Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
When the clock strikes midnight and the calendar turns to 2020, there are a number of things the Raiders franchise should resolve to change (or improve)
I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions, at least not in my personal life. But as someone who fancies himself a football nerd and analyst, making resolutions for an NFL franchise is exactly what I’m supposed to do, right?
I’m going to make this closer to what I actually do — set goals for the coming year. But even within that, there will be what I call my “Not finna do” list. For instance, we not finna argue on Twitter anymore about dumb stuff. I’m sure that one will go well.
So first, for the Raiders, the Not finna do list. And then, goals for the 2020 calendar year.
Not Finna do in 2020
Make excuses for losing
I joined the Silver and Black Pride site in November. Since then, I’ve been responsible for writing post press conference pieces on Mondays and Fridays. In that short time, I’ve heard Jon Gruden use injuries, bad weather, and poor officiating as excuses for his team losing — each on multiple occasions.
My point is not to rag on Gruden, or suggest that those things didn’t play a role in late-season losses. What I am saying is Gruden needs to adhere to his usual conclusion, “But I’m the head coach and I have to do better (paraphrased).”
That means Gruden needs to prove he’s worth $10 million a year. Because guess what? Bill Belichick, Sean Payton, and John Harbaugh — to me the three best head coaches in the NFL (with Mike Tomlin a close fourth) — do not make excuses when key players are lost to injury. It’s always “next man up,” or “do your job,” or my new personal favorite, “Worry about your meat”.
Weather is not a viable excuse. Guess what? Both teams have to play in the conditions. The reality is, most players would rather play in cold weather than stifling heat.
And there’s a difference between not going to the Super Bowl because of an all-time blown call and whining about questionable pass interference calls in the middle of a game.
So Coach Gruden, what we not finna do in 2020 is make excuses. Everyone involved: Do your job!
Run the ball on First Down over 50 percent of the time
Overall, the Raiders weren’t as bad in run-pass ratio as I expected to find (45.5% run, 54.5% pass). But I know without looking at the numbers the Raiders were “off-schedule” too many times throughout the entirety of the season.
How does that happen? Running on both first and second down. The best way to avoid third down — the absolute ideal — or at least get in third-and-manageable, is to pass at least once on first or second down.
Unless you’re the Ravens or 49ers — both analytically-minded teams who use numbers to help them determine when and where to run on first and second down — it’s best to dial up a pass, even better a play-action pass, on first and/or second down. The Raiders were 20th in play-action attempts in 201, and 21st in yards per play when using said concept. Improving those numbers would go a long way toward improving the team’s overall offensive efficiency.
Assume that any LB not named Will Compton should start in 2020
We all know the Raiders linebacking corps surrounding Will Compton was terrible. In 2019, analytics-minded football people had largely downplayed the role of linebackers, and particularly off-ball linebackers.
That is not to say off-ball linebackers are not useful, or that a defense can just line up with four defensive linemen and seven defensive backs all the time — though if I were a defensive coordinator, that would probably be one of my most used tactics. It is to say that if you’re going to stay in a Base defense, you better have three guys who can do everything well.
The good news for the Raiders on that front is that there are a few really good players preparing to hit free agency. Even getting one of them would give the Raiders two quality starting level linebackers. In reality, you can play Nickel defense about 90 percent of the time in the NFL at this point if you so choose.
The bad news is there are very few linebackers in the draft who figure to offer any value to their team in 2020, aside from possibly on special teams.
Underrate the kicking game
This is less of an indictment on the Raiders and more on the entire league, though I’d argue Gruden’s insistence in sticking with Daniel Carlson is a bit worrisome.
Kicking is a market inefficiency in today’s NFL. Looking at some of the league’s best teams, you mostly find a spectacular kicking game.
Of the top three seeds in each league, only one — Green Bay — sits outside the top half of the league in special teams DVOA. New England has impressively managed that in spite of a rotating cast of characters at the kicker position. Houston, the AFC’s No. 4 seed, was No. 5 in special teams DVOA.
Obviously you have to have a good team aside from your special teams unit. But given how many games come down to a kick at the end of the game, it is only logical to invest in a solid placekicker.
Goals for 2020
Make Las Vegas a true home field advantage
If you follow hockey, you likely are aware that the Vegas Golden Knights have made T-Mobile Arena one of the league’s best hockey environments, and a true home ice advantage. So there’s reason to believe that Vegas can become a true homefield advantage.
In the past couple years, home teams’ winning percentages have decreased. There are a number of theories and possible explanations for this, but it’s possible that Vegas could instantly become one of the league’s best home field advantages.
Take advantage of Josh Jacobs’ pass receiving skills
In a late season presser, Gruden implied that he was a bit disappointed in rookie Josh Jacobs’ receiving season, not so much because of anything about the player, but about the fact that the offense was unable to use its’ best playmaker in space as a receiver.
While stating that, he also noted that the goal was to get him more involved in that phase of the offense in 2020. I cannot think of a better way to win football games in 2020 than finding more ways to get the ball in the hands of a guy who might be the team’s best offensive player, particularly if Gruden can take some cues from Andy Reid and Sean Payton — ntwo coaches he worked with earlier in his career.
Avoid the sophomore slump
Though this is worded in the negative, the reality is, it’s a positive statement. When you look at the Raiders’ rookie class and consider that Darren Waller was for all intents and purposes a rookie tight end, the bulk of the teams’ production — aside from the quarterback and offensive line — was provided by first-year players in 2019.
In other words, this team could be preparing for a proverbial sophomore slump. But it could also mean the team is preparing for an even better season a year from now. So much of it is going to come down to the development and production of those second-year players.
Waller will likely be playing in this year’s Pro Bowl, and despite this being a true breakout year for him, there is little in his profile that indicates he would fall off a year from now. The same could said of Jacobs, since running backs — assuming health — typically have a pretty linear career progression until they hit age 30, or assume an equivalent number of touches.
According to Football Outsiders, rookie defensive end Maxx Crosby registered 35 pressures — similar numbers to such players as Melvin Ingram III and Jadeveon Clowney. The good news is pressure numbers tend to be a better indicator of future pass rushing success than sack numbers. In other words, don’t expect Crosby to regress significantly, if at all, in 2020.
Rookie cornerback Trayvon Mullen was mediocre in the corresponding cornerback charting data, but there’s satisfactory news that comes with that as well. Unlike pressure rates, cornerback charting data tends to be random year-to-year, and there’s little carryover. The reality is, Mullen could be better in his second year than he was in his first. And he played quite well in limited time this season.
Hunter Renfrow broke a tackle on 28 percent of his receptions as a rookie. He had six drops, but showed good hands overall, and the non-numerical data implies that he will be an important weapon for Derek Carr, or whoever lines up under center for the Raiders in 2020.