“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
With the Green Bay Packers’ season now over, the Raiders’ coaching search will most likely kick into high gear. Raider fans are well accustomed to new coaching searches, having had more of them than any other team in the last 10 years. This year’s search looks to be of a different sort, however. For the first time in a half century, Al Davis is not running the Oakland Raiders in some capacity. His son, Mark Davis, has taken over ownership of the team and with his first major decision for the franchise, he has turned the team’s success over to former Raider Reggie McKenzie.
There are several coaches on the Green Bay staff who are expected to be interviewed by new Raiders’ GM Reggie McKenzie. These include media favorite assistant head coach Winston Moss as well as defensive coordinator and previous two time head coach Dom Capers.
With the new regime, the head coach search and subsequent draft in April will be unlike any fans of this franchise are used to seeing.
So what differences will the new GM bring? For starters, an organization chart that has more than two tiers. In past years, Al Davis was not only the Raiders owner, he was also GM, head of the scouting dept, and draft decision maker. Al Davis WAS the Raiders, pure and simple. Now his many roles will likely have multiple employees filling them, which is not a bad thing.
In his first press conference, McKenzie acknowledged that he would be likely to implement a system more like what he knew in Green Bay. This means that there will likely be a director of college scouting, a director of pro personnel, and potentially a director of football operations – the position McKenzie held with the Packers since 2008. While these position titles and some of the specific job descriptions may vary from the Packers, the organizational philosophy of the Packers will make its way to the Raiders – a well documented chain of command from which decisions can be made swiftly and efficiently.
Another interesting development will be the coaching staff supporting the new head coach. For the first time in many years, the Raiders’ head coach is expected to be allowed to choose his own staff as well as determine their own coaching schemes and philosophies. This has not usually been much of a problem with the offensive staff. Everyone knows that Davis preferred large, fast wide receivers getting behind the defensive backs for long scores, but he didn’t lord over the offensive coaches in quite the way he did the defensive coaches.
A defensive coach coming to the Raiders knew that he would be expected to play mostly 4-3, man defense, and if blitzes weren’t working he could expect to have to explain why he continued to call them. This combined with Davis’ penchant for overpaying players and underpaying coaches meant that most defensive coaches with other options stayed away from the Silver & Black.
Now, as Levi Damien has explained, the Raiders may switch to a 3-4 defense and a defensive coordinator will be free to call a game as he and the head coach draw up the game plan without fear of the owner’s getting too involved. Whether the Raiders will pay market prices is not yet certain, but Mark Davis has suggested that he will not be reining in what McKenzie intends to pay for the coach he wants.
This brings us to the final area to ponder: the draft and free agency.
Over the last few decades it became clear that the Raiders had a certain type of player they wanted – taller, faster, and stronger than the others. They wanted superior athletes, not necessarily the most productive football players. They wanted their players, as the saying goes, “to look good getting off the bus.” The problem was that they didn’t look so good getting back on the bus loss after loss – and were there ever a lot of losses.
There were a lot of penalties, too – a record number of them last year. In one of his exit tirades, ex-coach Jackson alluded to one of the problems: there were too many players on the Davis Scholarship. No need to pay tuition by the way of making plays, they were Davis favorites.
With the regime change, I would expect the roster to be in complete flux next season. Davis would keep a draft pick over an undrafted player, more often than not – oftentimes to the Raiders’ detriment. A good example of this is cornerback Sterling Moore who was one of the standouts in camp only to become a final roster cut. He was placed on the practice squad but was eventually released from that as well. He caught on in New England and went on to finish their season strong including two interceptions — one returned for a touchdown — in the team’s final regular season game. He continues to make plays for a Patriots team that will be playing in the AFC Championship game.
The Raiders will rely more heavily on undrafted free agents like Moore this year. The team has traded away most of this year’s draft picks, mortgaging next year’s draft class in an attempt to bolster the previous season. Expect that to stop with McKenzie at the helm. Green Bay makes trades, but those trades were frequently trading down – something Al rarely did.
To get a good idea of what to expect in the McKenzie era, I looked back over the Packers’ drafts in which McKenzie would have been in a position to really contribute – namely his time as Director of Football Operations, starting in May of 2008. That would affect three drafts: 2009, 2010, and 2011. Using numbers from those three drafts, here is the breakdown of what GB picked with their 25 total picks compared to the Raiders’ draft picks over the same amount of time, 23 total picks:
Does anything jump out at you about the differences in the graph? It almost seems like the Raiders and the Packers were building teams for different sports. The Packers were building the way I think a football team needs to be built – offensive and defensive lines. LBs are also very important, especially in a 3-4 defense.
The Raiders, on the other hand, drafted heavily on defensive backs and wide receivers, skill positions. But football is a game won and lost in the trenches. If you extend the look five years back, from 2007-2011, it gets more interesting. Here was the GB breakdown of their 45 picks as compared to the Raiders’ choices over the last five drafts, 39 picks:
Again, GB chose more offensive and defensive linemen than any other position, while the Raiders eschewed both lines for the skill positions of WR and DB. And notice how in both the three year and five year numbers, outside of the lines, how evenly the Packers chose across the board? Exactly five players each chosen at LB, TE, RB, DB, and WR — all evenly balanced in drafting importance. But, again, GB’s organizational philosophy is to choose linemen in order to solidify those positions. A big part of why they win.
An interesting point that these graphs don’t show is that none of the defensive linemen that the Raiders chose were defensive tackles. Lamarr Houston played DT in college but was immediately switched to defensive end by the Raiders. If you’re looking for reasons why the Raiders perennially struggle against the run, I submit this as Exhibit A. It isn’t like the Raiders’ DTs have been tearing it up in recent years. Seymour getting selected to the Pro Bowl is more on reputation than actual merit. Most of his sacks have been coverage sacks – a QB trying to scramble or getting chased into him – rather than him collapsing the pocket onto a QB.
But just recounting the Packers’ and McKenzie’s drafting history doesn’t tell the whole story. To do that we have to look at what is considered the greatest strength of this Green Bay team — developing home grown talent. They rarely dip into signing big free agents (former Raider Charles Woodson being a notable exception), and they typically draft and keep their own players.
I went back and compared the drafts of the Raiders and Packers to see the percentage of drafted players who were still on each team from the past five drafts. The result surprised me. They are almost identical (around 62%). So I dug deeper.
I went through the rosters of both teams and broke them down by whether they were original Packers (drafted or signed as a rookie undrafted free agent (UFA)) or, in a separate category, if they were traded for or signed as a free agent. An * denotes starters at the position at year’s end (starters for this article are the 11 starters listed on O, the 11 listed for D and the K and P for 24 starters). I did not include the IR list, but I think the data as is makes a significant point.
Raiders’ drafted or undrafted free agents:
4 OL, 2 starters: *Jared Veldheer,*Stefen Wisniewski, Bruce Campbell, Joe Barksdale
1 QB: Terrelle Pryor
2 FB, 1 starter: *Marcel Reece (UFA), Manase Tonga (UFA)
3 RB, 1 starter: *Darren McFadden, Michael Bush, Taiwan Jones
5 WR, 2 starters: *Jacoby Ford, *Darrius Heyward-Bey, Louis Murphy, Denarius Moore, Chaz Schilens
3 TE, no starters: Brandon Meyers, David Ausberry, Richard Gordon
5 DL, 2 starters: *Lamarr Houston, *Tommy Kelly (undrafted), Desmond Bryant (undrafted), Trevor Scott, Mason Brodine (undrafted)
1 LB, 1 starter: *Rolando McClain
3 S, 2 starters:*Tyvon Branch, *Michael Huff, Mike Mitchell
2 CB, 1 starter: *Stanford Routt, DeMarcus Van Dyke
2 ST, 2 starters: *Sebastian Janikowski, *Shane Lechler
So, of the 54 listed players on the team, 31 players (58%) were drafted or signed as a UFA. Not too bad. Of those players, 14 (58%) of their starters are drafted or UFA.
Now, let’s look at the Packers’ players who were drafted or signed as UFA:
8 OL, all 5 starters: *Scott Wells, *TJ Lang, *Josh Sitton, *Bryan Baluga,*Chad Clifton, Evan Dietrich-Smith (UFA), Ray Dominguez (UFA), Marshall Newhouse
2 QB, 1 starter:*Aaron Rodgers, Matt Flynn
2 RB: James Starks, Brandon Saine (UFA)
5 WR, 2 starters: *Donald Driver, *Greg Jennings, James Jones, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb
4 TE, 1 starter: Tom Crabtree (UFA), *Jermichael Finley, Ryan Taylor, DJ Williams
4 DL, 1 starter:*BJ Raji, Mike Neal, CJ Wilson, Jarius Wynn
9 LB, 3 starters: *Desmond Bishop, *Clay Matthews, *AJ Hawk, Robert Francois (UFA), Brad Jones, Jamari Lattimore (UFA), DJ Smith, Vic So’oto (UFA), Frank Zombo (UFA)
5 CB, 1 starter: *Tramon Williams, Davon House, Pat Lee, Sam Shields (UFA), Jarrett Bush (UFA)
2 S, 1 starter: *Morgan Burnett, MD Jennings (UFA)
2 ST, 2 starters: K *Mason Crosby, P *Tim Masthay
Obviously this list is much longer. Green Bay has 43 of their listed 53 players (81%) on the roster that were drafted by them or signed as a UFA. Of these players, 17 (71%), are starters for the team.
One of the things that was interesting to me about this was that, although GB doesn’t have many free agents or make many trades, when they do, they make them count. They have just 10 players they got in FA or traded for and of those, seven are listed starters at their position. That doesn’t even include the long snapper, whom I didn’t count as a starter.
It’s this kind of internal drafting, thinking ahead, and allowing UFAs to come in and compete and beat out draft picks that allow GB to be consistently good.
So, with this data, we can infer a few things about future drafts. First, the Raiders are unlikely to try to move up much. If anything the GM may deal picks they have for more picks in later rounds. Second, the Raiders are likely to draft linemen, both offensive and defensive. Third, the Raiders are less likely to draft the fastest player in the draft, something for which Al had a notorious weakness.
The Raiders are also unlikely to be big players in free agency. They will probably identify some key players they can get for a reasonable price later, but nothing blockbuster.
All of these items together paint a picture of a very different Raiders organization. However, with the dysfunction surrounding the team the last decade, this is not a bad thing. This change was necessary to usher in a new age of Raider football. If it yields anything like the success the Packers have had of late, it will be one the fans can be proud of for years to come.
—Asher Mathews is a Guest Contributor special to Thoughts From the Dark Side. You can follow him on Twitter @AsherMathews.