Dead man walking? Todd Downing strides confidently into the storm

A little more than 11 months after the Oakland Raiders promoted Todd Downing to offensive coordinator, the one-time rising star of the coaching staff is poised to become a Black Monday casualty and the latest in a long line of Jack Del Rio’s axed assistants.

If the stress of his tenuous employment status is weighing on Downing, the rookie OC certainly didn’t show it when he took the podium for what could be his final news conference as a Raider.

“Honestly, no,” Downing told reporters at the club’s Alameda headquarters when asked if he’d contemplated his future beyond the weekend.

“I live in the moment and I try to be the best version of myself I can be each individual day,” Downing said. “And my task right now is to get this offense ready to play the [Los Angeles] Chargers. Until Sunday is over, I really won’t even think about it.”

Del Rio, who would be working with his third offensive coordinator in a years’ time, should he relieve Downing, had glowing words for the young coach.

“Obviously, a lot of things have gone in a negative direction,” Del Rio said. “But I do know the guy is super bright. He’s going to be a really good coach in this league, and I believe in him.”

After watching the offense plunge from No. 6 in yards to No. 23 in the space of a season, Del Rio also had some not-so-glowing words.

“The reality is we’ve underperformed offensively this year, so there’s going to be naturally those kind of questions,” Del Rio said. “And I think we all understand that. I understand it. He understands it. But it doesn’t change my belief. It’s what I know, and there have been a tough set of circumstances and things have not gone real smooth and not what we’re looking for.”

A tough set of circumstances — that’s the operative phrase.

Marshawn Lynch, acquired to serve as the final piece, has been enigmatic. One week, he runs violently through defenses like his old self. Another week — or two — he’s more interested in extracting opposing players from on-field brawls.

Amari Cooper, beset by injuries and plagued by drops, has amassed less than half as many yards as a season ago.

Michael Crabtree has seen his catches, targets, yards and yards per reception drop, all while making a nasty habit of disappearing at the worst possible moment.

No circumstance has been more unfortunate for Downing — or the Raiders — than the devolution of Derek Carr. The quarterback never looked completely right in his return from a broken fibula last Christmas Eve — much less his transverse process fracture in his back in Week 4.

Unsurprisingly, Carr, even when asked directly, has never conceded that the pair of significant injuries have altered his quarterbacking style or shook his conviction in the pocket.

The Pro Football Focus numbers tell the story.

When kept clean, Carr’s QB rating sits at 100.3. Under pressure, the rating dives to 39.9.

With the offseason looming, Carr’s plan is to rest his body, but more importantly give himself a mental break.

While Carr is intent on boosting his own performance, he also faces the task of dealing with teammates who didn’t live up to expectations. Asked how he handles such situations without pointing fingers, Carr offered a revealing reply.

“You’ve just got to address it — like a coach would with a player,” Carr explained. “The best coaches just come to you and directly and just say, ‘Hey, man, this is what I expect from you.’”

“You have awkward conversations,” Carr continued. “I’ve had plenty of those. Awkward conversations that have to be had so that this team and this organization — going forward — we can be better.”

Awkward conversations.

Many suspect that those are the types of conversations that have been lacking between Carr and Downing — close friends but also player and coach.

How much has Carr’s tentativeness hindered Downing’s play calling, which has too often been unimaginative and predictable?

“Honestly, I’ve never discussed injuries with you guys up here,” Downing said.

“I’m not going to start now,” Downing added. “That was so long ago that it’s in the past.”

Pressed on the topic, Downing again declined to make excuses.

“No. I won’t say there’s any limitations on me,” Downing said. “I’ll take full responsibility for my role in this offense and leave it at that.”

Maybe Downing was covering for a friend. Or maybe the awkward conversations have already taken place behind closed doors.

Maybe Carr and Downing have told Del Rio that it’s the QB’s back, not the coach’s playcalling, that are limiting the offense.

Maybe Downing already knows he’s coming back for that very reason.

He offered a subtle hint, suggesting as much, when asked to explain what he’d have done differently if he could run 2017 back.

“There are some specifics throughout the course of the season that may be a little bit different play here a little bit different play there,” Downing said. “But it’s way too early, and like I said, my focus is on the Chargers. When we talk in the offseason, I can give you more analysis on things that we want to change.”

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