By Ryan Leong
It was a tumultuous year for the 4-12 Raiders. In fact, just about every season for the silver and black have been marred by a myriad of controversy, drama, and disappointment. Since the passing of legendary owner Al Davis on October 8, 2011, the Raiders are less of a soap opera. But they don’t lack for storylines.
2012 began and ended with losses to the rival San Diego Chargers. On January 1 to start the new year, it was the end for coach Hue Jackson. After showing bravado and swagger emulating that of Al Davis, Jackson had Raider fans legitimately thinking about postseason football for the first time since 2002. But after quarterback Jason Campbell fractured his collarbone and placed on season ending injured reserve, Jackson rolled the dice and pulled the trigger on a big trade. Jackson traded for Carson Palmer in exchange for a first and second round draft pick. But the Raiders lost four of their final five games including the season finale to the Chargers at home to eliminate them from the playoffs.
During the offseason, Mark Davis, the son of Al became the owner. His first act on January 10 was naming former Green Bay Packers director of player personnel Reggie McKenzie as general manager. This was a bold move because Al had run the front office since 1963. Mark did not have the football background as his father did so he figured he’d leave up the decision making to a ‘football’ man, someone who lived and breathed the game 24/7.
McKenzie then hired 39-year old Dennis Allen, a young coach who was the defensive coordinator of the AFC West division champion Denver Broncos in 2011. Allen had a lengthy resume of experience but had never been a head coach at any level. That proved to be a big gamble and so was his coaching staff. Many of Allen’s assistants had previous experience but their career accomplishments were debatable. Most notably, offensive coordinator Greg Knapp who was the OC for the Raiders in 2007 and 2008. While those squads put up respectable numbers, they had nine wins combined in those two years.
Part of the problem was the team touted itself with the slogan: A new era of excellence. Having peaked at 3-4, the Raiders would go 1-8 the rest of the way. Their 4-12 mark was the worst since 2007 under Lane Kiffin. During a six-game losing streak it was painfully evident that this was a rebuilding year. Both McKenzie and Allen knew it but downplayed it because they wanted to sell tickets. Die-hard Raider Nation fans have grown tired of losing and the last thing they wanted to see was a team regressing after consecutive eight win seasons in 2010 and 2011. But from a business standpoint by trying to market the team as one that wanted to build on that momentum and return the Raiders to one of the marquee teams in the NFL.
Unfortunately, that plan totally backfired. Allen’s reputation around football was that he was defensive minded and that usually means trying to grind out low scoring games to be successful. But by the midseason, the stats didn’t lie. The Raiders ranked 18th on defense but the offense was simply pathetic. Under Knapp’s zone blocking scheme, running back Darren McFadden could not get on track and had only three 100-yard games. He averaged a paltry 3.3 yards per carry in 2012.
Another problem was trying to create an identity for this team. Many of the players were those selected by Al Davis and in the eyes of Allen and McKenzie, they weren’t ones who they felt would give them the best chance of winning. Before the 2012 NFL Draft, McKenzie took four free agents to help the defense: outside linebacker Philip Wheeler and cornerbacks Shawntae Spencer, Ron Bartell, and Pat Lee, the last three second round picks from 2004, 2005, and 2008 NFL drafts. Lee played for the Packers under McKenzie but he didn’t pan out and was waived once Bartell returned from injured reserve after fracturing his scapula in the season opener. But Bartell was eventually waived as well. Spencer started only two games before spraining his right foot and in early November was finally placed on season ending injured reserve.
Only Wheeler made an impact on defense as did rookie linebacker Miles Burris from San Diego State. Because of numerous injuries and poor play from the secondary, safety Michael Huff was moved to cornerback where he did his best but was often a non-factor trying to adjust to a new position.
Palmer had a solid year but his numbers were deceiving. On the one hand he is in the record books for becoming the second Raiders quarterback to pass for 4,000 yards joining Rich Gannon. But the major difference is that Gannon led the team to an appearance in Super Bowl XXXVII while Palmer was only 4-11. He was injured early in the second quarter of the 15th game at Carolina where he suffered cracked ribs and a bruised lung. Backup Matt Leinart played one game and reinforced why he’s been a career backup and a wasted first round draft pick.
Possibly caving into pressure by Mark Davis, Reggie McKenzie and Raider fans, Allen had little choice but to give Terrelle Pryor an opportunity to play as much of an entire game as possible. Pryor had been selected by Al Davis as his final pick in the 2011 supplemental draft before he passed away months later. Making his first start since the 2011 Sugar Bowl, Pryor proved his critics wrong with a solid performance. He was 13-of-28 for 150 yards and two touchdowns. He threw an interception and missed badly on some of his throws but was not sacked and showed great poise in leading the team in and out of the huddle. He even pulled teammate Mike Goodson out of a scrum against Takeo Spikes.
As a result of the team’s shortcomings, Allen and McKenzie fired four assistants on what is known as Black Monday. The nickname for the high number of firings the day after the end of the regular season. Among those receiving a pink slip were Knapp, special teams coordinator Steve Hoffman, offensive line coach Frank Pollack and linebackers coach Johnny Holland.
“Decisions like this are very difficult,” Allen said. “I have a great deal of respect for all of these men and I appreciate their contributions to the Oakland Raiders this season.”
The bottom line…the famous Raiders motto: JUST WIN BABY. Those three words are a very difficult goal to achieve. Although Allen was signed to a four year contract his job security is tenuous at best. Next year, Allen needs to take more risks as a coach and he admits that the team needs to score more points. Their highest single game total was 34 points in an overtime win over the Steelers. It was a challenging year for Allen whose father passed away late in the season. But the team defense did show improvement over the final four games. And Pryor’s performance in the season finale at San Diego means that he and Palmer could be competing for the starting quarterback job. It’ll be interesting to see with a new coaching staff and a No.3 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft if 2013 is the year the Raiders finally achieve that elusive winning season.
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Ryan Leong has reported on over 2,800 games in the Bay Area since 1998, covering the Sharks, Giants, A’s, Warriors, 49ers, Raiders and the local college teams for radio networks and wire services. Having the best seat in the house to watch sports has been a thrill and Ryan still enjoys going to the games giving fans some insight and perspective on the players and coaches. His work can be found on Examiner.com.