Jon Gruden’s return to the sideline hasn’t been going well. The Super Bowl XXXVII champion, who hadn’t been on the sideline for a decade before the Oakland Raiders rehired him, is watching his team fizzle on both sides of the ball. The Raiders have just one win in six games and already have little to no chance of making the playoffs.
“I’m going to continue to emphasize the good and do everything I can to fix the things that are bad because most of the things that are bad, my fingerprints are all over,” Gruden told NFL.com. “I haven’t been on a team that rotates corners like this, or defensive linemen, or kickers, or offensive tackles five games into the season. It’s been tough.”
Tough indeed. Not only is Oakland entering its bye off a 27-3 loss Sunday to the Seattle Seahawks at London’s Wembley Stadium, its worst loss since taking a 52-0 shellacking from the St. Louis Rams in 2014, quarterback Derek Carr will need to recover from a shoulder injury to face the Indianapolis Colts in Week 8. Wide receiver Amari Cooper has a concussion, and other injured players include fellow receivers Seth Roberts and Martavis Bryant, cornerback Nick Nelson, defensive end Frostee Rucker, linebacker Bruce Irvin, offensive linemen Jon Feliciano and Kelechi Osemele, running back DeAndre Washington and safety Karl Joseph.
Those injuries have held Oakland back, but more pressing issues are keeping the team from achieving anything of note during Gruden’s return to the NFL.
When Carr and Cooper are healthy, the Raiders can move the ball okay. They run almost six plays and produce nearly 33 yards per drive, the 12th and 16th most in the league this year. But they completely stall in the red zone: Just 45 percent of those efforts end in a touchdown. Only the New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans and New York Jets are worse. That has led to a woeful 1.5 points per drive.
Blame some of those problems on Carr. His completion rate is phenomenal (71.7 percent, second only to the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees, who is having a record-setting year), but his eight interceptions, tied for the most in the league, are troublesome. Overall, his Total Quarterback Rating has dropped from 54.6 in 2016 to 51.0 in 2017 to 43.8 in 2018, meaning his performance would be good enough to win just seven out of 16 regular season games this year. Don’t believe it? Carr averaged 0.1 air yards per completion Sunday against the Seahawks, with 13 of his 31 attempts thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage. Just two of his passes were thrown at a receiver more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. Neither was caught.
To be fair, the team’s offensive line, outside of center Rodney Hudson, isn’t doing him any favors. And that falls on Gruden and the front office. They used the team’s first-round draft pick on tackle Kolton Miller and a third-rounder on tackle Brandon Parker, but neither has been able to distinguish himself. In fact, among tackles playing at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps, Miller ranks last of 74 qualified tackles, and Parker isn’t much better at 58th, per the game charters at Pro Football Focus — and Parker is Oakland’s highest-rated tackle!
As a result, Pro Football Focus lists Oakland as the fifth-worst pass-blocking unit in the NFL, giving that group responsibility for 72 sacks, hits and hurries on Carr through six games. And when Carr is under pressure, his passer rating plummets from 107.0 to 37.7 this year. A quarterback gets a passer rating of 39.6 on an incomplete pass, illustrating how bad Carr has been when the offensive line doesn’t give adequate protection.
With the offense producing little in terms of points, the defense would need a herculean effort for the Raiders to win any given Sunday. Unfortunately for Gruden, it isn’t playing nearly well enough. Oakland is allowing 2.5 points per drive, fifth most in the NFL, with its overall performance falling at No. 29 per Football Outsiders' Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average, which measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to the league average based on situation and opponent.
And the coaching staff’s faith in its defensive players is worth questioning. The players most frequently deployed should be your best. And yet linebacker Tahir Whitehead and safety Marcus Gilchrist are the only defensive players to play more than 80 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, and they’re significantly underperforming. Whitehead ranks 47th of 52 qualified linebackers, and Gilchrist ranks 48th of 56 qualified safeties, per Pro Football Focus.
Not only are the players Gruden puts on the field performing poorly, the one star he did have, linebacker Khalil Mack, was traded to the Chicago Bears just before Week 1, only for Gruden to lament how difficult it was to find a great pass rusher. Mack has five sacks in five games this year; Oakland’s defenders have seven total.
The question is how Gruden can turn it around. If Carr and Cooper are healthy, the Raiders should consider taking more shots down the field. While the Raiders have embraced the short throws of the West Coast offense, the league’s top offenses tend to throw downfield far more often. Two of the NFL’s top passing offenses, the Chiefs and Falcons, rank second and fourth for air yards per attempt, targeting receivers at least nine yards past the line of scrimmage. Oakland ranks last (6.1 air yards per attempt). The Saints, Chiefs, Chargers and Rams also rank highly for passer rating on deep throws (those of 20 or more yards), while the Raiders rank 23rd, their 74.1 passer rating well below the league average (91.6).
A sputtering offense and a bad defense is causing the Raiders to be outscored by nearly eight points per game after adjusting for strength of schedule, the eighth-worst adjusted point differential in franchise history. Not exactly the way you want the guy has the final say on all personnel matters to start the first season of a 10-year, $100 million deal.
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