The statistical rot of the old Oakland empire

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jun 13, 2010



The football world mocked JaMarcus Russell as one of the great busts in history when the Raiders cut the former overall No. 1 pick last month.
 
Few were more critical of his performance in the pros than the Cold, Hard Football Facts. Russell has a career average of 6.00 YPA, a 65.2 passer rating and 18 TDs in three seasons. Those are extraordinarily poor Cold, Hard Football Facts.
 
But maybe we, and the rest of the football world, were hasty in our rush to judgment. Maybe Russell isn't a bust – or, at the very least, maybe he's not entirely to blame for his inept performances.
 
Maybe he's just a victim of the decline and fall of the Raiders Empire, a punchless potentate handcuffed by the physical, cultural and statistical disintegration of the organization from within. It's a disintegration, as you probably know, that starts at the top. It's also a disintegration that began more than four years before Russell was drafted in April 2007.
 
The institutional rot of Oakland's passing game
Every empire has a date by which we can mark it's decline or even its end: the Moorish advance was halted by Charles Martel at Tours on October 10, 732; Napoleon's empire was finally put out of  its misery by the Brits and Prussians at the Belgian village of Waterloo on June 18, 1815; and Imperial Japan was turned back at Midway on June 7, 1942, never to regain the initiative.
 
The same goes for empires of the gridiron. And few football teams – indeed few pro sports teams – enjoyed an empire quite like the Raiders. They were a consistent force in pro football for 40 consecutive seasons from 1963 to 2002.
 
Then the dynasty came crashing down around them suddenly, violently and unexpectedly, on a date by which we can pinpoint the end of their empire. That date was January 26, 2003 – Super Bowl XXXVII.
 
If the Raiders were consistent contenders in the 40 years that preceded that date, they've been nothing but an embarrassment in the seven years since that date, with a combined record of 29-83 (.259), and never more than five victories in a season.
 
The date of January 26, 2003 obviously precedes Russell's arrival on the scene in 2007. Oakland has also suffered  one other incredible, perhaps even unprecedented, statistical struggle since its statistical Waterloo. And once again, it was a struggle that preceded Russell's arrival. These stunning Cold, Hard Football Facts prove that the problems in Oakland are much bigger and more profound than that of one poor draft pick or any one player.
 
The problem in Oakland is the institutional rot of its passing game, as measured by the single most important indicator in football, yards per pass attempt.   
 
A brief, fact-filled history of the Oakland empire
To understand the statistical disintegration of the Oakland empire, you must first accept the most basic maxim of the the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
 
That maxim is this: the NFL is all about the passing game and always has been, at least since the 1940s. The running game is merely a pleasant little diversion. Year after year, since the dawn of the T formation, teams that dominate through the air, either on offense or defense (or both), dominate on the scoreboard.
 
Conversely, teams that dominate running the ball on offense or stopping the run on defense rarely dominate on the scoreboard unless they also dominate the passing battles.
 
The history of the Raiders stands as one of the great examples of the importance of the passing game.
 
Oakland was awful in its early years. The Raiders went just 9-33 in the first three years of the American Football League (1960-62). The 1962 team was the most dreadful of the bunch. It went just 1-13 and the main reason it struggled was that it couldn't pass the ball: the 1962 Raiders averaged a dysfunctional 5.99 yards per pass attempt (almost the exact same terrible average that Russell produced in his three years in Oakland).
 
Big changes were needed. And those big changes came in 1963, with the arrival of head coach Al Davis.
 
Davis was a coaching wunderkind 47 years ago. His impact on the passing game – and on the scoreboard – was as swift and stunning as the onset of a Russian winter. The Raiders, so awful in 1962, suddenly averaged an awesome 7.66 yards per pass attempt in 1963, an improvement of nearly two yards per attempt in a single year. They also improved by nine games in the standings: from 1-13 in 1962 to 10-4 in 1963.
 
(More recently, Miami underwent a similar turnaround in its passing game and in the standings: the 2007 Dolphins averaged an awful  5.95 yards per pass attempt and went 1-15; the 2008 Dolphins averaged an impressive 7.66 yards per pass attempt, went 11-5 and won the AFC East. The fact that Miami quarterback Chad Pennington didn't win league MVP honors in 2008 is indicative of the general ignorance of the pigskin electorate in the media.)
 
Oakland had instantly improved its passing game and had instantly become a pro football powerhouse. The consistent dominance of the Raiders that followed this watershed season is legendary in sports circles: from 1963 to 2002, the Raiders reached the playoffs 21 times, won three Super Bowls (1976, 1980, 1983) and suffered just seven losing seasons.
 
The Raiders consistently won because they consistently dominated the skies: unheralded Tom Flores, "Mad Bomber" Daryle Lamonica (pictured), the "Snake" Ken Stabler, two-time Super Bowl champ Jim Plunkett and 2002 MVP Rich Gannon all led impressive, aggressive, effective downfield passing attacks for teams that consistently threatened to win it all.
 
It's no coincidence that Oakland's single greatest team was also its single greatest passing team. The 1976 Raiders went 13-1 and dominated the Vikings in Super Bowl XI. The 1976 Raiders remain the most effective passing team in franchise history, with an average of 8.85 yards per pass attempt behind Stabler's career-best campaign.
 
Here's a look at the 10 best passing teams in Raiders history.
 
10 Best Passing Teams in Raiders History
Year
YPA
Record
Playoffs
1976
8.85
13-1
won Super Bowl XI
1990
8.59
12-4
lost AFC title game
1968
8.06
12-2
lost AFL title game
1989
7.92
8-8
n/a
1993
7.84
10-6
lost div. playoffs
1982
7.81
8-1
lost div. playoffs
1983
7.76
12-4
won Super Bowl XVIII
1969
7.69
12-1-1
lost AFL title game
1963
7.66
10-4
n/a
1974
7.64
12-2
lost AFC title game
 
You'll notice that almost all of these great passing teams were great teams. Nine of the 10 posted winning records; eight reached the playoffs; six battled for league or conference titles; two won the Super Bowl.
 
Like we said, dominate through the air, dominate on the scoreboard. The Raiders did both better than anybody for four impressive decades of success.
 
Oakland's statistical Waterloo
The good times continued through 2002, when Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon produced what was easily the best campaign of his 17-year NFL career.
 
Gannon posted career highs in completions (418), attempts (618), completion percentage (67.6%), yards (4,689), passer rating (97.3) and average per attempt (7.59). Only the Chiefs that year passed the ball more effectively (7.79 YPA) than the Raiders.
 
The aerial dominance continued in the playoffs as Gannon and the Oakland offense lit up the Jets and Titans for 71 points in two playoff games. (SI wondered on its cover: "Can Anybody Beat The Raiders?")
 
And then came Super Bowl XXXVII. You know the story. Tampa absolutely dominated the Raiders, 48-21, while forcing the MVP Gannon into a humiliating performance. The Oakland quarterback was picked off a Super Bowl-record five times, including three that were returned or touchdowns.
 
Two forces conspired against Gannon and the Raiders that day:
 
ONE - Tampa coach Jon Gruden. He had coached the Raiders the previous four seasons and clearly had the Oakland offense pegged.
 
TWO - Perhaps the best pass defenses of the Live Ball Era (1978-present). Gruden not only had insight into the Raiders offense. He was armed with one of the great pass-defense weapons in modern football history. The 2002 Buccaneers allowed opposing passers to complete just 50.8 percent of their passes, with 10 TDs, 31 INTs, a lowly average of 5.5 YPA, and a tremendous 48.4 Defensive Passer Rating, the stingiest mark any defense has produced in the past 21 years. All of those indicators are remarkable numbers in this day and age.
 
The Oakland organization was humiliated and has quite literally never recovered. It's stunning that a team so good passing the ball heading into that statistical Waterloo was so bad passing the ball in the games and years that followed.
 
Gannon was awful in seven games the following season, before suffering an injury. The Raiders went just 2-5 to open the defense of their AFC crown, and Gannon, the league's reigning MVP, was awful.  He completed just 125 of 225 passes (55.6%) for 1,274 yards 5.7 YPA, with 6 TD, 4 INT and a 73.5 rating – nearly 25 points lower than his rating in 2002.
 
An ineffective carousel of quarterbacks soon followed in 2003: aging Rick Mirer, former Buffalo bandana-boy Rob Johnson, and youngsters Marques Tuiasosopo and Tee Martin, all failed to find a groove in the pocket.
 
It was a statistical disaster: the Raiders went just 4-10 in 2003 and fielded the worst passing team in franchise history (5.74 YPA).
 
The Raiders of 1962 to 1963 had shown one of the most remarkable passing improvements in football history. The 2002 to 2003 Raiders produced one of the most remarkable passing collapses in history: from an MVP-caliber season out of Gannon in 2002, to the single worst passing attack the Raiders had ever seen, in the space of a single season.
 
In fact, here's a look at the 10 worst passing teams in Raiders history
 
10 Worst Passing Teams in Raiders History
Year
YPA
Record
2003
5.74
4-12
2006
5.90
2-14
2009
5.93
5-11
1961
5.94
2-12
1962
5.99
1-13
1981
6.16
7-9
1996
6.24
7-9
1992
6.26
7-9
2008
6.27
5-11
1965
6.29
8-5-1
 
You'll notice, in sharp contrast to the list of great passing teams above, that almost all of these lousy passing teams were lousy teams. Nine of the 10 posted losing records, and the three single worst teams in franchise history are all on the list: the 1-13 Raiders of 1962, the 2-12 Raiders of 1961, and the 2-14 Raiders of 2006.
 
Like we said, dominate in the air, dominate on the scoreboard. Conversely, struggle through the air, struggle on the scoreboard.
 
Football history has left the Raiders in its dust
JaMarcus Russell's Raiders of 2009 were certainly a terrible passing team (third worst on the list above). His dreadful 2008 Raiders are also on the list of worst passing teams in franchise history (ninth worst).
 
But you'll also notice that the decline and fall of the Raiders empire was already in full motion when Russell arrived on the scene. The 2003 Raiders were the worst passing team in franchise history, followed closely by the 2006 Raiders.
 
Russell, in other words, inherited a dysfunctional passing attack, a dysfunctional system, a dysfunctional mindset and a dysfunctional organization. In fact, he's just the most visible member among a long string of 14 quarterbacks who have failed to lead Oakland out of its funk since the loss to Tampa: Aaron Brooks, Kerry Collins, Daunte Culpepper, Gannon, Rob Johnson, Tee Martin, Josh McCown, Rick Mirer, Marques Tuiasosopo, Andrew Walter, Charlie Frye, Bruce Gradkowski, J.P. Losman and Russell have all attempted passes for the Raiders since their statistical Waterloo in Super Bowl XXXVII.
 
All have failed, in most cases miserably. Russell couldn't pass the Raiders out of their funk. But in most cases he was no worse than anyone else on the list.
 
The seven years of failures passing the ball and failures on the scoreboard raise some obvious questions: Why have the Raiders never recovered from their statistical Waterloo of Super Bowl XXXVII? Why have they consistently produced such awful passing teams, and awful teams, in the seven seasons since that loss?
 
It's most likely a combination of factors: the Raiders certainly have never evolved, at least not effectively, from the old, aggressive downfield Mad Bomber-style passing attack that worked so well for them (and many other teams) for so many years. But that style of football has now been replaced by the short, high-efficiency passing attack of the modern game, the one that has produced the gaudy passer ratings and completion percentages of the past decade.
 
The style of football once favored by Al Davis, and that his teams used so effectively for four decades, no longer works in the NFL.
 
And certainly poor personnel decisions are to blame. Al Davis might have revolutionized football for the Raiders back in 1963. But he clearly lost his fast ball as a manager years ago. In fact, we chronicled his long list of personnel mistakes at the start of the 2009 season.
 
And let's not forget the key personnel decision that led directly to Oakland's statistical Waterloo in Super Bowl XXXVII: Davis could not see eye to eye with his former head coach, Jon Gruden. Davis favored his old downfield passing attack. Gruden was a disciple of the so-called West Coast offense and its horizontal, high-efficiency, ball-control-style of passing -- the style that works so well in today's game.
 
So Davis traded Gruden to Tampa Bay before the 2002 season. In doing so, Davis set the wheels in motion for his organization's demise.
 
A fish rots from its head, as they say. And Davis is at the head of the Oakland organization. He's largely responsible for the statistical rot of his once-proud and prolific passing franchise. JaMarcus Russell didn't do himself any favors with his performance in Oakland. But it seems he's just a victim of organizational forces larger than any one player.

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