SEATTLE — After concluding the preseason with a 22-6 loss to the Seahawks on Thursday night, Raiders coach Dennis Allen was asked if he knows who his Week 1 starting quarterback will be at Indianapolis.
“I’m not going to tell you, but yes,” he said.
Football coaches are funny creatures. They treat secrecy as if it were currency and cling to the concept as if it were gold. Still, you would have to be deaf (to the players), dumb (to the realities of the Raiders’ situation) and blind (to the playmaking abilities of the candidates) to believe Allen should go with anyone but Terrelle Pryor, the unpolished passer yet gifted runner who has provided the biggest spark to the offense.
It’s true that Pryor’s numbers were awful in his only preseason start on Thursday. He completed just 3 of 8 passes for 31 yards with no touchdowns, one interception and a 9.9 rating. By artwork standards, it was a finger-painting. But what the numbers do not say is that the Raiders’ blueprint for winning has blown up. They entered training camp wanting to be stingy on defense and mistake-free on offense; that way they could get to the fourth quarter and have an opportunity to make a play and win. But in four exhibition games the defense allowed scores on 16 of 18 first-half series, excluding a kneel down. It gave up seven touchdowns and nine field goals, forced just one punt and had another series end with a blocked field goal.
There’s little reason to believe the unit, which could have as many as nine new starters, can flip a switch at the beginning the regular season. Consequently the Raiders are going to have to be more dynamic on offense, which hurts Matt Flynn. His advantage over Pryor is his experience and efficiency. That, however, works against him if the offense is playing catch-up, particularly with a line that might be among the worst in the league (especially after left tackle Jared Veldheer was lost until at least the midseason with a torn left triceps).
It’s little wonder that the word most often heard in the Raiders’ locker room after the game—and in private conversations with players beforehand—was playmakers. As in, We need them. Pryor is just that, even if the numbers from Thursday don’t reflect it. When he’s on the field there’s a feeling that something positive could happen. On any given play he could carry the ball 70 yards, and, unlike Flynn, he has the arm strength to stretch the field in the passing game.
That’s critical because the Raiders sorely lack playmakers on offense. Running back Darren McFadden has the ability, but he has yet to play a full season since entering the league in 2008. Wideout Denarius Moore is another, but he tends to disappear for stretches. Running back Marcel Reece can pose a matchup problem for defenses in the passing game. There are no established threats beyond them.
Behind a stout line, with a stingy defense, the Raiders could make it work with Flynn. But that’s connect-the-dots stuff, and Oakland lacks the necessary dots. Which is why they need someone like Pryor, a 6-4, 233-pound signal-caller who can improvise on a broken play to create something beautiful, as he did on Thursday night when he gained 25 yards on a scramble.
His rawness as a passer works against him, although he is improving. On Thursday he was hurt by a couple of drops, and his interception was the result of being late with the delivery on a deep pass down the sideline. Pryor attributed his tardiness to being inexperienced throwing to double-moves from the pistol formation, which is what was called on that play.
While he will never be confused with Tom Brady, the Patriots icon with whom he worked out part of the offseason, he also should not be viewed as the newborn colt who stumbled around the pocket at Ohio State. His abilities as a passer, and his understanding of the passing game, have increased exponentially since entering the league two years ago. Much of it stems from his work this offseason with Tom House, a mechanics/movement coach whose clients includes Brady, Saints QB Drew Brees and Chiefs QB Alex Smith.
His company, 3D QB, evaluates each athlete’s throwing motion and functional arm strength, then develops programs to help build on strengths and correct weaknesses. It also develops a nutritional plan for participants and creates a mental/emotional profile. Pryor spent roughly three months working with House, sometimes two and three times a week.
“Pretty special kid,” House says of Pryor. “The awesome thing about him is that he made adjustments almost immediately. He was hungry. He was willing to give what we offered a shot. The combination of his willingness to embrace the science and make it a little bit better for him physically and mechanically turned into some positive feedback real quick.”
For instance, Pryor learned that he was leaving his chest open, which made him late with his delivery. “So when I was coming down to throw with my left arm, my right arm was saying it’s time to go, the timing wasn’t right,” he said. “[House] kind of helped me with that.”
“I tell all the great ones and those who strive to be great: Problem identification is half your solution,” House says. “If we have a toolkit to help you with your solution, that’s where the relationship builds. When we identified the few small problems that Terrelle had, and showed him the toolkit, it was unbelievable how quick he made adjustments. He’s very authentic. He can actually look at his strengths and weaknesses and learn how to make the adjustments. That’s what was cool working with him.”
There will be growing pains if the Raiders go with Pryor. Their initial plan was to create a package of plays for him, many relying on his athleticism. But that has been adjusted in recent weeks. More is being put on his plate. Viewed as a role player coming into camp, he’s now a potential leading man. So much so that Allen got upset with him Thursday night for taking an unnecessary hit on a bootleg. That never would have happened last year, or even a few weeks ago in the first preseason games. But times are changing.
Allen knows Pryor’s value is now greater than a dozen or so plays. He didn’t say as much Thursday night, but look for him to do so in the next few days. It’ll be the right call.