Good Changes for Raiders
by Glenn Dickey
May 04, 2005

FOOTBALL IS A systems game, and a coach who tries to fit his players to a system is bound to fail, as the Raiders learned on both sides of the ball to their detriment last year. The good news is that they have apparently solved that problem, by changing the system on defense and changing the players on offense.

The classic case of a coach fitting his players to a system is Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys in the ‘60s. Landry was determined to install his “flex” defense, and when he got the players to fit it, the Cowboys won multiple titles. But it was awfully painful before then. The expansion Cowboys went winless in their first year and didn’t reach .500 until their sixth season. Landry had the support of Dallas management, and was given the opportunity to show that he knew what he was doing. No coach today would ever get six years to prove he was right. Most don’t get more than two, if they have losing seasons.

As defensive coordinator for the Raiders last season, Rob Ryan followed the Landry example, putting in the 3-4 alignment as his base defense, though free agent acquisition Warren Sapp was ill-suited to playing as a defensive end in that system. Sapp had played his career, and made his reputation, as a tackle in the 4-3. A team which runs the 3-4 system successfully also requires good linebackers, a scarce commodity for the Raiders last season.

The flip side of the Landry style is the offensive system installed by Bill Walsh, first with the Cincinnati Bengals and then with the 49ers, which has been so widely copied because it is so flexible.
Walsh’s system could make a winner out of Virgil Carter, an excellent athlete with a weak arm who became an NFL passing leader under Walsh’s tutelage at Cincinnati, or it could make room for Jeff Kemp, an undersized quarterback who had a very strong arm. Kemp was successful when he played while Joe Montana was recuperating from back surgery, but he had no success for anybody else.

The offensive system head coach Norv Turner brought to the Raiders is not nearly so flexible as Walsh’s system. Turner’s system, which has many similarities to what the Raiders ran in the late ‘60s with Daryle Lamonica at quarterback, requires a strong-armed quarterback, receivers who can go deep and a strong running attack, but the Raiders had been built around Rich Gannon, who worked best in a Walsh-style offense.

When Gannon was knocked out with a career-ending injury, Kerry Collins took over, but it took Collins some time to get untracked and, of course, he never had the complementary running attack he needed.

THE RAIDERS moved aggressively in the offseason to improve their offense.

The biggest move, obviously, was trading for wide receiver Randy Moss who can cause problems with his temperament but whose ability is undeniable. When he’s on his game, Moss can be impossible to defend, with his speed and jumping ability.

Picking up running back LaMont Jordan was much less heralded but also a significant move. Jordan has played behind Curtis Martin with the Jets for four years but he’s an excellent runner, who can go inside or out.

Though the Raiders have been known for their passing game, they’ve also had good runners, such as fullbacks Marv Hubbard and Mark van Eeghen and running backs Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson. Jordan certainly isn’t in the Allen/Jackson category, but he’s good enough to make the running attack effective.

A strong running game enables a team to control the game; Walsh did it with a short passing game in the Niners first Super Bowl season, but he quickly acquired strong runners in Wendell Tyler, Roger Craig and Tom Rathman. If opposing defenses respect the running game, it also enables the quarterback to slow down the pass rush with play/action passes.

It also slows down the game and keeps the defense off the field. Last season, when Collins took over, Raiders offensive series tended to be either a quick score or, more often, three-and-out. Either way, the defense was back on the field much too quickly. With their older defensive players, the Raiders really needed to win the time-of-possession game. Instead, they averaged nearly 10 minutes less a game than their opponents.

THE CHANGE in offensive systems also dictated a change in personnel. The tight end has much less importance in Turner’s system than in the Walsh offense, so Doug Jolley was made part of an excellent trade that brought the Raiders the Jets’ first round draft pick Reserve quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo has Gannon-like skills, which aren’t highly valued in the Turner system. I’m sure the Raiders are trying to trade him, and that would be best for Tui, too.

The changes also signal support for Turner from owner Al Davis, which is always critical.

Turner came into a bad situation last year, a team that had turned sour only a year after getting to the Super Bowl. Though the record was only one win better than the previous season, there were some encouraging signs.

In marked contrast to Bill Callahan the previous season, Turner dealt quietly but effectively with players who did not perform well. When Philip Buchanon stopped even fielding punts, Turner put him on the bench, and Buchanon has since been traded. When Teyo Johnson’s practice habits were sloppy, he wasn’t even suited up – and now, Johnson is working hard in the offseason to get ready.

Now, Turner has the players to run his system, and that will certainly show on offense. It’s still a question whether the defense will be improved enough to get the Raiders to the top tier of teams, but at the least, their offense will make them competitive and exciting.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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