Todd Downing has failed in his first year as offensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders, and the team can ill afford to see if things improve in year two. A change must be made.
The 2016 Oakland Raiders offense was among the most explosive in the NFL, finishing the year ranked 6th in total offense — 13th in passing, 6th in rushing — and 7th in points scored. Bill Musgrave’s offense, led by Derek Carr’s MVP-caliber season, scored 30 or more points in 8 of 16 games, and scored at least 27 in three other games. That’s 11 out of 16 games scoring at least 27 points, and they were 10-1 in those contests.
Carr put together a dazzling 28 to 6 TD/INT ratio, setting an NFL record for 4th quarter comeback victories in a single season along the way. Both Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree topped 1,000 yards on the season — something the Raiders hadn’t accomplished as a franchise since Jerry Rice and Tim Brown did so in 2001. Even Latavius Murray finished in the top five in the NFL in rushing touchdowns, with 12.
Yet, after the season ended in the Wild Card round, Musgrave’s contract was not renewed by Jack Del Rio. Oakland opted to let him walk while also deciding to retain Ken Norton Jr. as defensive coordinator — no hindsight necessary, this was completely backwards.
A big reason why the Raiders felt comfortable letting Musgrave walk was the presence of Todd Downing, QB coach and good buddy of the franchise quarterback. Rumor was that Downing was being pegged as a potential offensive coordinator for several teams in need. He was given plenty of credit for his work with Carr and he was viewed as a young, bright mind who would one day make a great offensive coordinator. So the Raiders were faced with a decision, and the decision made was to promote Downing in place of Musgrave.
With plenty of reason to be optimistic about the change, all of the right things were being said leading up to the season. Downing was going to “open up the offense” and Carr was going to be given more control at the line of scrimmage. The expectation was Downing would limit or improve the poorly executed screen plays many in Raider Nation criticized Musgrave for, and that he would also keep his foot on the gas pedal and scrap some of the conservativeness the offense would fall into from time to time.
The season started off on a high note, with a quality win and a nice showing from the offense in the win over the Titans. They scored 26 points, with 262 yards and 2 TDs from Carr and 18 carries for 76 yards from Marshawn Lynch in his debut. Crabtree caught 6 passes for 83 yards and Cooper hauled in 5 for 62 and a touchdown.
The next week, Oakland dropped a 45-spot on the lowly New York Jets. Carr completed 82 percent of his passes and threw 3 touchdowns, while the run game racked up 180 yards and 3 scores on just 27 carries. It was a dominant performance from start to finish, and it was exactly what Raider Nation hoped for when Downing took the reigns.
And then the honeymoon was over. On primetime television in the Nation’s capital, the Raiders got smacked. The offense totaled just 128 yards, with 96 of that officially coming from the passing game — 4 sacks for 22 yards count against that number. Oakland ran the ball 13 times for 32 yards, turned the ball over three times and scored only 10 points. It was an embarrassing game, but coming off a 45-point explosion, perhaps it was just one-off.
Nope. That loss would be the first of four consecutive losses in which the Raiders would score 10, 17 and 16 points against the Broncos, Ravens and Chargers, respectively. Oakland’s total yardage on offense in those games were 254, 245 and 274. For context, the Bengals have the NFL’s lowest yards per game average at 275.3. So in four straight losses, the offense performed statistically worse then the worst offense in the NFL.
Derek Carr suffered two transverse process fractures in his back against the Broncos, and his absence for two weeks certainly didn’t help the offense any. And even when he did return, not having the 2016 version of Derek Carr was understandable. So some felt compelled to give the Raiders a pass for this slide, but this wouldn’t be the last of the struggles.
On the bright side, though, the four-game losing streak would end in a thrilling 31-30 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, who were 5-1 coming into the game. Carr threw for 417 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs, and it feel like that MVP candidate from the previous year was back. Not only that, but D.C. and the Raiders finally got that Chiefs monkey off their back.
But it didn’t last long. With the struggles of the offense well documented in the latter half of the season, the common quote being tossed around was that the Raiders would “let it rip”. But that never came to fruition.
The Raiders would only top 17 points three times in their last nine games. In the final eight games to end the season, they only scored 10 combined points in the first quarter and they went scoreless in the 1st quarter for the 8th time on the season in the finale against the Chargers. The slow starts doomed this team early, and there wasn’t Carr’s 2016 magic to save them.
Oakland finished the year ranked 28th in giveaways, only one year removed for tying for the league lead in this category. They went from tied for the best team in taking care of the ball to being one of the five worst. And that is only the beginning of the problems this offense experienced in 2017.
Amari Cooper easily had a career worst year, the offensive line was still strong in pass protection but took a step back from their elite year in 2016. And where Oakland really struggled was with their transition to a zone run scheme, ranking 25th in the league in rushing yards per game. Wide receivers continued to drop passes and Jamize Olawale was nowhere to be found.
The magic number for Oakland was 20. When scoring 20 or more points, they were 6-0. When they failed to get to 20, they were 0-10.
The offense was much more conservative than it every was under Musgrave, and all of the creativity was gone. Downing nearly completely abandoned the play action, and Carr seemed lost in what was supposed to be a year he was a serious contender for the league’s most valuable player. The shots downfield were few and far between, and the offense turned in lackluster performance after lackluster performance.
The regression the offense saw under Downing was especially staggering considering the added talent in the offseason. Marshawn Lynch, Jared Cook and Cordarrelle Patterson were added to an already stacked offense, and another year of progression and cohesion was expected to launch this group into the top two of three best offensive units in the NFL.
Downing had never called plays at any level in his coaching career, and it showed. Halftime adjustments were non-existent, and there were no answers to any of the problems.
Maybe Downing will eventually be a quality offensive coordinator — to be fair, Musgrave (although experienced when the Raiders hired him) had a rough first season in Oakland before significantly improving in 2016. But the Raiders can’t wait to find out if Downing will improve.
This is a team with ready-to-win talent on offense. Only a few offenses in the NFL have the ceiling this group does when they are firing on all cylinders, and many of the players on this offense are in their prime. Waiting for an offensive coordinator to get up to speed is going to waste the best years of the group as it is currently assembled. Perhaps if the Raiders were in a full rebuild, with a QB still on a rookie contract and young, up-and-coming pieces around him, they could all grow together. But that was the Raiders two seasons ago.
What the Raiders need now is an offensive coordinator that is going to immediately pay dividends. This is the bread and butter of the team, and the offense getting back on track is their best hope to get back to the playoffs in 2018. The question of who that person is remains to be seen, especially because it hinges on whether or not Jack Del Rio gets to make that decision, but it’s clear Todd Downing isn’t the answer.