With the firing of Dennis Allen, the sixth head coach of the Oakland Raiders in the last ten years, the Raiders closed a chapter in which Allen had the franchise’s worst cumulative head coaching record since 1962. The move came as a surprise to nobody, considering that Allen’s win total during his 2.25 seasons at the helm was equal to the amount of wins that Hue Jackson, the head coach just before Allen, amassed in just a single season.
Though he started out with two consecutive four-win seasons with Oakland, he returned to the job for a third year with the belief that the 2014 season would bring his long-awaited success. The Raiders had a golden opportunity entering the 2014 offseason. Following a 2013 season in which they paid over $46.4 million in dead money, they entered the free agency signing period with money to blow. Cap space was tight during the previous season in which they paid over $5 million to four different players who were no longer with the team, including $13.7 million to Richard Seymour, $9.3 million to Carson Palmer, and $3.8 million to Matt Flynn (who started just one game for the Raiders). With a rich pool of starters on the market, as well as clear positional needs, the Raiders were in position for several major upgrades. And yet here they are, starting the season with four consecutive losses and firing their head coach in the first month of the regular season.
Here, we examine how a window of opportunity for Oakland instead led to the defenestration of Dennis Allen.
Needs entering the 2014 offseason: HB, WR, DE, DT, CB
Free agent signings: Austin Howard, Justin Tuck, Lamarr Woodley, Antonio Smith, Tarell Brown, Donald Penn, Matt Schaub, James Jones, Kevin Boothe, Maurice Jones-Drew, Carlos Rogers, Kory Sheets, C.J. Wilson
Initial free agency grade: B
The Raiders made waves early in free agency by signing four big names in the first week. They ended with the largest free agent class, which created some rare, but warranted optimism among Oakland supporters. On the defensive side of the ball, they signed four Pro Bowlers, three of which played on the defensive line, including two-time All-Pro selection Justin Tuck. Early indications, however, are that most of these veteran acquisitions are contributing far less than Oakland expected.
Justin Tuck has shown that he can be effective when he’s on the field, but the Raiders, perhaps due to his age, are using Tuck only as a rotational player. He has played a hundred less snaps than fellow free agent signee Tarell Brown, and he has produced just one sack so far.
Brown, meanwhile, has predictably not turned out to be a game changer, but he has proven to be far more reliable than Carlos Rogers, the other cornerback that Oakland targeted in free agency. Rogers has so far been a liability both in coverage and in run support, which means that the Raiders’ secondary is suffering amidst the injuries to conerbacks Taiwan Jones and Kory Sheets.
Back on the defensive line, Lamar Woodley is showing his age. He has been ineffective as a pass rusher, and plain awful against the run. He is a definite liability among Oakland’s front seven, especially considering his high snap count. Playing at a modified defensive tackle position,
Antonio Smith has shown some flashes, leading the team in quarterback hurries, but he remains a one-dimensional threat with his abysmal grades against the run. Meanwhile, rotational defensive end C.J. Wilson is the lone relative bright spot among Oakland’s defensive signings. He plays sparingly, but he has consistently shown his effectiveness among the line’s greatest weakness, earning very high grades against the run from Pro Football Focus.
On offense, the Raiders showed its dedication to the passing game by signing wide receiver James Jones and quarterback Matt Schaub. The veteran signal caller, who has been much-maligned in recent seasons, still has a Pro Bowl to his name, and Oakland gave him a vote of confidence with a two-year, $13.5 million contract. Schaub has yet to take a regular season snap at quarterback, however, after losing the starting job to second-round draft pick Derek Carr.
James Jones’s stock seems to be falling as well, with only 21 receptions (ranking 41st among wide receivers) to his name, even though he has the most snaps among Oakland’s receivers and running backs. With his low catch count and receiving yardage total (37th in the league), as well as three fumbles, Jones looks to be a player with the skill of a third-string wide receiver who is playing on a receiving corps filled entirely with third-string talent.
The Raiders also brought in aging, injury-prone running back Maurice Jones-Drew to split carries with aging, injury-prone running back Darren McFadden. Jones-Drew has immediately shown that he cannot play at his former level, contributing 11 rushes for 12 yards in the two games that he has played.
In an effort to shore up the offensive line, Oakland brought in Kevin Boothe, Donald Penn, and Austin Howard. Howard has clearly not been the safety blanket needed for a rookie quarterback. Having played the most snaps among Oakland’s offensive players, Pro Football Focus grades Howard as the worst pass-blocking lineman on the team, and as an almost equally ineffective run-blocker. And while Boothe has yet to even start a game, the Raiders do have a lone consistent performer in Donald Penn. The free agent from Tampa Bay is Oakland’s highest rated offensive player by PFF, leading the entire team in both pass blocking and run blocking grades. Penn has proved to be the much needed anchor after Oakland let Jason Veldheer walk.
Oakland can’t be faulted for not making enough moves. They made the most new signings of any NFL team this offseason. The problem lies in who they targeted. The average age of Oakland’s thirteen free agent signings was 30 years old. For whatever reason, the Raiders utilized their huge cap space in the pursuit of players who were clearly past their prime. Signing aging players can sometimes work, as evidenced by the early season performance of Demarcus Ware. But in Ware’s case, his veteran presence primarily acts as a complement to the depth of talent around him, which allows him to contribute in low-pressure situations that play directly to his strengths. The Raiders, on the other hand, only pursued veteran players who found success in a particular system, putting pressure on them to excel without any depth to step in behind or around them. Oakland plugged role players of diminishing value into star sized holes.
Revisited free agency grade: D+ They needed wide receivers, cornerbacks, and defensive linemen at the start of free agency. They still need them.
Justin Tuck, Lamar Woodley, Antonio Smith, Carlos Rogers, Maurice Jones-Drew, James Jones, and Matt Schaub? 2011 wants its dream team back.