Raiders work on run game — for good reason

ALAMEDA — The Oakland Raiders have tallied 72 rushing attempts over four contests. Those attempts have gained an uninspiring 246 yards, a 3.4 yard per carry average.

They hope that’s about to change.

Interim head coach Tony Sparano has made his living taking football teams with losing records and turning them into winners. A big part of that has been finding ways to create an efficient run-first team.

During Sparano’s tenure with the Miami Dolphins, there was no big-name quarterback. There wasn’t much of a notable running back either, but somehow in the first season under Sparano, the team went 11-5.

Sparano’s Dolphins ran the ball 448 times in 2008, with Ronnie Brown as the lead horse. Brown, who the Raiders will face on Sunday against San Diego, posted some of the best numbers of his career.

Brown moved for nearly 1,200 yards of total offense and hit paydirt 10 times for rushing scores.

The next season, the infamously talented yet internally troubled Ricky Williams shouldered the load. 13 touchdowns and 1,384 yards total offense, with over 1,100 coming around the tackle box.

The 2009 Dolphins rushed 501 times, and though their 7-9 record wasn’t as good as the year previous, their ground efficiency improved.

It’s a major part of the way Sparano views football:

“Explosive plays aren’t defined to me by 20-yard runs at all. They’re efficient plays. One of the things that not many people would realize, is we’re one of the top teams in the league right now in not allowing or not having negative plays on offense; sacks, penalties, minus runs, those type of things, we don’t have them. We’re one of the best in the league.”

The type of football Sparano teaches is steady, consistent and fundamental. Perhaps a very good thing for a team with a rookie starting quarterback. And quite possibly the most talented that Sparano has ever coached.

For the oldest and youngest RB on the Raiders’ roster, Maurice Jones-Drew, returning to fundamental football is imperative:

“For (Sparano) to bring back the fundamentals, there’s a lot of things, little things, nothing that was a big deal here or there. It was just the right footwork, the right steps in the running game or passing game. … If we’re able to hone those things in and execute at a faster level, we’re one or two plays away from being in these games and winning them.”

Technique and basic positional football is often overlooked by fans attempting to diagnose a team’s woes.  In many cases, football at it’s core is basic. The good teams just do the little things a lot better. Running the football is no different, and in fact, it’s the core of the game.

Of 17 teams with three wins or more, only six fall in the bottom half of the league in rush attempts. Seattle is one, though they lead the league in yards per carry. The five others — Denver, Green Bay, Arizona, Cincinnati and Carolina — have a Top 10 receiver and quarterback duo.

Four of the six also have terrific defenses. The other two are led by Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers.

The 11 teams in the top half of the NFL in rushing attempts have something else in common: A bad defense, or a young quarterback.

The proof is in the pudding, and the Raiders will need their run game to step up. If not, the season could become very long, and the coaching search will be too big an item for marquee free agents to ignore.


Follow @SFBay and @JLeskiwNFL on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of the Oakland Raiders.