Since the new collective bargaining agreement kicked in — important since it modernized, or at least ushered in a new era of player contract structures — there have been seven coaching staffs to make the postseason in their first or second season together.
Jim Caldwell (Detroit, 2014), Jim Harbaugh (San Francisco, 2011), Gary Kubiak (Denver, 2015) and John Fox (Denver, 2011) made the postseason in their first season with their respective teams; while Bruce Arians (Arizona, 2014), Mike Zimmer (Minnesota, 2015) and Jay Gruden (Washington, 2015) did it in their second year.
Only five teams in the NFC have held onto their coaching staff, for the most part, since the 2011 season, and only four in the AFC. The teams that haven’t had a change in head coach: New England, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Green Bay, Baltimore, New Orleans, San Diego, Seattle and St. Louis. The one commonality (aside from the AFC North’s patience) is quarterback play. They’ve all had it at high levels, at least for some period of time. And aside from the Bengals and Ravens, there’s an argument to place the signal callers into the elite tier.
Oakland has Derek Carr — arguably the best young quarterback in the game, and some have even argued that Carr is among the league’s best — along with receiver Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack. Surrounding them are a slew of others, some high level contributors who hope to win a lot. What makes them more dangerous than their collective talent is the familiarity they have as a group.
Norton Jr. said:
“I don’t think there’s any question that everybody is more familiar with what’s expected of them. I think anytime you’re in Year 2, they understand the concepts, understand the defensive scheme a whole lot better. At the same time, we have a lot of good football players. We’ve assembled some really good football players, created a lot of competition. We’re really excited about what we can do.”
Del Rio is a heavy favorite to join other first or second year head coaches to make the playoffs. Bruce Arians inherited Carson Palmer, whose strengths matched well with Arians’ system. Jim Caldwell inherited Matt Stafford at his best, and when Calvin Johnson was at his prime. Gruden was able to mold the best receiving corps Washington has had since the club drafted Santana Moss in 2001.
Zimmer, Harbaugh, Kubiak and Fox, meanwhile, worked with what they had — and even if it was Peyton Manning on a steep decline, they had something to work with.
Said Del Rio:
“Certainly I have a better feel for what I can expect out of our guys. They have a better feel for ‘what does coach want out of me?’ I think we start further ahead because we’re not learning how coach wants practice to be. From that standpoint, yes. We’ve had some new additions that we’ve had the whole offseason, working together with them. Still, as you get into training camp and the games, we’ll learn about each other a little bit. That’s an important piece.”
Del Rio, Musgrave and Norton have the best of both worlds there. They’ve managed to add a lot of depth into the defensive backfield, and have benefited from two excellent offseasons put together by the recently extended Reggie McKenzie.
“Fewer unknowns, definitely. Fewer unknowns for the players, the coaches, the staff. We can
definitely focus on football more rather than just being in the right place at the right time and trying to memorize the schedule. It’s an advantage to have that continuity. It’s a terrific place, as we know, to practice football and just get ready for a long season.”
And they know those guys well, now, which is a major thing considering some of the issues that plagued the Raiders during a promising yet underwhelming 2015 season.
Nobody could cover the oppositions tight end. Even if it was Baltimore’s Crockett Gillmore or Cleveland’s Gary Barnidge. The only teams that couldn’t beat Oakland’s coverage consistently in completing passes to the tight end were the Jets, Broncos, Lions, and Packers. Oakland played 13 opponents in 2015. Only four failed to do much against their zone coverages, and in the cases of Detroit, Denver and Green Bay, it was at least partially due to the fact that their receivers were able to get open quickly.
The Raider patched up all they really can on the personnel side. Now it’s up to the coaches to get the All-Pro level of play they are expected to get out of guys like Sean Smith and Reggie Nelson, while nurturing along Karl Joseph, Jihad Ward and Shilique Calhoun.
Khalil Mack said:
“It adds a different kind of confidence because you know what the coaches expect. You know what they want and it’s easier because you know the things they’re going to tell you when you look at film. So, it’s going to be that much quicker for you to take in what they’re teaching you in so many ways. Whether it’s plays or whether it’s techniques, it’s going to be easier to grasp those things and its’ going to be easier to teach them off the field and off the field to the younger guys. I feel like that’s one of the things that we’ve been doing. That’s helped us a lot.”
That could be critical as the team opens the year facing Drew Brees and tight end Coby Fleener, Brock Osweiler and speedster C.J. Fiedorowicz coming off the bye week, with Cam Newton and Greg Olsen to follow. Not to mention having to face Travis Kelce and Antonio Gates twice during the regular season.
The Raiders offense stagnated late in the year as another problem area, partially due to a hobbled Cooper, who was playing through a foot injury, and tackle Austin Howard being placed on injured reserve stemming from a knee injury sustained in week 14 against the Broncos. Running back Latavius Murray struggled to break long gains late in the year as well.
But know that the coaches have a solid understanding of each player’s’ strengths and weaknesses, it’s not just the roster that makes the Raiders such a formidable team. It’s the level of continuity that an already solid roster gets together, and some added familiarity with the coaching staff.
Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Raiders football.