Friday, April 25, 2014
FAIRFIELD-SUISUN, CALIFORNIA
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Raiders struggle in first year of new regime

Carson Palmer, Tom Johnson

Oakland Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer is sacked by New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Tom Johnson, below, during the third quarter of an NFL football game in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

ALAMEDA — When the new regime took over the Oakland Raiders last January, they inherited an 8-8 team that fell one game shy of the playoffs, featuring an offense that could be prolific at times and a defense that was historically bad.

Ten games into the first season under general manager Reggie McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen, the offense has taken a decided step backward, the defense has somehow regressed and the Raiders (3-6) are nowhere near being a playoff team.

The situation McKenzie and Allen entered was not an easy one despite the presence of a capable quarterback in Carson Palmer, a big-play running back in Darren McFadden and a handful of other playmakers on both sides of the ball.

Late owner Al Davis’ team had fallen into disarray in the final years before his death in October 2011, missing the playoffs for nine straight seasons and often failing even to be competitive.

A run of botched draft picks, over-inflated contracts and questionable personnel moves left McKenzie with a major rebuilding job when Davis’ son, Mark, hired him to run the football side of the franchise that had been in Al Davis’ control for nearly a half-century.

“I know that we didn’t have the talent, at the beginning of the year, to be a Super Bowl team,” Mark Davis said. “I thought that we had definitely potential to get maybe in the playoffs and beat our division. Obviously, that hasn’t happened.”

After years of being run by the famously impatient Al Davis, who ran through seven coaches in an 11-season span, the biggest change in a year full of them may be at owner. Mark Davis has delegated the football decisions to McKenzie, who has a job that didn’t exist for the franchise until this year.

But three straight losses capped by last Sunday’s 38-17 home defeat to New Orleans left the younger Davis so frustrated that he made a rare public appearance in the postgame locker room to express his frustration, as well as his belief in McKenzie and Allen, who will get more time than predecessors to get the Raiders back on the winning track.

“I’m patient. But I want to see progress,” Davis said. “I don’t want to see regression. Nobody does. And that’s why I’m unhappy today. But as far as a pass, I wouldn’t call it a pass. They’ve got contracts, they’re going to be here.”

McKenzie came in with a long view for building the Raiders under a similar model to the one he worked with during years in the front office with the Green Bay Packers.

He quickly shed some “out of whack” contracts for players like cornerback Stanford Routt and linebacker Kamerion Wimbley and set out to find cheaper alternatives who could fit under a tight salary cap.

With no draft picks until No. 95 overall because of previous trades, McKenzie was unable to make many big additions and the results have shown up in the lack of depth on the current roster.

Free agent linebacker Philip Wheeler has had the biggest impact of the offseason additions. Cornerbacks Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer have struggled to stay healthy, guard Mike Brisiel has failed to solidify the offense line and the only regular produced in the draft is linebacker Miles Burris.

But Allen said he firmly believes the talent is there to be better than they’ve shown.

“When you look at it the other way around that’s an excuse, that’s a crutch to say you can’t get it done,” Allen said. “I don’t believe in that. I believe that we have professional football players and I believe we can win games in the National Football League. That’s what we get paid to do, that’s our job. I’m not going to use anything as a crutch to say that’s the reason why.”

While the lack of talented depth is a legitimate excuse, some of the problems in Oakland were self-inflicted.

The Raiders had developed into one of the NFL’s better offenses in two seasons with Hue Jackson running that side of the ball, ranking 10th in the league in scoring and first in rushing over that span.

With a full season from Carson Palmer and a healthy Darren McFadden, that should have only improved this season despite the decision to fire Jackson as head coach and bring in a new offense under coordinator Greg Knapp.

Oakland switched to a zone blocking system and West Coast offense that were not ideal fits for Palmer or McFadden. After a slow start, Davis had the coaches seek McFadden’s input about the running game and more power blocking schemes were added.

But the Raiders have fallen to 22nd in the league in scoring, averaging 3.2 fewer points per game, and are second-to-last in rushing with a drop of more than 62 yards per game.

The changes on defense were more necessary after Oakland had franchise worsts last season defensively in touchdown passes allowed (31), yards per carry (5.1), yards passing (4,262) and total yards (6,201), while giving up the third-most points (433) in team history.

After years of running Al Davis’ preferred system of bump-and-run coverage on the outside, Allen and coordinator Jason Tarver implemented a more varied defense that the players immediately embraced.

But somehow the defense has gotten worse, allowing five more points per game, recording less than half as many sacks per game, and allowing opponents to increase their completion percentage from 53.9 to 66.8.

Oakland has allowed 135 points during the three-game skid, the fourth most since the merger in three games and most for the franchise since 1961.

“It definitely hurts,” defensive back Michael Huff said. “From Day 1, I’ve looked forward to playing in this defense. I’ve been the one that said, let’s be a top five, 10 defense, when we play all together. But for some reason, things haven’t gone right. We’ll play in spurts and we’ll be great here and there. But when we’re bad, we’re real bad. We’re horrible.”

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

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