In his one season as offensive line coach in Atlanta in 2014, Mike Tice was almost a miracle worker.
Despite losing several starters to injury, Tice cobbled together a lineup of undrafted free agents, veterans and No. 1 pick Jake Matthews to produce an offensive line that played far above expectations.
Pro Football Focus ranked the Falcons unit 26th overall in the league last season, but that was likely a level far beyond what could be expected from the individual pieces on the unit. “The encouraging sign is they did get better as the season went on,” wrote Pro Football Focus evaluator Khaled Elsayed.
Now Tice, a longtime NFL assistant and onetime head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, is one of the key coaches on the new Raiders staff assembled by head coach Jack Del Rio. Del Rio is expected to lean heavily on Tice this coming season to sharpen the play of an offensive line that did a fairly solid job of protecting rookie quarterback Derek Carr in 2014, but was underwhelming as a run-blocking unit.
Del Rio and Tice have a long friendship – dating to their days as players (when Tice was a strong run-blocking tight end for the Vikings) – and Tice spent four years on Del Rio’s staff in Jacksonville. From 2006 to 2009, Tice was assistant head coach/offense and then assistant head coach/tight ends.
For most of his NFL coaching career, Tice has been an offensive line coach, working for the Vikings, Bears and Falcons in that capacity.
Bill Williamson, who covers the Raiders for ESPN.com, noted that Tice “is known as one of the best offensive line coaches in the league” while also being “known for his boisterous teachng skills.”
At 6-foot-7, Tice can be an intimidating presence, even while working with the biggest players on the team.
When Tice announced he was making the move to Oakland after a season in Atlanta, he indicated he’d already done a bit of homework on his new team.
“I have an initial feeling on the guys,” Tice said of the Raiders offensive line. “I think there is some talent here that we can work with. But I need o go and grade the whole season before giving a valid assessment of the group. No. 71 (Menelik Watson) and No. 66 (Gabe Jackson) look like they have the potential to be good players. The left tackle (Donald Penn), from what I’ve seen to this point on film, played solid.”
However, there are question marks hanging over the unit that Tice will need to answer. It’s still not certain who the starter will be at center, right guard and right tackle. Watson will have to fight off a challenge from Austin Howard at right tackle. And the move of Howard leaves a whole at right guard.
And, most importantly, can the line continue to protect Carr – now thought of as the franchise quarterback – while creating holes for a running game?
Tice has a big challenge ahead.