Over at Grantland, the great Bill Barnwell wrote an interesting piece on the year-to-year ebb and flow of NFL teams, as it pertains to their records. The basis of his piece was examining whether 2nd half hot streaks carry over into the following season, but he also provided some good statistics on the well known idea that great teams regress and awful teams usually improve the following season.
As it applies to the Raiders, coming off a 4-12 season, Barnwell found that since 1990, 88.2% of 4 win teams improved their record the following season, 5.9% got worse, and 5.9% won 4 games again. So should we expect the Raiders to improve on 4-12 this upcoming season? Short answer is: yes. Given that 88.2% of 4 win teams are winning the more games the next season, it would seem logical to expect Oakland will be a better team this upcoming season.
The big X-factor for Oakland this season will be the quarterback situation. Matt Flynn will likely be the starter, and he’s an interesting case. In getting beaten out last season by rookie Russell Wilson, who finished fifth in both Pro Football Focus’ QB rating, as well as the standard NFL rating, Flynn went from a sought after free agent to a guy Ron Jaworski thinks is the worst starting quarterback in football. In reality, he probably falls somewhere in-between, and the Raiders could do much worse than Flynn in finding a stop-gap quarterback with a little bit of upside.
His situation has been compared to Matt Cassel’s in Kansas City, obviously worrisome, though we forget the Chiefs did win 10 games in 2010 with Cassel as the signal caller. The San Francisco 49ers improved considerably the past two seasons with Alex Smith behind center; with Smith being one who few would define as elite, or even above average. The quarterback position in the NFL is the most over-scrutinized entity in pro football. See Romo, Tony as an example of a quarterback who has been pegged with ridiculous labels due to the incompetence of his supporting cast. People hold quarterbacks to a ridiculous standard of individualism that is simply unfair. If Dan Marino was the Raiders quarterback last season, the team would’ve still been crappy because the skill position guys were below average and the offensive coordinator was a dolt.
Football is a team sport. Offensive execution is like a symphony; a collaboration of various parts playing different roles. A quarterback cannot be held responsible for a team’s success, and should not be held solely responsible for an offense’s success. If the receivers can’t catch or get open, there isn’t a whole lot a quarterback can do to change that, and if a defense can’t slow anybody down, there’s close to nothing a quarterback can do to help that. So why does Tony Romo get scrutinized for an 8-8 season when Dallas ranked 23rd in defensive DVOA?
To hinge the success of the offense on Flynn would be utterly misguided and won’t happen. Whoever the quarterback is will play second fiddle in the Raiders offense to Darren McFadden and the power running game, presumably in the mold of what San Francisco did with Alex Smith over the past two seasons. Flynn certainly isn’t a franchise guy, or hasn’t shown any sort of indication that he could be, but he’s not Terrelle Pryor either. Flynn’s sample size has been small, but all signs point to him being about a league average guy. It’s hard to win a Super Bowl with a league average quarterback, but winning more than four games with one playing in a managing role is certainly doable (anyone remember Jason Campbell?).
If a quarterback not named Flynn goes into the season as Oakland’s starter—and really I’m talking about Tyler Wilson because Terrelle Pryor isn’t winning that job—the situation becomes a bit more complicated. The success of last season’s unbelievable rookie quarterback class was definitely not the norm, and Wilson isn’t a sure thing by any measure. All bets are off if he goes into the season as the starter, but at this point that seems unlikely.
Last season, Football Outsiders had the Raiders offense as the 26th best in football in weighted DVOA (that’s really, really, really bad), and the worst rushing offense in the league. With Greg Knapp being canned (!) and Greg Olson being hired (meh, but he can’t really be worse than Knapp), the offense is poised to improve, although that might not be saying much. With Darren McFadden in a contract season coupled with the re-implementation of the power blocking scheme, it’s hard to envision the running game being as morbid as last season. Expect the running game to perform at a level closer to 2011 – where Oakland’s running game rated 11th in DVOA – than a repeat of 2012.
Defensively, Oakland offset losses on the defensive front by significantly bolstering their back seven. No longer will Raiders fans throw game-day meals at the television when Matt Giordano gets beat deep or when Rolando McClain runs the wrong way, because neither of those guys are on the team anymore! (and McClain retired). Through the draft and the free agent bargain bin, Oakland acquired actual football players in their back seven, and added significantly more depth – especially in the secondary.
Unlike last season when injuries depleted an already depleted defense, coordinator Jason Tarver now has the ability to implement creative blitz and coverage schemes that were unworkable last season due to personnel. The defensive side of the ball is really where Oakland will make strides this season, unless Tarver is a complete disaster or everybody gets injured again, both possible, but unlikely. It’d be shocking to see Oakland regress from it’s 29th ranked defense a year ago. They don’t have the pass rush to truly be an elite defense, but it’s very feasible they finish the year as an above average unit.
All signs point to Oakland being better than they were last season. Will that translate to five wins or more? I think it will. They had a very productive offseason by firing Knapp, improving their depth on both sides of the ball, and rebuilding a truly awful defense. 88.2% of all four-win teams improve on that total the next season, mainly because the NFL is a league of small sample sizes and high parity and variability. A few close games, outcomes that have proven to be mainly random, can make the difference between a 10-win season and a six-win season – see Detroit and Indianapolis last season.
It is difficult to consistently be horrible in the NFL, although the Raiders have done a good job of that for the last decade. Given the flukiness of last season’s victories over Pittsburgh and Jacksonville, it’s entirely possible the Raiders improve in every quantitative area and still finish with four wins. I think they’ll win more than that and history is on my side.