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Is 2023 a make-or-break season for Josh McDaniels in Las Vegas?

With training camps throughout the league underway, I’m doing some preview articles on individual teams. Here’s a look at the Las Vegas Raiders.

Back in 2009, Josh McDaniels became the youngest head coach in NFL history when, at age 33, he was hired to that position by the Denver Broncos. McDaniels was coming off of a successful run in New England, where he’d helped build a prolific offense. In Denver, the hope was he would replicate that success, albeit with a less talented core.

The Broncos went 8-8 that year, which wasn’t bad considering their starting quarterback was Kyle Orton. Hopes were high that they would build on that success in McDaniels’ second season. Instead, things went south. Denver was 3-9 when they fired McDaniels in Week 13. It took him 12 years to land another head coaching job, although to be fair, he had several opportunities but chose instead to stay in New England on a second stint as Bill Belichick’s play-caller. Tom Brady’s move to Tampa Bay sparked an interest in taking another crack at being the head man. And so, in 2022, McDaniels was hired to that position in Las Vegas.

Expectations were high upon McDaniels’ arrival. The Raiders had a Pro Bowl quarterback in Derek Carr, a Pro Bowl tight end in Darren Waller and had just signed one of the league’s best wide receivers (Davante Adams). But they went 2-7 in their first nine games as Carr and McDaniels struggled to get in sync. They were hot some weeks, like when they scored 32, 29, and 30 points in three straight games against Denver, Kansas City and Houston. But then they went cold, getting shutout at New Orleans and mustering just 39 total points in losses to the Rams, Steelers and Chiefs.

That offensive inconsistency landed Carr in the doghouse. He was benched and rendered inactive for the final two games of the season following a 13-10 loss in Pittsburgh in which he threw for just 174 yards and three interceptions. Carr’s exit from Las Vegas was a formality at that point, and the Raiders signed ex-49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to supplant him. Garoppolo has experience with McDaniels from their time together in New England between 2014-2016, and the hope is he will execute McDaniels system better than did Carr.

On paper, this makes sense. Carr is a bit of a gunslinger while McDaniels prefers a precise, read-based passing attack. His system requires quarterbacks to make full-field progression reads, as well as heavy use of pre-snap motion to try to create mismatches for the offense. It’s a complicated system for several reasons. One is that full-field reads require a thorough understanding of coverages. With the way today’s defenses have mastered the art of coverage disguise, that has become increasingly difficult. Many offensive coordinators are finding ways to use half-field progressions, or to use high-low principles to isolate specific defenders, rather than to read the entire field.

Pre-snap motion can be confusing for quarterbacks as well. When the offense motions, the defense moves with it. This disrupts a quarterback’s ability to get a clear pre-snap picture of its structure, which can make diagnosing coverage challenging. Ben Roethlisberger famously disliked pre-snap movement in Pittsburgh for just this reason. Roethlisberger liked to let the play clock run down to the last possible second so he could take a mental snapshot of the defense prior to snapping the ball. With late movement by the defense in response to motion, that snapshot becomes blurry. For many quarterbacks, a static picture and the comfort of knowing where to go with the football is preferable to whatever mismatches shifting and motioning creates.

McDaniels had Brady in New England, of course, which helped his system thrive. Carr struggled to master it in his one season with McDaniels. Enter Garoppolo, whose familiarity could make him a better fit.

The offense is only part of the concern in Las Vegas. A bigger problem last season was the defense, which finished 28th overall in yards allowed and produced the fewest turnovers in the league. Vegas added a potential star pass rusher in Tyree Wilson with the seventh pick in the draft. Pairing Wilson with Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones will give them one of the best pass-rushing situations in the league. They also added veteran safety Marcus Epps in free agency as well as cornerback David Long and linebacker Robert Spillane. It may not be enough, however, to move the needle much on their defensive performance from a season ago.

So, will McDaniels turn things around in Year 2? Or will the situation deteriorate like it did for him in Denver, leading to another quick dismissal? That’s tough to say. The schedule is manageable. Vegas crosses over with the NFC North, which is not exactly loaded this year. And their out of division games include home contests against Pittsburgh, Green Bay, New England, the Jets, the Giants and Minnesota, all of whom have to cross multiple time zones to get there. If you put any stock in the “cross-country games put teams at a competitive disadvantage” theory, that could benefit the Raiders.

Still, the AFC West belongs to the Chiefs, and the Chargers are a potential playoff team. Throw in the fact that Denver is likely to be much better under Sean Payton and it stands to reason the Raiders would do well to win two of their six division games. In a loaded AFC, 10 wins feels like a minimum requirement for Wild Card qualifiers. Vegas will be hard-pressed to reach that number. If the defense doesn’t improve, and the often-injured Garoppolo gets hurt or struggles to play well, a repeat of last season’s 6-11 campaign isn’t unlikely.

Owner Mark Davis has preached patience as the Raiders, after jettisoning Waller and Carr, go through a soft rebuild. So McDaniels doesn’t appear to be on the hot seat. Still, he’s earning $10 million a year, which puts him among the ten highest-paid head coaches in the league. A disastrous season like the one he had his second year in Denver could convince Davis he’s getting too little for his investment. Again, this feels unlikely. But the Raiders have had twelve head coaches this century, so whatever patience Davis is preaching isn’t backed up by history. All things considered, it feels like a make-or-break season for McDaniels in Las Vegas.


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