Heading into the 2010 season, diehard Raiders fans had a number of reasons to believe the team might finally regain their winning ways after seven straight losing seasons. Fans and pundits alike gave raves to the Raiders draft class, which seemed to indicate Al Davis was giving more weight to character and work ethic than ever before. On offense, acquiring Jason Campbell and ending the franchise's commitment to JaMarcus Russell promised to improve the team's QB play.
Moreover, new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson had an impressive resume, and could be counted upon to boost a unit that had effectively been without a coordinator since the firing of Lane Kiffin and de facto demotion of Greg Knapp four weeks into the 2008 season. The defense was still to be led by John Marshall, the veteran coordinator who replaced Rob Ryan in 2009. The defense had floundered in Ryan's latter years and didn't improve in Marshall's Raider debut. But most knowledgeable Raiders fans saw a defensive line upgrade on the agenda for 2010 with the return of Mike Waufle.
The dominance of the Raiders defensive line played a huge role in the team being able to escape its streak of losing seasons in 2010. Waufle's presence helped the 2010 unit racked up sacks and become more stout against the run, and outstanding defensive line play was perhaps the biggest factor in the team's 6-0 AFC West record. By 2011, though, it seemed Waufle's magic may have waned; the unit kept bringing pressure, but couldn't stop the run and too often failed to register sacks. Further improvement on the offensive side of the ball with Jackson now head coach was offset by a crumbling defense, and team disappointed in only managing an 8-8 record once again.
Oakland fans have lots of reasons to expect continued improvement on the offensive side of the ball, where Jackson and Campbell are gone but the arrival of Carson Palmer and the emergence of the team's young receivers suggest the team will field its most potent passing attack since Rich Gannon's heyday. Meanwhile, under new coach Dennis Allen and brainiac young defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, fans are expecting an improvement in defensive scheme and better utilization of the team's immense talent on that side of the ball. Nonetheless, the dominance from the defensive line has been a key component in the Raiders recent rebound, and with the departure of Waufle it is fair to ask, will the defensive line improve upon its disappointing 2011 in 2012?
Waufle came back to the Raiders with high expectations. He first showed up in Oakland after two decades as a position coach in college, the latter decade spent in the Pac-10. After six years coaching the line for Cal, Waufle was hired at the outset of the Jon Gruden era. In his six seasons in Oakland, the defensive line was a perennial strength, putting up 40 or more sacks each season from 1998 to 2002. The unit collapsed, along with the rest of the team, in 2003, and Waufle was sent packing as was most of the rest of the coaching staff. Waufle caught on with the New York Giants, where his units played well, most famously in 2007 when they led the league in sacks and rode dominant d-line play to a Super Bowl victory. After the Giants finished 8-8 in 2009, they fired first year defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan as well as Waufle, with whispers in the media that Waufle had a tendency to get too soft on his guys after a while. Al Davis thought highly enough of Waufle to bring him back into the fold in Oakland, and high expectations ensued.
The 2010 unit tied for second in the league in sacks, an impressive feat given how often opponents tried to run the ball. According to Football Outsiders, the Raiders were #1 in the league in adjusted sack rate. The line was well put together and an obvious team strength. Second-year Matt Shaughnessy played impressively, putting up seven sacks. Tommy Kelly, the only long-time Raider in the bunch, likewise established a career high with seven sacks, with Waufle encouraging Kelly to slim down his physique and turning him loose on opposing QB's. Richard Seymour, having played the previous season as a 4-3 defensive end after being acquired in a preseason trade, was moved to defensive tackle and earned Pro Bowl honors for his play. Lamarr Houston, the Raiders' 2nd round pick in 2010, had a promising rookie season after being moved primarily to end after playing tackle at the University of Texas. Kamerion Wimbley, acquired for the 3rd round pick that became Colt McCoy, had an outstanding season playing linebacker on early downs and lining up as a DE on passing downs, tallying 9.0 sacks to lead the team. Trevor Scott played well as a starter before being injured against the Steelers. Former Broncos first round bust Jarvis Moss was picked up after Scott's injury and played well, seemingly improving with the switch to playing DE in a 4-3 after struggling as a 3-4 OLB in Denver. Interior lineman Desmond Bryant also showed promise when he was able to get onto the field, and free agent signee John Henderson helped shut down the run as a rotation player.
Going into the 2011 season, it was clear the Raiders were relying on continued stellar play from their defensive line. Hue Jackson expressed pleasure that the other teams in the draft were racing to bring in young defensive lineman, since it enabled players at other positions to fall to Oakland. With hybrid rusher Wimbley, starters Shaughnessy, Seymour, Kelly and Houston, as well as reserves Scott, Moss, Henderson, and Bryant all returning, fans had little concerns about the defensive line entering the 2011 seasons.
Unfortunately, the 2011 unit took a step back against the run, contributing to the team's league worst 5.1 yards given up per run, and while the line was still able to pressure opposing QB's at a decent rate, few of those pressures turned into sacks. While the line did put in some dominant displays, keying big wins by terrorizing the Texans' zone blocking scheme in Week 5 and holding Philip Rivers at bay on the team's Thursday night game in San Diego, too often opposing quarterbacks found ways to evade their clutches. The inability to take down opposing QB's magnified deficiencies in the Raiders' secondary and linebacking corps. Big, strong-armed quarterbacks like Mark Stafford and Philip Rivers kept finding ways to hit receivers downfield. Mobile quarterbacks routinely turned Oakland's D inside out, keying Denver's Tebow-driven win in Oakland and keeping Christian Ponder's Vikings and Caleb Hanie's Bears in games that should have turned into blowouts.
Injuries did take their toll. Shaughnessy missed the season's final 13 games, and Scott seemed to have not recovered from his injury in 2010. Meanwhile, Henderson and Seymour both missed plenty of time and often had to play at less than 100%. The Raiders entered the season expecting to rely on their rotation to keep their defensive linemen fresh, but instead too often had to play Wimbley and Bryant at end and suffered from lackluster performances by converted linebackers Scott and Moss.
TERRELL WILLIAMS TAKES OVER
With the Raiders letting go of nearly all of their coaching staff from 2011, including all of their defensive coaches, Waufle moved on to St. Louis to work under Jeff Fisher. The new defensive staff is decidedly in the throes of a youth movement, with head coach Dennis Allen having only one season as a pro coordinator and coordinator Jason Tarver having never been a team's sole defensive coordinator. The line is no exception, as the Raiders have hired the young Terrell Williams, formerly at Texas A&M.
Williams was a nose tackle at East Carolina in the 90's, and moved straight into coaching college defensive lines from there. He quickly earned promotions after brief stops at a number of schools, working his way up to Purdue where he coached a number of future pros. After four seasons with the Boilermakers, Williams came to Texas A&M, where he aided that program's relative resurgence over the past two seasons. While Von Miller was a big part of the Aggies' Big 12 South Co-Championship, Williams' line stepped up after his departure last season, as Texas A&M led the FBS in sacks by a nice margin.
Williams coached a 4-3 defense at Purdue and helped Texas A&M transition to a base 3-4 in his two seasons there, and when the Raiders hired him away, he was working on converting the Aggies back to a 4-3 scheme. His versatility was certainly part of what made him an attractive candidate to Allen and Tarver. As the Raiders begin to work in more looks with three down linemen, having a young and hungry coach with experience in both schemes should hopefully pay dividends.
In many respects, Waufle was an ideal coach for the Al Davis Raiders. He excelled at getting talented linemen into the rotation to rush the passer, and his ideas did not stray from Davis' preferred (in the latter decades) scheme of 4 down linemen and man to man coverage on the outside. With the emphasis on hybridity under coach Allen and coordinator Tarver, it is hard to imagine Waufle being welcomed back, even had he been offered a job with Rams and even if Allen and Tarver had a high opinion of him. Simply put, the Raiders are looking for a coach to instill a strong work ethic and get players prepared to play in multiple fronts.
Last year's stellar crop of A&M linemen decided to stay together in College Station to play under Williams another season, and what will become of them remains to be seen. But Williams' success with grooming his linemen at Purdue should intrigue Raiders fans. Anthony Spencer was coming off a mediocre, injury-slowed junior season when Williams arrived in 2006. Spencer's season under Williams earned team MVP honors and got him drafted in the first round by the Cowboys, who converted him from end to OLB for their 3-4 base defense. While he has not yet blossomed into a dominant force like his counterpart, DeMarcus Ware, he has played well enough at linebacker to force Dallas to expend its franchise tag on him this offseason. When Spencer left Purdue, his spot was soon taken up by Ryan Kerrigan. Kerrigan, also a DE, would earn accolades throughout his college career before being drafted in the first round last season by Washington, where he made the All-Rookie team after transitioning to OLB in their 3-4 scheme. Whereas Kerrigan and Spencer starred as ends in college before converting to LB in the pros, Williams helped Cliff Avril undertake the reverse of the trajectory. Avril began his Boilermaker career as an outside linebacker, but converted to DE the year Williams joined the staff. He has since excelled playing the 4-3 DE position. The Lions picked him in the third round. He led Detroit in sacks with 11.0 last season and signed his franchise tender with the team earlier this week.
It hasn't been all success for Williams' Boilermakers in the NFL. Defensive end Mike Neal earned high praise from Williams, and was drafted in the second round by the Packers in 2010 when Reggie McKenzie was in their front office. He hasn't shown much in his pro career, though primarily because of frequent injuries keeping him off the field. His case wasn't helped by the 4-game suspension handed down by the NFL this offseason. Neal maintains he was prescribed Adderall by a doctor and tested positive for the drug before reporting he was taking it because he was unaware he had to do so. Nonetheless, even if healthy and cleared to play, Neal hasn't shown he fits into the Packers scheme at DE in their base defense where three - and sometimes only two - linemen play with their hand in the ground, leading to some speculation he'd be converted to linebacker. Still, camp observers have good things to say about Neal's recent performance, and Green Bay hasn't written him off yet. One former Williams player who has been written off is Alex Magee, another DE at Purdue, who was picked in the third round by the Chiefs in 2009. Magee struggled to adapt to the NFL and the technique in the Chiefs 3-4 base alignment. The Chiefs gave up on him in only his second season, trading him to the Buccaneers, who got rid of him in final roster cuts the following year. He didn't produce much in his two seasons and never managed to crack a starting lineup. He's since tried to make a go of it in the Arena League.
It's always hard to tell how much effect a college positional coach has on his players' futures - do great talents make a coach look good, or does a great coach turn good players into pros? Without doubt, it's a little of both - neither chicken nor egg comes first. But there's enough success in Williams' history, particularly given that four of the five players Williams graduated to the NFL from Purdue would switch from his 4-3 to a role in 3-4 defenses in the pros, to have a little faith that Williams knowns how to groom players for overall success and not only success in one role.
While Williams is inexperienced as a pro coach, having only served two brief internships in the NFL prior to being hired by the Raiders, there's no doubt he has much potential as a pro coach - much like Mike Waufle did back when Jon Gruden brought him to Oakland for the first time.