Sunday, August 24, 2008

Some observations on the Raiders offensive strategy

In case you missed it, the Arizona Cardinals handed the Oakland Raiders their hats 24-0 in both team's third pre-season game last night. Not that there's any reason for Raider fans to panic. Of course, pre-season you are not showing your complete hand anyway so the score is meaningless. BUT, I had a case of pre-deja vu, sort of. I was reminded of the inconsistency of the Jim Mora Jr. era Atlanta Falcons from 2003-2006.

Greg Knapp was Mora's offensive coordinator. This is the same role he is in now with the Raiders. If you recall, the Falcons played a run-first offense with Vick required to be a pocket passer in a west coast system (with a few wrinkles but not many). Any gadget plays aside, there is very little that is not transparent to other team coaching staffs when you are run-first supplemented by a methodical, controlled passing game. Defensive coaches have been game planning against it for years now. For what it's worth, between last year and this year, I'm not getting the impression there is much west coast offense innovation going in Knapp's toolbox.

Knapp knows the QB position. He has a sound grasp of football in all it's phases. The issue that I see is a lack of "sophistication" in adapting his game plan to the adjustments of a given defense. Look back on last season and only a few times did the Raiders offense find a rhythm. Obviously, different QBs were in the role at the time, my point is the play calling has not been dynamic enough to fool anyone. It is rare to get any big plays or long sustained drives resulting in points. It happens but just not as much as it could and now that the team has such a diminished aerial threat thus far in the pre-season, defenses will certainly key in on and exploit weak spots.

Could we be seeing the same pattern unfold in Oakland as it occurred in Atlanta? People forget the boo birds in Atlanta. In 2006 there was speculation defensive coordinator Ed Donatell clashed with Greg Knapp, complaining that the offensive coordinator's one dimensional play calling was resulting in too many 3 and outs, keeping the defense on the field too much. That 2006 season the Falcons lead the NFL in rushing yet ranked 32nd in passing.

I know they are vastly different type players but Jamarcus Russell reminded me of when Mike Vick was told to stay in the pocket but had no choice but to run for his life. This occurred just last night at McAfee Coliseum where the Raiders offense looked very good for a series or two only to to erode into multiple sacks and hurried throws as the defense adapted to what the Raiders were doing. So while everyone has a short memory, what we saw last night amounted to more of the same from last season.

The clues in this case are a pattern of a) a good opening series by the Raiders offense, b)the next series the defense throws something at them to disrupt and they swim upstream from there on out. Things move, but not at the pace needed to be effective enough to win.

I'm not saying Knapp is entirely ineffective. He is a solid offensive coach, no question, he understands how to put a playbook together. What I really like about him is his unheralded yet storied career as a QB at Sacramento State. He was a walk-on which is even more impressive. You don't hear much about the Sac State Hornets but Knapp was big man on campus in his day racking up over 3,000 yards in the passing game. He remained a Hornet in varying roles on the coaching staff for nine years after his playing career ended.

But how good is he in the NFL? Well, he did achieve success climbing the ladder in the 49ers organization. He became offensive coordinator under Steve Mariucci in '01. Before that Knapp served three seasons as San Francisco’s quarterbacks coach and is widely credited with helping turn Jeff Garcia from a journeyman backup to a Pro-Bowler. Though, his other four year project/student was Tim Rattay which speaks for itself. Personally, I think Garcia knew what his talents were long before he became a 49er and student of Knapp. He manufactures yards with his feet and smarts. He was an all-pro in the CFL before coming to San Francisco. That means he was all about stretching the field which is amazingly still Garcia's game in his late 30's.

Knapp has an important quality Al Davis likes in his coaches which is strong emphasis on teaching. If you look at it fundamentally, high school football coaches and even Pop Warner league, all break it down to somehow teaching a kid the right way to play the game and he goes out and executes by design, leading to all important victory. If you do that truly successfully then you are qualified to move up the ladder, which Knapp has.

Bottom line is will Greg Knapp's capabilities as offensive coordinator win games for the Raiders? That is a big question mark.

Michael Vick told Cris Carter on HBO's Inside the NFL in 2005 that he wanted to pass more. He also appeared to discredit Knapp when he said that when Dan Reeves was the Falcons' coach, he threw for close to 3,000 yards.

"You've got to throw the ball sometimes," Vick said. "You can't just line up and run the ball every time on first and second downs. Teams key in on that, and they have coaches, too. We're going to have to throw it more. ... Coach is going to have to trust in me to get it done."

Carter didn't ask Vick about the fact that the Falcons tried to turn him into a pocket passer and when that didn't work, they decided to let him move out of the pocket more. If you recall, Vick took a pounding from defenses when he did scramble. In one game, the New York Giants sacked him seven times.

Obviously Jamarcus Russell is a better pocket passer than Vick was.  (edit a few years later, hard to believe I said that!) Though, Knapp's pattern of play calling should be of concern to Raider fans or will be unless the rushing game truly sustains the offense throughout the season.

For the sake of argument, let's just say the Raiders did bomb out like they did against the Cardinals and served up a goose egg in the regular season. Typically the offensive coordinator should take blame when play calling fails to achieve your goals. It's proof your game preparation was not near sound enough to carry the team to victory. Though I have to wonder if Lane Kiffin will suffer the repercussions of a stagnant Raiders offense instead of Greg Knapp. As head coach you are the point man and thus the man to receive the axe as well.

No comments: