back Brandian Ross, who made the most of his playing time and had a game-clinching interception in the victory over Buffalo.
Special Teams: Sebastian Janikowski bounced back from last year’s slump, going 19/22, with two of the misses from beyond 50 yards. Seabass’ holder, however, was Matt Schaub, who presumably will not be returning, so hopefully that issue can be resolved for next season. Marquette King set a league record with 109 punts for the season, averaging 45.2 yards.
Kickoff and punt returns, as well as coverage, were a liability, as the Raiders tried several different returners with little success, and giving up several long returns in multiple games, including a punt return TD against the Chiefs.
Coaching: Returning to our two recurring themes (lack of running game; trying to use veteran players differently than they had been previously), the coaching staff deserves both credit and blame. On the one hand, they managed to keep the players motivated enough to win three games against teams with winning records and playoff aspirations, late in the season, long after they could have folded from a 0-10 start. On the other hand, they lost their last three road games by a combined score of 130-27, showing ineptitude, lack of focus, and failure to execute in all three of those games. Ending your season victory-blowout-victory-blowout-victory-blowout does not build confidence in this seemingly endless “reconstruction” phase.
Game after game, the offense sputtered early on, typically beginning each game with three-and-outs on the first several possessions. The coaches waited way too late into the season to give Latavius Murray a shot at running back; consequently, the Raiders finished with an average of just 77.5 rushing yards per game, one of the lowest in decades. (At the point Murray finally got the chance to start, in the first Chiefs game, the Raiders were averaging just 61.5 yard per game, which would have been the lowest since 1941.)
Continuity is important, and Coach Sparano and the players clearly are fond of each other. But when you have players claiming to be “not far off” after yet another blowout where they barely showed up (though Tuck had a strong game), you have to wonder what they’re talking about. Because they looked pretty far off in Denver the other day, in Kansas City two weeks before that. And neither offense nor defense were even in the building when the middling Rams handed them their worst loss in 53 years just a month ago.
It’s my one misgiving about Derek Carr — late in that Rams loss, after Carr had been mercifully yanked, he and Schaub were seen smiling and laughing on the sideline. Do we want him in a roid rage? Of course not. But you want a guy who gets pissed when his team is getting humiliated like that. Can you imagine Kenny Stabler or John Matuszak laughing at the tail end of a 52-0 ass-kicking? Me neither.
They followed up that Rams loss admirably with a huge win against the Niners, but what we’re hoping for is that when they face Denver again next season, they’ll think back to this past Sunday, when they got punched around the field, and the Broncos ran up the score on them. Look what happened earlier this year when the Patriots got embarrassed in Kansas City, they turned around and won their next seven games in a row — five by at least 3 touchdowns. When they finally did lose in Green Bay, Tom Brady was furious on the sideline. That’s what makes great quarterbacks great — they don’t accept losing. It is literally unacceptable to them. Carr is competitive though, and his learning curve is certainly far ahead of most NFL rookies. Again, better receivers and even a decent running game will give him better opportunities and make him even better.
It’s important to the team’s success in rebuilding that this “one step forward, one step back” tendency gets squashed. Can Tony Sparano accomplish that, if allowed to choose his own coordinators and advocate for free agents and draft picks? We may find out; while the Raiders are interviewing other candidates such as Eric Mangini and Pat Shurmur, Sparano seems to possess the incumbent’s advantage right now.
I’m definitely part of the “clean house” side of the fan base; the inconsistency and utterly baffling decisions over the past several years, especially in acquiring free-agent QBs, don’t quite outweigh the few bright spots. Losing is bad enough; the real problem is that so many of the losses have been flat-out embarrassments, and Reggie McKenzie promised that the team would be “competitive”. They were competitive in maybe half of their games this year; the New England, Cleveland, Arizona, and both San Diego games were all winnable but for sloppy play and poor execution, which is on the coaches as much as the players. Most of the road games they barely showed up, and never played well in any of them.
It’s been three full seasons now, with probably 1-2 more before the Raiders see playoffs, and there is just no way a rebuild should take half a decade. All that said, it only makes sense to change if you’re changing to something clearly better; in other words, since Harbaugh’s gone, if your best option is Eric Mangini, you might as well stick with Sparano, let him pick his own coordinators, and give him one season to show actual improvement.