Don’t Ditch Dennis

December 19, 2013 by Jim Trotter

The Raiders’ fourth consecutive loss of the season wasn’t just bad. It was historically bad.

They surrendered a franchise-record 56 points, threw five interceptions and lost two fumbles last Sunday against the Chiefs. They gave up 21 points in the first 7:33 of the game, allowed running back Jamaal Charles to gain 215 total yards and score five touchdowns on 16 touches, and committed 10 penalties for 90 yards.

The post-game focus was largely on coach Dennis Allen, who is 8-22 in two seasons on the job. Among the vitriol from Raider Nation: Doesn’t have guys ready to play … Can’t make adjustments … Has lost the locker room … Needs to be fired. 

The last comment was particularly interesting because it’s so ridiculous.  Fired? Are memories really that short? Let’s revisit the mess he inherited. The Raiders:

  • Were coming off their ninth straight non-winning season, which included a league-record seven consecutive years of at least 11 defeats;
  • Were $31 million over the salary cap going into the 2012 season, and this year are carrying nearly $55 million in dead money—$11.5 million more than any other team and nearly 44 percent of their adjusted cap;
  • Had no selections in the first three rounds of the 2012 draft until they received a compensatory pick at the end of Round 3 and have gotten virtually nothing of consequence from this year’s first-round pick, D.J. Hayden;
  • Had only two players left from the 10 first-round selections that were made from 2001-10, six of which were among the first eight picks.

Did anyone really believe Allen was going to work magic under those conditions? With the organization embarking on what owner Mark Davis recently called a “two-year deconstruction” that began when Allen was hired, you didn’t need bifocals to see the process was going to be painful. In fact, I’d argue that the team’s 3-4 start this season—with an offense and defense whose collective salaries rank last in the league, by a large margin—was more of a testament to the staff’s ability than the club’s subsequent 1-6 mark is an indication of its deficiencies.

Firing Allen would be a mistake. He’s respected by peers around the league and his players in the locker room.

“Dennis doesn’t have everything he needs at this point,” safety Charles Woodson told me Sunday. “Really, he deserves that shot to come back. It’s not fair to criticize him now. These last couple of years they’ve been making changes around here to put themselves in a position to move forward, and next year they’re going to be able to do a lot of things as far as bringing guys in to make the Oakland Raiders a formidable team.

“I understand nobody has patience in this league, and I understand the frustration of the fans. But with the changes that’ll be made, he’ll have what he needs to make this team what he believes it can be. He deserves that shot.”

But will Allen get it? It would be a bad look for Davis and general manager Reggie McKenzie if he doesn’t. Both have said they didn’t expect the Raiders to emerge from the other end of the tunnel until Year 3 of the rebuild, which is next season.

Allen’s future is a topic because Davis has made it so. Unlike his repeated support of McKenzie, he has never publicly gotten behind Allen. He typically says he’ll evaluate the situation after the season, but in the meantime he wants to see progress.

Dennis Allen (left) had been a defensive coordinator for one season before Reggie McKenzie (center) and Mark Davis hired him in January 2012. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Dennis Allen (left) had been a defensive coordinator for one season before Reggie McKenzie (center) and Mark Davis hired him in January 2012. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Those comments aren’t lost on the players, who believe Allen is not the problem.“He puts us in a position to win,” linebacker Kevin Burnett said. “What we do with that position is up to us.”

For instance, Jamaal Charles took a screen pass 49 yards for a touchdown in Week 15 despite three defenders being in a position to make plays. Burnett was tied up with a blocker, which should’ve freed cornerback Phillip Adams or safety Brandian Ross to bring down Charles. However both defensive backs took poor angles—Adams peeked inside instead of maintaining outside contain, and Ross broke to the ball too quickly and got stuck in traffic—giving Charles an avenue down the sideline.

Also, the defense had a chance to get off the field late in the third quarter of a Week 13 game against Dallas, which had rallied from a 21-7 deficit to tie the score. But on third-and-6 at the Cowboys 39, Burnett and Ross whiffed on tight end Jason Witten in the flat. He rumbled 19 yards for the first down, and six plays later DeMarco Murray scored the decisive touchdown on a 7-yard run.

The reality is the Raiders simply don’t have enough talent to consistently win games. They lost strong safety Tyvon Branch, one of their best players, to a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2. They’ve gotten little production from Hayden. They’re starting an undrafted rookie at quarterback. And nearly all of the nine new starters on defense were signed because they could be acquired on the cheap.

The defense played well early in the year, but physical and mental fatigue is setting in because the unit lacks depth and guys are being asked to push their bodies to places they’ve never been. Tackle Pat Sims has started 14 games this year; his previous career high was six. End Jason Hunter has started nine games; last year with Denver he started two. And Ross has taken more than 900 defensive snaps; last year he was on the field for 174.

The end result likely will be a second straight 4-12 season, but firing Allen would be a mistake. He’s respected by peers around the league and his players in the locker room. Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer, who demanded a trade out of Oakland after last season because of how a contract matter was handled, told me in training camp he believes Allen is a good coach who’ll be successful. Another thing to consider: Firing Allen would mean each of the Raiders’ past seven coaches failed to last more than two full seasons.

“I didn’t know anything about DA when I got here,” linebacker Nick Roach said. “But just seeing how he has handled this progression, I honestly do believe he’s the right guy for the job. He’s realistic, but at the same time he expects the most out of us, which any good coach would. He knows our potential; it’s just a matter of being together enough and building around the core so that everybody is on the same page. I can’t imagine a change being very productive.”

If nothing else, the offseason is going to paint a clearer picture of Davis. When he assumed control of the team after the death of his father, Al Davis, in October 2011, he said he wanted to hire a general manager who’d have full control of football operations. That included the hiring and firing of coaches. Or did it? We could soon find out.

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