Back To The Bay: Reap What You Sow


Being the good husband I attempt to be, I torture myself by watching my wife’s favorite programming while I write. Tonight, it is the season premiere of “Kendra On Top”. There is a part where Kendra goes into her back yard and the paparazzi has a helicopter and drones circling her home for pictures. That is sort of how I imagine things were for Dennis Allen with the calls for his job continue to reign down from Raider Nation. Those calls were met with a swift execution by General Manager Reggie McKenzie once the team got back to the Bay Area after their humiliating loss in London at the hands of the Dolphins.

Most fans are happy Dennis Allen is gone. Personally, I really have no feelings either way. I was optimistic coming into this season and he was unable to get the results he needed to keep his job. Firing him was a logical decision. Dennis Allen had the right demeanor to get this franchise through the dismantling it needed, but he has shown that he simply was not the man to go forward. Regardless of what brought Dennis Allen down, and personally I believe it was his reluctance to control his coordinators, the culture of this team demands something different. Luckily for Raiders fans, Reggie McKenzie was able to convince owner Mark Davis of the necessity to retain Tony Sparano.

Introducing Tony Sparano

A significant part of the offseason was retaining the top position coaches that would make a difference for the Raiders. At the top of that list was offensive line coach and assistant head coach Tony Sparano. Sparano has a very long resume that includes nearly four seasons as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Although his overall record was not exceptional, his first season in Miami he took a team that went 1-15 the season before to an impressive 11-5.

What many people forget or do not know about about Sparano is the fact he was the offensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys in 2006. During that season, the Cowboys started Drew Bledsoe for the first six games, but turned to a young unknown quarterback from Eastern Illinois University named Tony Romo. In 2006 the Cowboys produced nearly 3900 yards passing and over 1900 yards rushing. Oddly enough, in 2012 when Sparano was hired by the New York Jets to be the offensive coordinator, the team was only able to produce 2900 yards through the air and 1800 yards on the ground.

I have heard many Jets fans bemoan the play calling of Tony Sparano and have even heard some of them say he put offense in New York back ten years, but when I watched the offense he called, I saw a playcaller who knew he lacked any talent at quarterback or wide receiver. If there are two things I am certain of from watching games of Sparano’s Dolphins or his Jets in preparation of this column, they are 1) consistent aggressiveness, 2) he adapts to what his players do well. When I watched the 2009, 2010, and 2011 Dolphins I noticed on both sides of the ball that the playcalling was very aggressive. Sparano accepted the risk in order to make plays and sometimes it backfired, but generally speaking the team responded by playing fast.

One can ever be sure how a head coach will approach matters of scheme and playcalling, but Sparano made it clear that he holds different philosophical beliefs than Dennis Allen. I have always been under the assumption that Allen allowed his coordinators a large scope of freedom. He said on no uncertain terms that this was the case and his background of head coaches whom he learned from tended to be from that school of thinking. Sparano says he will allow his coordinators to call the plays, and I have no reason to question that, but I do believe he will emphasize to both Greg Olson and Jason Tarver certain types of plays and ways to adapt their playcalling to his requirements. This was the step I emphasized in this column for Allen to take for some time and as I said before, I believe his reluctance to do so cost him his job.

I took some time while I watched tape to create some screen caps to help demonstrate some of the more interesting aspects of what Sparano did in his past jobs.

This first screen capture may seem simple, but it lays it pretty obviously what the basis of Sparano’s offense always has been and will be. The power run game is something the Raiders have turned to and invested significant resources into. You can see here with the Dolphins each lineman was responsible for a man and the pulling guard is allowed to get on a linebacker or defensive back. This play did not turn out well after developing nicely early on. Jake Long actually gets manhandled by Vince Wilfork and Brown gets slowed down then swallowed up.

I chose to use several screen caps from the same game for simplicity purposes. This is the same Patriots game in 2009 when the Dolphins went 7-9. It may be hard to see, but this is a first down play from midfield and we can see the Dolphins using playaction to set up the defense for a deep shot. On this play Henne is reading his man on the lower part of the picture who is running a vertical, but when he sees him carrying a safety deep he immediately goes to his second read who is the outside man to his left. He ends up completing an easy 14 yard deep curl. This is something I hope to see much more of from the Raiders offense with Sparano directing traffic. Being aggressive like this on first down even if you are forced to take a shorter completion is how an offense can keep a defense on it’s heels.

The picture here is actually from a game in 2012 when Sparano was the offensive coordinator of the New York Jets. What I find intriguing about this play is how it is designed to attack every level and give options for every read. Similarly to the previous picture, this too is a first down play. Here Sanchez is in shotgun and is given the option of attacking wherever his best option is. A strong armed and more aggressive quarterback may consider taking the shot deep with the vertical route at the top of the picture. The post down low is not going to work because the cornerback has inside leverage. There is a safety lurking to take away the deep in, but with the shallow crossing routes Sanchez has an out. He ends up throwing an ugly pass for a simply five yard gain with defenders sitting on the short routes, but there are two things in this play concept we have not seen much of this season.

Firstly, Olson has a complex scheme that can be very aggressive, but what he lacks are plays that attack every level of the defense at once and allow the quarterback the option to choose where the ball should go. Many times with Olson when we do see a more complicated route concept, the deep men or other routes are either distractions or designed to free up a certain receiver. This at times can dramatically help a young quarterback and was one of the main reasons why Josh Freeman had success early in his career especially his second season. The biggest issue, is that sort of approach can end up bogging down and becoming predictable. That is where the Raiders are now, and the hope for Raiders fans is Sparano can make tweeks to what Carr knows and to Olson’s playcalling in order to allow Carr the freedom to be more diverse. This is something I have beat the drum for going on a month now.

The second aspect of this play concept that is dramatically different than what we have seen in Oakland is the outlet route. In general, Olson’s approach to the outlet receiver comes from a traditional west coast offense perspective. Similar to what we may have seen under Gruden, Olson allows the backs after chipping to come free underneath as a last ditch option. Watching Sparano’s offense I notice that he regularly uses the tight end in some short crossing route as his outlet receiver and in an absolute worst case scenario, a back can turn and become a receiver. This approach although only a minor change, can add a significant boost to the offense by allowing the check down man to be someone moving into space rather than an idle back waiting for a reception.

Going back to the 2009 Dolphins game against the Patriots, this is a look at the general approach defenses has under Sparano. In his press conference, Sparano said he had experience coaching defense which is not surprising for someone that has been in the NFL as long as he has been. This is a common look I saw in several games that Sparano coached in Miami. After the 2009 season Paul Pasqualoni left the team and was replaced by Mike Nolan. Nolan ran a system that incorporated more of a hybrid look, but the scheme and playcalling was extremely similar. This leads me to believe that Sparano maintains some level of control on his defensive coordinator which in the case of the Raiders needs to happen. Unless of course I am wrong and Dennis Allen was the reason for the poor playcalling recently, but either way the Raiders should have a more aggressive defense.

One of the reasons why I spent so much time watching film and picking out captures from this particular game is the matchup of a rookie cornerback in Vontae Davis going against Randy Moss, and to see how they approached that matchup. Here you see the slot cornerback who is Welker getting press coverage while the rookie Vontae Davis is taking Moss in single man coverage without press. Here they are counting on the athleticism of a rookie cornerback to be equal to that of Moss and although he is not regularly beat off the ball, he does give up the catch. For me, the important point is that each cornerback is doing what is in his skill set to do.


I honestly do not know what to tell Raider Nation. That is hard to say as someone who writes articles that are opinion based. It is not easy to sit here behind my computer and write a column that lacks any real direction. I am generally an optimist and I continue to be one. I truly believe the talent on this team is good enough to win six games. The Bills, Browns, Chargers, Chiefs, Rams, and Cardinals are all teams that are beatable and are still on the schedule. What Sparano can get out of this team however is a complete unknown.

What we do as fans know of Sparano is that he is a “no nonsense” kind of coach. He is a loud and talkative leader that is known for demanding a great deal from his players. There is no coaching style that is “right” or “correct”. Raiders fans have to come to the conclusion that the team needs some sort of spark that has to come from a loud head coach. Let us not forget that a person in the running for the “World’s Most Understated Personality” won two Lombardi’s for Al Davis. What made Flores the right man for the job was his calm and collected demeanor. He was the calm in the middle of a storm of chaos. What the Raiders have become is a team of good character guys that are mostly team players who have yet to become vocal leaders.

In short, what this team and possibly this franchise needs is a swift kick in the butt, and Tony Sparano can provide that. Interim head coaches have a tough job ahead of them, but any little hope he can give this franchise and fan base will be much appreciated. If Tony Sparano can win four to six games he needs to be retained going into the 2015 season. He will be under contract and whoever becomes the Raiders head coach will be able to utilize this experience to their significant benefit. All we can really do is see what happens. Dennis Allen reaped what he sowed, but over time his reign will be known as the years the Raiders finally pressed the reset button and put this franchise back on stable footing. As for Dennis Allen, do not worry about him, all Raiders ex-coaches fall up and he will be a head coach again.