Exactly five minutes after the Oakland Raiders announced on Tuesday that the club had parted ways with Ken Norton Jr., Bruce Irvin, one of the generals of the silver-and-black defense, sent out a choice tweet — in all caps.
It was against that backdrop that John Pagano, whose eventual promotion to the defensive coordinator’s post appeared a fait accompli from the day he signed as an assistant head coach, officially took the reins.
“It wasn’t easy to do, in fact, it was very difficult to do,” head coach Jack Del Rio said during his midweek news conference. “I really felt I needed to shake things up. We couldn’t continue doing what we’ve been doing to this point.”
Under Norton, the Raiders ranked No. 26 in yards per game and No. 22 in points. Del Rio issued a simple edict for his longtime coaching friend.
“What I’m looking for, at the end of the day for us, is to play fast on defense,” Del Rio explained. “We weren’t playing fast enough. We weren’t playing confidently enough.”
Fast. Del Rio loves fast.
“I’ve been in this league a long time,” Rio said. “And I’ve been a part of some great defenses. And one common denominator is that they play fast. They play fast. And I want to see us play fast.”
Del Rio and Pagano, who first worked together on Mike Ditka’s staff with the New Orleans Saints in 1997, are already in lockstep — at least at the podium.
“I think the one thing we’re trying to truly establish, I think the main thing is … you’ve got to play with confidence,” Pagano said.
“You have to have that ability of going out there and knowing your assignment, and playing faster,” the defensive coordinator continued.
Pagano also wants more turnovers — just like Del Rio.
“The biggest indicator to me is the turnover ratio,” Del Rio said, when discussing the disappointing 4-6 start. “Last year, we were plus-10 at this point. Right now, we’re minus-9.
“A 19-turnover differential that is probably the biggest indicator about winning and losing in the National Football League.”
Then, there’s third downs.
“Another area that we’ve got to improve on and a tangible area we’ve got to be better at these last six games is third down,” Del Rio said.
Pagano, again, echoed the head coach.
“We’ve got to create turnovers,” Pagano. “I think that’s the biggest thing missing from any defense. You’ve got to get off the field on third down.”
Reviewing Pagano’s résumé, it’s difficult to assert that the coaching switch will precipitate an upswing in takeaways.
Now in his 22nd NFL season, the previous 15 with the San Diego Chargers and the final five as defensive coordinator, Pagano has never consistently coached up a group that delivers big turnover numbers.
In his middle three seasons with the Chargers, Pagano’s defense ranked No. 30, No. 27 and No. 24, respectively, in takeaways, as noted by the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Last year, Pagano’s Chargers were fundamentally bad, making an ugly habit of cratering late. The defense ranked No. 29 in points allowed, surrendering an average of 8.3 points per game in the fourth quarter — an AFC worst.
There is one stat that bodes well for the interception-less Raiders. Last season, the Chargers were tied for the NFL lead with 18 picks.
The brother of Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, one of the NFL’s most notorious speakers, the younger Pagano has yet to articulate a compelling philosophy on how to turn the missed opportunities into interceptions.
“I talked to these guys this week, we’ve got to do simple better. And what is simple?” Pagano said before answering his own question.
“It’s fundamentals of covering. It’s tackling. It’s communicating. It’s catching the ball when — we’ve had opportunities. It’s not like we’re out there struggling and straining to dive and lay out for the [ball]. It’s hit us in the hands.”
As Pagano attempts to infuse speed and takeaways into the defense, he’ll also be piloting a group whose leaders still appear loyal to his deposed predecessor — even if the stats say Norton was never particularly good at his old job.
The Raiders gave Irvin and Khalil Mack non-injury rest days on Wednesday. That marked the first practice Irvin had missed all season and the first time Mack was absent since Week 1.
On Friday afternoon, Del Rio insisted the absences were not related to Norton’s exit.
Mack told ESPN that he wanted to keep his thoughts on the defensive shakeup “private.” So, too, did Irvin.
“Nah, I ain’t talking, bruh,” Irvin said. “You know I ain’t talking about that today.”
Both Del Rio and Pagano addressed how they worked with any disgruntled players.
“I think the biggest thing is to understand the relationship, respect that, give him a little space, and then at the end of the day, we’re going to get on with our work,” Del Rio said.
Pagano hammered home the ruthless nature of the NFL.
“I told the guys the one thing about this business is … we’re all on one-day contracts,” Pagano said.
The next fleeting contract expires after the Week 12 matchup with Denver Broncos at the Coliseum. And everyone is under the microscope.
“Listen, I know one thing,” Del Rio said. “Nobody should feel comfortable because what I’ve been watching is not good enough. So, nobody should feel comfortable.”