The Oakland Raiders' defense in 2011 was often just grasping at air as opposing players broke free.
General managers in the NFL are often prone to speak diplomatically, to pull their punches and communicate without really saying much.
Yet this week, rookie Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie has been speaking a bit more directly.
With Oakland’s training camp about to open, McKenzie has gone on record to say that he agrees with quarterback Carson Palmer’s assessment that the Raiders have a playoff-caliber team – a bold move for the leader of a franchise that slumped to 8-8 a year ago and yet again missed the playoffs.
Then, McKenzie expressed his surprise at how bad the Raiders’ defense was in 2011 and made the point that he was often baffled by its play under the previous coaching staff.
Both McKenzie statements came in conversations with longtime Bay Area News Group columnist Monte Poole, who gets credit for making McKenzie feel relaxed enough to speak freely, especially in questioning performance under the previous regime.
McKenzie’s new coaching staff is headed by Dennis Allen, who last coached the Denver Broncos defense and has come up through the defensive ranks. His background is far different than the offensive-minded Hue Jackson, who was let go after the 2011 season.
That was no accident. After looking at the Raiders’ performance in 2011, McKenzie believed the defense needed to be the No. 1 priority to build a foundation for success.
“In order to win not only championships but over the long term – to be a consistent winner – you have to be strong on defense,” McKenzie told Poole. “I think you win up front.”
McKenzie, after watching film of the Raiders, told Poole that he saw numerous problems pop up over and over again: poor miscommunication, gap control, coverage, lane responsibility and tackling.
“I don’t know (whether to blame) the players, the plays, the coaches or the technique,” McKenzie said. “I’m not assuming anything. But when I look at the tape, a lot of times I’m wondering: ‘Why did he do that?’ There are other times when I wonder: ‘Why couldn’t we make the tackle?’
“There were plays that could have been made, but a 3-yard gain turns into a 12-yard gain that continues the drive.”
McKenzie said the defensive breakdowns and penalties were consistently costly and said, “It’s hard for me to put that totally on the players.”
Oakland ranked 29th in total defense, 27th in pass and rush defense and set an NFL record for penalties and penalty yardage.
In short, it wasn’t pretty.
Now, after an offseason of change – both starting corners are gone, as is pass-rushing linebacker Kamerion Wimbley and a new scheme is in place – McKenzie is looking for improvement defensively while hoping the playmakers on offense can gel.
Even with the problems of the past, McKenzie says he’s seen growth that has him optimistic.
“I’m encouraged by what I saw during the offseason, No. 1 being that everybody seems to be on the same page,” McKenzie told Poole. “We just need to keep progressing. We can make this happen.”