Let the Great Experiment Begin
By Brandon Castel
It’s happening now. There’s no stopping it. Not in the world of Al Davis, where his vibrant, often eccentric, spirit lives on in the colors of Silver and Black.
Photo by Dan Harker
He built that empire, in many ways, first as a coach and then, especially, as an owner after his brief stint as commissioner of the American Football League. Davis was a larger-than-life personality, and his mantra of “Just Win, Baby” has hovered over a team that has not had a winning season since 2002.
That was the year after Davis decided to trade Jon Gruden to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After all, what owner hadn’t wanted to trade their head coach, especially after back-to-back AFC West division titles and a run to the AFC Championship game in 2000.
Gruden was replaced by offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, setting off a string of epically poor coaching hires that included two years of Norv Turner, one year of Art Shell, the disastrous Lane Kiffin experiment, Tom Cable’s assault on his own coaching staff, an 8-8 season under Hue Jackson and now a 4-12 year under first-year head coach Dennis Allen.
The former defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos could be one-and-done in Oakland. He was hand-picked by new Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, but he won half as many games in his first year as Jackson, who was run out of Oakland after just one season.
How Did We Get Here
Now the Raiders may be on the verge of another grand experiment, this time involving a familiar name for Ohio State fans. In his final days as the owner of the Raiders – which would also prove to be his last days on this earth – Davis made a decision to trade for Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer.
It was a very Oakland Raiders decision to go after the former USC quarterback who was sitting on his couch at home after deciding to retire from football rather than taking another snap for the Bengals and detested owner Mike Brown.
Palmer was 32 when the Raiders acquired him, less than three years removed from a devastating knee injury that cost him the entire 2008 football season in Cincinnati. But the Raiders backed up their truck full of draft picks and emptied the Al Davis trust fund to sign Palmer, the savior of a fledgling program desperately searching for a spark.
The Raiders renegotiated Palmer's contract, giving him a $2.5 million guaranteed deal for the rest of the 2011 season, $12.5 million with $5 million guaranteed in 2012, $13 million in 2013 and $15 million in 2014.
In major league baseball, where contracts like those are all but guaranteed, that would be a death sentence for most teams. Palmer has not been the savior in Oakland, far from it. He has put up some gaudy passing yards – primarily because the Raiders are always out of games they are furiously trying to pass their way back into.
After throwing 20 interceptions during his final season in Cincinnati, Palmer has thrown 30 passes to opposing players during his two seasons in Oakland. He has a knack for finding the wrong guy at the wrong time, and a penchant for complete meltdowns that often end with an opposing defensive back racing down the sideline for a touchdown.
Let the Experiment Begin
Cracked ribs knocked him out of Oakland’s 17-6 loss to Carolina in week 16, and left coach Dennis Allen with an important decision for week 17, possibly the final game of his tenure in Oakland, against rival San Diego.
Turn the offense back over to Matt Leinart, another USC star who has fizzled out as a starting quarterback in the NFL, or open the door for Terrelle Pryor, a young, athletic quarterback out of Ohio State who was sitting on the bench waiting for his chance.
The Raiders gave up their third-round pick in this past draft to take Pryor in the supplemental draft last August. He had been run out of Columbus by an NCAA scandal in which Pryor had sold his OSU memorabilia for cash or free tattoos. There were rumors swirling of a much worse scandal involving Pryor just beneath the surface, and Jim Tressel – his mentor and the man who brought him to Columbus – was forced to resign over the incident.
What was supposed to be Pryor’s big chance – a chance to live up to his hype by winning a national title, and maybe a Heisman Trophy – went up in smoke. He left Columbus, practically in the middle of the night, and hired notorious agent Drew Rosenhaus to help him weather the storm of making such an unceremonious jump to the NFL.
Second Chances Come and Go
Ohio State fans vowed to forget him after he was banned from the program for five years. The stain he left behind was irreversible, though most things never really are. It was a little less than a decade ago when OSU fans were celebrating the demise of Maurice Clarett after he attempted to trash the program on his way to federal prison.
Now Pryor may get his second chance. The Raiders are still on the hook for three more years with Palmer, who turned 33 this week. He still has a million dollar arm, but the NFL is rapidly migrating away from statuesque quarterbacks like Palmer, especially ones who make as many mistakes as he does.
The arrival of guys like Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick has issued in a new era of NFL football. How long will it stay? No one can say for sure, but these guys are different than mobile quarterbacks of the past. An overnight sensation, Griffin, who won the Heisman Trophy at Baylor last year, has become an immediate fan-favorite in the NFL.
His jersey has sold more times this season than any single player since the NFL started keeping track of that nearly a decade ago. He runs an exciting offense in Washington, and the same could be said for Kaepernick in San Francisco. Former Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh made a largely unpopular decision to go with the second-year QB out of Nevada over his veteran, Alex Smith, after Smith was injured midway through the season.
Could the same type of decision be coming in Oakland? Allen at least wanted to find out what he might have in Pryor, so he started him on Sunday against the Chargers.
“The athleticism was good,” Allen said of Pryor, the former No. 1 overall prospect in the country out of Jeannette, Pa.
“At times, he threw the ball really well. I think there were a few accuracy issues that he could've been better on. I would've like to see him get out of bounds there before the half to give us an opportunity to try a long field goal.”
Pryor finished with 49 yards and a touchdown on the ground Sunday. He also threw for 150 yards and two more scores, including a 5-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that gave Oakland a chance at an onside kick in the final two minutes of the game.
“Then again, he made some plays,” Allen added.
“The scramble late in the game and hitting Denarius Moore in the back of the end zone, that was a heck of a football play. With Terrelle, with any young quarterback, you take a little bit of the good with the bad. Overall, I thought not bad.”
‘Not bad’ isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, but it’s a good start for Pryor, who never really developed into the type of quarterback Ohio State fans were hoping he could be for the Buckeyes.
As a junior in 2010, Pryor passed for over 2,700 yards and threw 27 touchdowns for a one-loss football team. He had 11 picks, but he also ran for over 700 yards with another four scores on the ground.
He was almost always the best athlete on the field, something that will not be the case at this next level. The only way Pryor can become an effective quarterback along the lines of a Cam Newton or RG3 at the next level is if he has learned something about reading defenses.
His mechanics are never going to be exceptional, but he showed on that touchdown pass to Moore that athleticism can make up for some of that. Nothing can make up for poor decision-making, as we saw Sunday night in the Cowboys’ loss to Washington.
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