Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Raiders Defense - Where Did It All Go Wrong and Can it be Salvaged?

The Raiders defense always seems to earn fan consternation. Like clockwork, just about every season in recent memory, the Raider Nation is calling for the firing of whoever is Defensive Coordinator.

We know much of this was due to Al Davis hiring "yes men" to implement his preferred designs.  Meaning, man to man coverage as a staple with a bull rush up front to try and "dominate" the line of scrimmage.  It's a simple formula for opposing teams to strategize against.  Al Davis was not an innovator to the extent that he ever saw his way out of this hole.  The days of Al having the upper hand in drafting and recruiting talent to give bite to his bark was long gone.

I go into much of that in my article Everyone Wants to Blame Bresnahan.

If you have been a Raiders fan long enough, the name Dave Adolph rings a bell.  Coaching is an unforgiving vocation.  You can be a good coach and know your stuff but that does not always translate to success.  Dave Adolph is a perfect example of that.  He was Raiders Defensive Coordinator from 1989-91 and his reign was forgettable.

A more recognizable name, Gunther Cunningham, succeeded Adolph from 1991-1994.  He lasted about as long as it takes to learn you really can't run your defense the way you want to with an Al Davis team.  Cunningham went on to have much more success with the rival Chiefs afterwards.

Wouldn't you know it, an equally talented John Fox succeeded Cunningham and lasted almost as long (1994-1996) only to quit at the beginning of the '97 season.


The pattern is easy to follow.  You can only disguise the obvious in so many ways until your defense gets hammered. You can't win without adapting.  So stubborn was Al Davis that he maintained the same failed defensive framework, imposing it on every defensive coordinator he hired.  Whenever he let good talent walk away, he tried to replace it with a yes man, only to find the impossible was not possible. 

In 1997, Fred Whittingham never wanted the defensive coordinator job. He was coaching the Raiders linebackers when  John Fox quit a week before the season opener. Al Davis designated Whittingham as the successor.

The Raiders ended up ranked 30th in the league in total defense in 1997 allowing 410 yards and 28.4 points a game.  What does Al do next?  He hires his own retread. Dave Adolph, fresh off a miserable stint as a defensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers. That San Diego defense finished the season ranked 23rd overall in the NFL.  So what possible benefit would there be to re-hire Adolph?

Finally, a glimmer of hope.  Willie Shaw was hired in 1998, Jon Gruden's first year.  Shaw's calm, stoic intensity and excellent coaching, raised the defense to fifth in the league in 1998.


BUT, there's always a but.  Gruden originally didn't want Shaw.  He wanted to hire Emmitt Thomas, who was too smart to work for Al Davis and stayed put  as the Eagles defensive coordinator.

Shaw ended up being fired by Gruden in 1999.  Word at the time was Gruiden was unhappy with the run defense and the secondary giving up too many big plays, especially on 3rd-and-long. This may not have been Shaw's fault, but there always has to be a scapegoat.

Also, word at the time was Al Davis didn't like the fact that Shaw was interviewing for head coaching positions. Despite the official spin that the Raiders don't stand in the way of their coaches bettering themselves, Davis always has felt that coaches who even think of leaving are ingrates. Gruden made the call on firing Shaw and he never had to worry about being overruled in this case by Al.


After firing Shaw, Chuck Bresnahan was promoted to Defensive Coordinator from DB coach by Gruden.  Bresnahan lasted from 2000-2003.  Bresnahan didn't do too badly at first which is likely why he stayed in the good graces of Al and was able to return later to the same role.

We all remember the Rob Ryan era (2004-2008).  Every member of the Raider Nation thought Rob Ryan overstayed his welcome. What Ryan came down to was same system, different guy, same results.

John Marshall (2009-2010), fared slightly better because of his insistence to change things up a bit.

Chuck Bresnahan made his encore performance in 2011 and now the new regime has installed Jason Tarver in 2012.  Isn't it ironic that new head coach Dennis Allen really wanted to hire Emmitt Thomas, who, even after Al's passing, wants nothing to do with the Raiders.

As defensive coordinator, you are the scapegoat much of the time for defensive lapses. You have a honeymoon period but that fades quickly if your players and the system imposed on them lose games.

Now that a new coaching staff is in place without the meddling of Al's archaic system, the franchise has a chance to finally turn the corner in playing up to standard on defense.

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