Since firing offensive coordinator Greg Knapp last week, all has been quiet at Raiders’ headquarters. Aside from intimating that current “Senior Offensive Assistant” Al Saunders would be considered for the position, head coach Dennis Allen has said surprisingly little about his search for Knapp’s replacement. This obviously has breed wild speculation–which I’m about to contribute to.
Fueling this speculation is Allen’s declaration that he’s not tied to a particular scheme. “I’m not tied to a specific system,” he said. “I’m tied to trying to find out what our players can do really well and try to put them in those positions to give them a chance to have success. I’m looking for production and execution.”
More specifically, Allen is not attached to zone blocking, or at least the firing of offensive line coach Frank Pollack, who is regarded as a zone blocking guru, suggests as much. Though not attached to the zone blocking, I do think they’re attached to the West Coast offense, which general manager Reggie McKenzie’s values. After all, if they weren’t devoted to West Coast offense, why move on from Saunders last offseason, and thereby force Carson Palmer to learn an entirely new system?
The Case Against Al Saunders
The answer to this question is essentially the case against Saunders. It is the case against Ken Whisenhunt, Norv Turner, and Chan Gailey. It is the case against the digit system as a whole. After all, if the Raiders were keen on such a system, they would have moved forward with Saunders as offensive coordinator in the last offseason. But in eschewing Saunders and the familiar digit system for the West Coast offense, the Raiders have committed to the latter.
But, system aside, the cases against Saunders, Whisenhunt, Turner, and Gailey are extensive and varied.
Though he was the team’s offensive coordinator in 2011, it was in title only. Then head coach Hue Jackson handled the play-calling. In reality, Saunders has not called an offensive game since 2008 while coordinating for Scott Linehan’s St. Louis Rams. Even then, with Linehan as head coach, Saunders role in play-calling is suspect. In all of Saunders eight seasons as coordinator, he’s always worked along with an offensive-minded head coach. Were he promoted by Allen, Saunders would be autonomously controlling the offensive for the first time in his career. A scary thought, to be sure.
A Saunders promotion would mean a return to the digit system in which Carson Palmer spent a majority of his career. It would also assuredly mean Palmer is the quarterback next season and perhaps beyond. After all, Saunders quarterback lineage includes Marc Bulger and Trent Green. Which is to say, he isn’t exactly known for developing quarterbacks.
Perhaps what he is known for is his ability to coordinate a running game. Under Saunders, Priest Holmes was vaulted from obscurity to stardom, while Clinton Portis and Steven Jackson had successful seasons.
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There are two other reasons why I don’t believe the Raiders will pursue Whisenhunt, Turner, or Gailey. The first of which is that none have a proven track record for quarterback development.
Though I can’t deny Turner’s success with Troy Aikman and even Alex Smith (to an extent), we cannot forget his work with Brad Johnson, Kerry Collins, Jay Fiedler, Ray Lucas, Drew Brees, and Philip Rivers. For every success story co-authored by Turner, there are two more stories of mediocrity. Whisenhunt and Gailey too have been unable to develop quarterbacks. Whisenhunt, though successful with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, lost his job in Arizona because of his inability to find/develop a quarterback. And Gailey’s career can be summed up in two words: Ryan. Fitzpatrick.
Finally, these three are the most coveted offensive minds available. All things considered, why would they be interested in joining a team that has shown such scheme insecurity? They wouldn’t. Further, I wouldn’t imagine they’d be eager to join a team that will likely commit a large portion of available resources (cap space and draft picks) to improving their defense.
If not them, then who?
A West Coast minded coordinator, Shurmur’s play-calling can be downright bizarre at times (I mean, we’re talking about a guy who ran a goal line dive play with a tight end), but he has proven able in developing quarterbacks. He coaxed Donovan McNabb to a 31 touchdown and only eight interceptions in 2004. That’s no small potatoes. He also oversaw the development of Sam Bradford and Brandon Weeden. In his rookie season, a Shurmur-coached Bradford threw for 3,512 yards, good for second on the all-time list behind Peyton Manning. Weeden too had a better than anticipated year. Shurmur coached Weeden to a 57.5% completion percentage and 3385 yards, despite the fact that Weeden had 21 passes batted down at the line of scrimmage and an additional 38 passes dropped.
Shurmur’s brand of West Coast offense features the power running scheme, which the Raiders have had success running in the past. In total, Shurmur might be the perfect marriage of Saunders’ run scheme and McKenzie’s preferred pass system.
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Like Shurmur, Childress also runs the West Coast offense with a power run scheme. Also like Shurmur, Childress is credited with the development of Donovan McNabb and Brandon Weeden. Childress also gets credit for turning Tavaris Jackson in to a (somewhat) successful starting quarterback. While under Childress’ tutelage Jackson compiled a 10-9 record as a starter while throwing for 3,442 yards, 20 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. This is Tavaris Jackson we’re talking about, a quarterback that is now third string for the Buffalo Bills.
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Hamilton is not a name I’ve heard thrown around, but he would seem to be the perfect fit. Hamilton is well steeped in the digit system, having coached quarterbacks for the New York Jets and Paul Hackett in 2004-05, the San Francisco 49ers and Norv Turner in 2006, and the Chicago Bears and Ron Turner from 2007-09. He’s also spent the past three years at Stanford working in the West Coast offense with a power run scheme.
Hamilton has served as the Cardinal offensive coordinator for the past two seasons. In his first season, the Cardinal scored a school-record in points (561)and total offense (6,361)while averaging 43.15 points a game, good for seventh in the nation. Though not the statistical powerhouse this season, Hamilton lead the Cardinal to their first Rose Bowl victory in 40 years. And he did so with a true freshman, Kevin Hogan, at quarterback.
Sure, Hamilton doesn’t have the experience that the others have, but he certainly has the upside. In selecting Jason Tarver over Greg Manusky, the Raiders have already shown a willingness to hire youth over experience.