I could give you 3,000 words or twice that on how the Oakland Raiders are where they are. They are a joke of an organization right now that has shown an amazing ability to continue to butcher picks in the top 10 of the NFL Draft. No matter how good they appear to be on draft day, rest assured that if the Raiders sink their hooks into someone (JaMarcus Russell, Darren McFadden, Robert Gallery) chances are they will never come close to the optimistic projections that are fed to the public from Mel Kiper or Mike Mayock. On the other hand, we have also enjoyed the inevitable "Raiders Reach" where they grab someone in the top 10 who nobody else thought would go there, like this year's #7 pick, Darrius Heyward-Bey, who had just 600 yards at Maryland last season. Heyward-Bey, taken before Michael Crabtree, has a mere 7 catches in 10 games including only 1 game of more than 1 catch, while allowing Crabtree to get to the other team in the Bay area, San Francisco. Don't think that the football fans in that neck of the woods are comparing those 2.
I could also give you a write-up on how they have continuously bet on veteran players with large contracts that turn around and backfire. In the last 2 seasons, Javon Walker, Tommy Kelly, DeAngelo Hall, and others all come to mind. This team is a mess.
And how did the Raiders get here? Part of it is merely the cyclical nature of the NFL, I suppose. They were just in a Super Bowl following the 2002 season, so somehow they got it right this decade. But the biggest part of it is this team's structure where the owner makes any and all football calls while always making it impossible for coaches to coach and personnel people to make their calls and do their jobs without being over-ruled.
Al Davis, a man who knows more about football than any owner in the league, is perhaps the ultimate meddling owner - drawing parrallels to Jerry Jones constantly, but generally winning the contest of "who is the most over-the-top owner in the NFL?" It has nothing to do with "not knowing football" which is what some people have said over the years about Jerry Jones "meddling". It is what happens when someone is set in their ways and makes the calls because this is his team and nobody is going to over-rule the owner. And then, of course, because it is the owner - there is no accoutability for the decisions that are made. If he is the owner, he certainly is not going to be fired. And that is why this can go on for decades.
But, I am not here to talk about all of that this Thanksgiving morning. We have a game to break down:
The Raiders are amazingly bad on offense. And because they are so bad on offense, they make it nearly impossible to decipher the quality of their defense. See, they put their defense in such a bad spot that you wonder if the 1985 Bears or 2000 Ravens defenses could look good on the same field as this silly offense.
In a year where the league is filled with putrid offensive units, this one goes far beyond that. They are in many categories, the worst of the worst. Amazing, really.
So, when you prepare to play this team, you consider the importance of just doing your job offensively. There is no doubt there is a fair amount of panic in Dallas about the Quality of the Cowboys offense right now, but I think we can boil that down to a just a couple of small things that need to be improved.
Every week, we consider the talent level on the opponent's roster by checking with Michael Lombardi's Blue Chip Rankings. The truth is told in a very frank fashion:
BLUE CHIP: P, Lechler; CB, Asomugha.
ALMOST BLUE: K, Janikowski.
And there you have it. 3 remarkable players, with 2 of them being the kicker and the punter. I can break down the Raiders for the next hour, but maybe that is all you need to know. They have one "above average" NFL player on their 22 man roster, although it should be noted that since his list was completed in pre-season, he did not account for their new defensive end, Richard Seymour, who he did rate as "almost blue" in New England.
Their superstar is Nnamdi Asomugha who is a pleasure to watch, but like many superstar corners, you can avoid him all day if you so choose.
They aren't very good.
When the Cowboys struggle on offense, the masses are quick to through every possible reason against the wall. In 2009, it isn't easy to decipher the reason the Cowboys are inconsistent on offense with any real authority. Usually, if an offense is not a fabulous performer, you can point to turnovers or yardage or some other metric that makes sense. But, the Cowboys are not turning the ball over much. Romo has 7 interceptions in 10 games, which frankly is better than average. The giveaways are not high at all.
As far as yardage goes, the Cowboys offense has been exceptional. The Cowboys have exceptional yard statistics. Only 4 teams accumulate more yards per game than the Cowboys offense (Saints, Patriots, Colts, and Giants). Only 2 teams accumulate more yards per play than the Cowboys (Saints and Colts). This remains a very dominant offense that moves the ball.
So what are the problems?
1) Field Position - Well, Field Position is still an issue, although they have risen through the ranks up to 24th in the league, starting their average drive from the 27.9 yard line. You would like to see better there.
2) Red Zone Efficiency - 29 trips into the red zone this season for the Cowboys has resulted in just 14 touchdowns. Less than 50% is ok if you get there more often, because New England and the Giants actually have a worse TD percentage on drives in the Red Zone. The difference is that the Patriots have had 44 drives into the Red Zone and the Giants 41.
3) 3rd Down Conversions - This is the big one. Look at any game and the outcome can be determined by 3rd down conversions. The Cowboys passing game gets exposed on 3rd down with their 3 WR-Shotgun offense. You see, I sound like I am against this personnel package and that isn't true. I am merely against packages where your effectiveness is so poor. On 3rd down, the Cowboys convert amongst the best in the league on 3rd and short (5th overall, 70%). But 3rd and medium (4-6 yards) the Cowboys rank 29th. 3rd and long (more than 6) they are 14th for 28%. In the last two weeks, the Cowboys are 3-12 and 3-11. There you have it. They end drives on 3rd down. And this is why it is crucial they get yards on 1st and 2nd, so 3rd down is 3rd and short, where they can pound the ball and get where they need to get.
And those 3 items can cancel out any offensive ability you have. You see, from a purely strategic standpoint, the Cowboys are a very good offense. But, they have little to show for it.
1) - Demonstrate that your WRs have a purpose - This is starting to border on silly. In the last few weeks the Cowboys Wide Outs have become a bigger riddle than they were, and that is saying something. I wondered this week if Roy Williams is becoming one of those guys who may be shown the door in the spring time if things don't improve quickly. He seems to have no confidence in himself and he also appears to be playing to protect himself. Nobody likes their manhood challenged, but the fact of that he has had it challenged all season and still doesn't have a game where we can say he really did the heavy lifting speaks volumes. He may just not have it. As for Miles Austin, for some reason, he is not dominating games in the this last stretch. It will be interesting to see how they gameplan against Nnamdi, because he will not switch sides of the field. In effect, they can hide either one of their receivers from him. Don't think that makes it all better, because Chris Johnson is fine, too.
2) - Power Run, Power Run, Power Run - I say this every week, but I now feel compelled to continue to do so as long as there is a chance that Jason Garrett will forget. Why do we run the ball? Because running the ball can set up so many other things in your offense. I am amazed at how many smart people forgot why people run in the NFL with all of this discussion about run/pass. Running the ball makes your OL look better because it keeps the blitz away. It brings the safeties up. It wears your opponent down. Shall I go on? 35 plays last week (run and pass) featured mulitple tight ends and Romo under center. The week before in Green Bay? 12. That is called keeping your opponent guessing. And why?
3) - Play Action Passes - Yes! Play action passes. We saw almost none of that against Washington. You kept expecting Garrett to set them up for a play over the top, but it never happened - a sign that Washington never brought the safeties up - a sign that you never scored points the whole game. And why did you not score? It was because you were 3-11 on 3rd down and couldn't sustain a drive. See how this all fits together? Anyway, there are play action opportunities down the field most weeks. This should be one of them.
4) - Find a Rhythm - This is your last chance before December to find an offensive rhythm that you can feel good about. Obviously, the next time we see the Cowboys, it will be in the Meadowlands in a high-stress, high-emotion game in December in a game for the division lead perhaps. It would be nice to enter that game with just a tad bit of confidence. Pass protection will be big again today, and despite the fact that the Radiers would not be considered a great pass rush team, they must be respected - especially on a day where Greg Ellis will be returning home to show the Cowboys a thing or two. Flozell Adams (who has sacrificed 6 sacks already) and Doug Free need big days.
The following rankings are all true about the Raiders offense in 2009:
31st - yards per play (4.05)
32nd - yards per game (227)
30th - Giveaways
31st - Time of possession
32nd - Points
32nd - 10+ yard plays
32nd - 20+ yard plays
32nd - 3rd and Medium conversion
32nd - 3rd and Long conversion
30th - Starting Field position
31st - QB Rating
32nd - Drops
32nd - Fumbles Lost
32nd - Red Zone Drives (14)
32nd - Goal to Goal Drives
32nd - Net passing yards per game
I don't know what else to say.
1) - Get off the darn field - In the Week 7 gameplan when we were getting ready for the Seahawks , I wrote this about 3rd Down defense: "One thing they have done well is 3rd down defense. Allowing only 25 conversions in 75 attempts for their opponents, we can say the Cowboys have been able to get off the field. Only 5 teams have done better so far this year than the Cowboys (Denver, NYG, Arizona, Phil, and New Orleans). This might be the most important defensive stat in football (after takeaways), so let's keep an eye on that one."
I am sad to report that the Cowboys have not maintained their pace. As Jason Campbell showed, the Cowboys 3rd Down defense is nothing special since the calendar turned to November. In fact, in the last 4 games, only the Jets and Carolina have had a worse 3rd Down defense than the Cowboys, who are allowing conversions a staggering 43% of the time (24-56) against the Seahawks, Eagles, Packers, and Redskins. 7-15 for Aaron Rodgers and 7-15 for Jason Campbell was way too high, and it shows you that although the defense has not been blamed for those 2 games, it is clear they can do better, too.
2) - Don't let Bruce Gradkowski start to feel it - The 26-year old Toledo product had his first start on Sunday of the season when he replaced big JaMarcus Russell. Russell had 9 starts, and only once did he raise his QB rating above 70. That game, the Raiders lost to the Giants, 44-7. He was truly horrendous, and was showing no signs of a rally. Meanwhile, Gradkowski seems like a guy who likes organized chaos on plays, and when he starts to look impressive is when he starts running around the field, pumping his fists and getting energized. He is an emotional player who doesn't seem to have a great ability, but he has a great fighting spirit, and seems up for a fight. I would hope the Cowboys can grind that spirit out of him today with some hits.
3) - Mix in a Takeaway or 3 - The Raiders are a very generous team. They fumble and throw picks as well as anyone in football. Meanwhile the Cowboys takeaway ability is still not good enough. Just 12 takeaways in 10 games rank them last in the NFL (actually, tied for last with Washington). This, as you know is a trend that goes back to last year where the Cowboys defense did not take the ball away. You are what you are, and the Cowboys defense does not generate turnovers consistently. Again, all of this talk about the defense being "good" flys in the face of reality sometimes. In order to be a dangerous defense, you must go get the ball, and give your offense a short field once in a while.
4) - Tackle in the Secondary - This is all about self-preservation. You might think that Roy Williams (OU) taught the entire secondary how to tackle, which he always thought was with the top of your shoulder while flying through the air. This entire secondary tackles by launching at the ball carrier and never wrapping up. This, of course, can lead to a huge hit, or a huge miss. But also can lead to guys hurting themselves. Try a simple tackle and watch how seldom that gets you hurt. Mike Jenkins has courage, but he doesn't seem to have technique (Romo-like tackles). I don't think this team can go far without Newman and Jenkins staying on the field, and I think they can do that by actually trying some "stay with feet on ground" tackles.
The Cowboys are not playing well. But, the Raiders have a short week, time-zone travel, a back-up QB, no road confidence, and about a hundred other reasons why this should be an easy way to get to 8-3. Again, get to 8-3, and December becomes manageable with a 3-2 month likely resulting in a NFC East division title, and a home playoff game. Must take care of business, and then you can get healthy for 10 days before the Giants. Must Win is the theme of the day, but lucky for them, the Raiders are about as hand-picked an opponent as you can ask for.
Happy Thanksgiving, Cowboys.
Cowboys 27, Raiders 10
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