RaiderRamble.com brings you the third part of our season review for the Oakland Raiders
Now that the season is essentially over and the coaching carousel has most likely made its final stops, it’s time to put the season to rest. Part 1 covered the good, and Part 2, the bad. Part 3 of our year in review takes a look at the ugly parts of the 2017 Oakland Raiders’ season. Not surprisingly, it starts at the top.
Jack Del Rio
A year in review wouldn’t be complete without a visit with former head coach Jack Del Rio. After Week 2, the Raiders went into a tailspin that they wouldn’t come out of until Week 7 when they won a nail-biter over their division rival Kansas City Chiefs. As the season went on, it became painfully evident that the problem started on the sidelines, and it would end there as well.
The failures were abundant and seemed to extend through all three units of the team. Ultimately, those failures come back to one major factor: coaching. The man at the top was now former head coach Jack Del Rio. Del Rio and his coaching staff seemed to spend the season making this squad look foolish, even though the talent was clearly there.
The roster includes reigning defensive player of the year Khalil Mack, 2016 MVP candidate Derek Carr, who was last year’s Castrol Edge Clutch Player of the Year, and five other 2016 Pro Bowlers, including three All-Pro team selections. On paper, this team should be at the top of the food chain, and that was the expectation before the season started. Once the team took the field, it was clear that the men had no guidance from the top all the way down.
Del Rio’s poor decisions were many. He chose to keep defensive coordinator failure Ken Norton Jr. on staff at the beginning of the season and despite the challenges, including 10 weeks without an interception, he remained at the helm of the defense until the team was annihilated by the New England Patriots on November 19. They finally dropped the dead weight and promoted offseason acquisition John Pagano to play caller. The move made an almost immediate impact, as the team had their first interception the very next weekend.
In addition to keeping Norton on staff, Del Rio chose to part ways with 2016 offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, who built the Raiders into a sixth-ranked offense, in favor of QB coach Todd Downing. This move was disastrous. The team ended 25th on offense, despite the amazing talent and the formerly stellar offensive line dropped from Top 3 to a joke. Mike Tice instituted a zone blocking scheme in the run game, reportedly to complement featured back Marshawn Lynch.
It was the wrong decision. Pass blocking was ineffective due in part to injuries to right guard Gabe Jackson and left tackle Donald Penn. Both are instrumental in this offensive line, as evidenced by the severe drop in performance. The change also resulted in an additional injury to quarterback Derek Carr, who suffered three transverse process injuries in his back. More about that later.
The problems did not go unnoticed by owner Mark Davis, as Del Rio, who signed a contract extension prior to the season, was relieved of his duties once the season came to a close. This may be in part due to the Raiders’ long-time courting of Jon Gruden finally coming to fruition, although Del Rio’s performance would warrant termination regardless of who might be waiting in the wings.
Problems off the field
Not only were the Raiders susceptible on the field, but they were attacked off the field as well. Week 3 was a tumultuous one in the NFL when the large majority of players throughout the league chose to make a statement in response to President Donald Trump’s comments regarding kneeling during the anthem. The Raiders, like most teams, had a mixed bag of responses. Many players chose to join the majority of the league and knelt during the anthem, but there were a few that chose to stand. Including Derek Carr.
While there was never validation from the team and absolutely no evidence of animosity, rumors swirled that the offensive line made the choice to punish their quarterback and relax their play, resulting in a large increase in sacks and ultimately another injury to Carr.
Critics came from all over the league and the globe, including the wife of a Tampa Bay player, who took a false report from a podcast (not football related) and turned it into her 15 minutes of fame. Several reports refuted the rumors, which originally surfaced immediately after Week 3’s loss to the Washington Redskins, and rebuked those who continued to perpetuate the rumors. But the damage had been done, regardless of the ineptitude of the original sources.
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To make matters worse, the behavior of Marshawn Lynch drew negative attention when he was ejected from the Chiefs game for running from the sidelines and making contact with an official after an altercation between the offensive line and Marcus Peters for a late hit on Derek Carr. He drew further criticism when he escorted Aqib Talib off the field after an altercation between Talib and Michael Crabtree that started an all-out brawl. Lynch doesn’t speak with the media, so his motives remain unclear, but questions were raised about Lynch’s commitment to his team.
To top it all off, as if that weren’t enough, the team’s many losses led to the most uncomfortable series of post-game press conferences wherein coach Del Rio chose not to take the burden on his own shoulders, as a coach should do, but publicly placed blame on his players. Carr took the blame on his own shoulders, so when Del Rio called out individual performances in front of the world, he broke an unspoken rule.
Like all professional corporations, the NFL is all about appearances. When dissension is evidenced to the world, the team loses credibility. An organization that has their own internal drama is not unusual, but the face of the team is the one who circles the wagons and creates the appearance that they are still unified. This is how they keep their fans, it’s how they rise above the rumors, and it’s how they make it through the storm so they can come out better on the other side. Airing dirty laundry doesn’t just make someone look childish, it makes the franchise look inept. That didn’t seem to occur to Del Rio so the team suffered.
Injuries, injuries, injuries
A team can’t thrive without their stars and this season showed that in scores. The league has reduced the amount of offseason practice in pads and has made additional requirements to training on and off the field. These changes have resulted in the exact scenario that the NFL claims they’re trying to mitigate: injury. If players aren’t allowed to practice, they won’t be ready for the real thing. Their bodies don’t adjust, they can’t acclimate to the hits they’ll take on the field, and ultimately, this leads to injury. This season saw a record number of key players knocked out of play for one injury after another, and the Raiders were not immune.
The aforementioned injuries to Gabe Jackson, Donald Penn, and Derek Carr were big ones. Even though their quarterback essentially had a broken back, he only sat out one game. After suffering two major injuries last season, this decision was ill-advised. If a team expects to have a player for the long-term, injuries need time to heal. Donald Penn at 34 years old is already pushing the envelope for a guy at his position. Jackson was drafted with Carr so his potential for longevity is great, but not if he plays with a substantial injury. Just ask Richard Sherman. The Seahawks cornerback ruptured his Achilles and commented afterward that he knew it was going to pop for weeks, but he chose to continue playing. Can he come back from that kind of injury at his age and in his position to his previous level of play? Only time will tell, but it’s certainly not on his side.
The secondary was riddled with injuries as well, which decimated their cornerback corps, and first and second-round draft picks Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu were sidelined for nearly the entire season. What started as a hopefully improved secondary turned into an infirmary and the defense spiraled.
The Ugly Duckling
Now that changes have been made and prodigal son Jon Gruden has returned to Oakland, it’s likely that the problems the Raiders faced in 2017 won’t continue going forward. Gruden is notoriously aggressive and competitive to a fault, but by all accounts from his team and staff, he’s always fair. You get what you give, and he expects everyone to give him 110% and they’ll get that in return. Teaming up again with Reggie McKenzie renews confidence that free agency and draft choices will be mutually agreed upon and, hopefully, holes that currently exist will be filled with more capable bodies. These changes give Raider Nation renewed hope for a return to greatness in 2018.