Al Davis’ football knowledge is second only to Bill Walsh among those I have known well, but he does have his blind spots. The most notable is his preference for systems that worked for the Raiders 40 years ago.
But he remains adamant that the Raiders play a man-to-man defense, which is the main reason he’s keeping defensive coordinator Rob Ryan for another year. Ryan has kept the man-to-man defense, even though it isn’t working. So, the Raiders will stick with that defense for another season, instead of bringing in a coordinator who would go to the Tampa 2 zone scheme.
When I covered the Raiders from 1967-71, I loved the systems Davis had installed when he came to the team in 1963. The long-strike offensive system was very exciting. When the Raiders got as far as the opponent’s 40-yard line, they went forthe end zone. Defensively, they were just as aggressive, beating up quarterbacks, shutting down even the best receivers.
Both those systems required superior athletes, and the Raiders had them in abundance at the time.
Defensively, they had a pass rush, featuring Ben Davidson and Tom Keating, that set an NFL record 67 sacks in 1967. Behind them, Willie Brown and Kent McCloughan were great corners. Brown is in the Hall of Fame. McCloughan’s career was cut short by a knee injury, but he was a shutdown corner, the only one capable of stopping Lance Alworth.
The Raiders don’t have enough players like that now to run these systems.
The Walsh offensive system and the Tampa 2 zone defense, originated by Tony Dungy when he was coaching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, don’t require the very best athletes to be successful.
Similarly, Gruden had great success with Rich Gannon, who seldom threw anything resembling a classic pass but who was a great decision-maker.
Defensively, the Raiders now have one pass rusher, Derrick Burgess, two outstanding young outside linebackers, Thomas Howard and Kirk Morrison, and one outstanding corner, Nnamdi Asomugha. That’s hardly enough to run a good man-to-man defense.
But the Tampa 2 defense is designed to cover up weaknesses. Of course, superior athletes will make any defense look better, but in zone coverage, defensive backs aren’t required to be as quick because they’re covering areas, not trying to stay with a receiver’s moves.
The ability to cover up individual weaknesses is the reason so many teams have gone to the Walsh offense, and even Davis has conceded to that. That’s also the reason so many teams have gone to Dungy’s defense, but Davis remains a holdout.
Many Raiders fans have been irate because Ryan hasn’t been more flexible with his defense, but they are angry with the wrong man. With the Raiders, it always comes back to Davis and his clinging to the past.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.