Every game and every season in the NFL is a challenge, but this year has been especially challenging for Oakland Raiders assistant coach Tony Sparano.
Sparano, the former head coach of the Miami Dolphins, happens to be in charge of the Raiders’ offensive line. He was hired by head coach Dennis Allen this past offseason to coach up a unit that seemed to have lost its way in 2012 when a zone-blocking scheme was put into place – and failed -- under offensive coordinator Greg Knapp and line coach Frank Pollack, who were fired.
This year, new coordinator Greg Olson and Sparano went back to the familiar power-blocking scheme, and it was thought that Sparano – who’s had some good success through the years coaching the offensive line (especially in Dallas) – would impart a more physical style to the unit.
Going into training camp, he had a potential Pro Bowler at left tackle in Jared Veldheer, a standout center in Stefen Wisniewski, a solid veteran at right tackle in Kahlif Barnes and a physically gifted but raw second-round pick in Menelik Watson, who might be able to make an impact as a rookie.
Instead, things went south quickly. Veldheer was lost in training camp, Watson hardly has been able to practice because of injuries, Wisniewski has missed time and Barnes had to be flopped to the left side because of need. Meanwhile, some free-agent veterans picked up to provide depth were pressed into action – and they, too, were hurt.
So, each week Sparano has had to adapt and overcome, piecing together a patchwork quilt. Some weeks, the line has been remarkably successful, such as in the Raiders’ victory over the Chargers on Oct. 6. At other times, such in Oakland’s loss to Kansas City on Oct. 13 – when the line couldn’t protected quarterback Terrelle Pryor – it’s been a mess.
This week, as the 2-4 Raiders prepare to host the Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2) on Sunday, the Raiders were happy to welcome back Wisniewski to practice, and he’s expected to play.
But Sparano told Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.com that this season has been one of the biggest challenges of his long NFL career.
“This has been the most moving pieces … that I’ve been around,” Sparano said. “With the amount of injuries and, at times, the way that they’ve happened, it’s been a challenge, but it’s not an excuse. There’s no excuse. From our end, we talk about two things: we make progress, not excuses, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Wisniewski’s return helps, but until Veldheer returns and Watson gets healthy enough to practice, the line will remain a shadow of what it could have been this season.
Still, Oakland is working with what it has, and the Raiders have made progress offensively this season with the emergence of Pryor. If the line can give him enough time to throw, he’s been able to create and keep plays alive.
Injuries happen, though, and Pryor says the Raiders can’t stop to worry about their missing pieces. They have to keep focusing on the game at hand.
“It doesn’t really matter who’s up front because I believe in all of them,” Pryor told Gutierrez. “Some guys may be a little more talented, yes, but I believe in all those guys, and I think they’re going to show this Sunday.”