“NFL is parody,” a friend — and Oakland Raiders’ fan — wrote me last week. He meant parity, of course, and was referring to the Raiders’ chance at victory. But I didn’t correct him, partly because it’s funny and partly because I’m not an member of the spelling police — yet. But, mostly, I didn’t correct because he’s right: the NFL is ripe for parody. After all, in what other profession would it appropriate to compare your job to that of soldiers going into war? In what other sport could you have two (replacement) referees interpret a single play in two different ways? In what other society is it considered a strength to have “built a bully”?
If the NFL is ripe for parody, then the Raiders are overripe. Whether it’s the tuck rule, the whole Bill Callahan experiment, the late Al Davis’ PowerPoints, or any of the other head-scratchers associated with the organization, the Raiders have quickly become more difficult to watch than Saturday Night Live.
Rolando McClain embodies this. Watching McClain play is like watching a Kenan Thompson skit. Which is to say, it’s enraging (I mean, seriously: Keenan Thompson wasn’t funny on All That, Kenan and Kel, or in Good Burger, though he was excellent in D2: The Might Ducks. And yet, he’s a cast member of SNL? Talk about a knuckle puck). McClain doesn’t appear to be a professional football player. He’s slow — he’d probably lose in a foot race to Aubrey Huff. And he often seems disinterested. But don’t take my word for — I’m not a fan, after all. Here is how Raiders Sports Guy described him:
Any time the camera finds Rolando, he’s usually half-assing it after a ballcarrier who blew by him, throwing his hands up for a tip about two seconds after the ball has flown over his head, or doing his favorite thing; standing around and watching football unfold around him.
In his post regarding the Raiders’ most recent loss, Raiders Sports Guy challenged me — in some sense — to explain the flaws of McClain’s game. So I set out to do just that. As most of you may know, I’m not a huge McClain supporter. It’s nothing personal. I just tend to dislike people who fire guns at people’s faces. It’s a weird quirk of mine, I know, just like my hatred of onions. Ultimately, what I found was unexpected.
Against the run
McClain is actually a pretty good run defender. I know, I know, I don’t believe me either. But after watching last week’s game footage and checking his game tracking stats on ProFootball Focus (PFF), there is no other conclusion to draw.
PFF ranks McClain as the 5th-best middle linebacker against the run. His run stop rating is only a tenth of a point behind that of Patrick Willis.
You can see from this chart: McClain has missed only one tackle in four games (MT) and has 15 stops (St) — stops are plays in which the defender made a solo stop on an offensive player that resulted in a failed offensive possession. This isn’t just PFF’s opinion. In last week’s game against Denver, McClain actually defended the run pretty well. He was of course helped greatly by his defensive line.
Play: Willis McGahee left guard for 2 yards (tackle by Rolando McClain)
Notes: Richard Seymour pushes up-field, forcing Willis McGahee into McClain’s zone. Fortunately for McClain, Tommy Kelly requires a double-team, leaving him unimpeded to the ball carrier.
Play: Willis McGahee up the middle for 8 yards (tackle by Lamarr Houston and Joselio Hanson)
Notes: Notice that McClain is lined-up at outside linebacker, while Philip Wheeler is playing inside. This strikes me as an unusual alignment. But that aside, the big issue is that Miles Burris is completely taken out of the play by Tamme, which causes a chain reaction of sorts. Wheeler must protect that gaping hole created by Burris’ absence. McClain sticks to his assigned area, designated by the circle, leaving McGahee free to run up the middle. This inability to improvise or adjust is a problem repeatedly displayed by McClain throughout the game.
Play: Ronnie Hillman right end for no gain (tackle by Rolando McClain)
Notes: On this play, McClain does a good job of staying home and allowing the play to come to him. This, I believe, is his strength. He’s a disciplined defender who does what his coaches ask — for better or worse. As noted on the previous play, McClain doesn’t do much other than stay in his zone. His skill-set doesn’t jump out at you; it doesn’t seem indicative of a top-10 draft pick. It is just average.
Against the pass
McClain is not fast. He ran a 4.69 40-yard dash at Alabama’s Pro Day. While 4.69 is relatively fast for a middle linebacker (NaVarro Bowman ran a 4.72), McClain seems to be play slower. This is probably made worse by what seems like a slow reaction time and his tendency to take bad angles.
PFF ranks McClain as the 17th-worst middle linebacker against the pass, which seems pretty generous. Quarterbacks are 14-of-16 for 171 yards when throwing in McClain’s zone. That’s really good, in case you didn’t know.
This chart is organized by yards-after-catch (YAC), and as you can see, McClain allows the second most YAC in the league. This, above all, demonstrates McClain’s limitations as a defender. He’s simply too slow and takes too poor of angles to be effective against the pass. These weaknesses were on display last Sunday.
Play: Peyton Manning pass complete short middle to Jacob Tamme for 6 yards (tackle by Rolando McClain)
Notes: McClain doesn’t jam or reroute or even touch Tamme coming off the line of scrimmage. The result of that decision is shown. McClain literally doesn’t have the speed to keep up with Tamme, who ran a 4.58 40-yard dash at the combine. He does a nice job limiting Tamme to only 6 yards on the reception. So at least there’s that.
Play: Peyton Manning pass complete short right to Ronnie Hillman for 29 yards (tackle by Joselio Hanson)
Notes: The Raiders seemed to have McClain shadow the running backs all game. That is, on almost every snap, McClain is lined-up directly across from the running back. This play is obviously no exception. On the snap, McClain drops into his zone. Ronnie Hillman sits in the space vacated by McClain, and then McClain uses his lack of speed to not tackle Hillman. Pretty standard.
This play is a classic McClain against the pass play, as far as I can tell. He seems to commit to bad angles. He targets the ball carrier’s current location, instead of anticipating where the ballcarrier is going. Open space to McClain is like tanning booths to John Boehner: it’s his achilles. Zing.
In all, McClain is not a bad defender. Like I noted earlier, McClain is an average linebacker, which certainly doesn’t bode well for the Raiders, who drafted him with the expectation of more. Some of his struggles may come as a result of being miscast in a 4-3 defense, or, perhaps they are issues with motivation and desire. Either way, his on the field performance does not warrant a complete disavowal. His off the field issues, on the other hand, might be another story.