The Oakland Raiders have taken their time replacing the four assistant coaches who were fired at the end of the season. The staff is not yet complete, but they are moving closer to finalizing a staff for the 2013 season.
For what Dennis Allen’s choice of offensive coordinator lacked in excitement and name recognition he may make up for with his choice as offensive line coach. According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, Tony Sparano has been hired by the Raiders as their offensive line coach and assistant head coach.
In more ways than one, Sparano is the perfect hire for the Raiders. Sparano brings experience, production and creativity to Oakland's offense that was absent in 2012.
It can’t hurt to have a guy with experience on the coaching staff. Al Saunders is the senior offensive assistant, and he’s helped Allen by being his eyes in the booth. Other than Saunders, the Raiders have no other coaches with experience as a head coach in the NFL.
Sparano survived nearly four seasons in Miami as their head coach before becoming the offensive coordinator for the New York Jets in 2012. Sparano became just another victim of the play of Mark Sanchez. Sparano was unsuccessful in Miami because of the failure of Chad Henne, who was a second-round pick in the 2008 NFL draft.
Sparano’s team was 4-9 when he was fired as head coach in 2011, with four of those losses coming by three points or fewer. Sparano managed to win four of the last six games after starting 0-7, but it wasn’t enough to save his job. It’s tough for any coach to keep his team competing at a high level despite a terrible start.
A Productive Running Game
While Sparano failed to develop a young quarterback in Miami and his teams suffered, his running game was almost always productive. Miami's running game—with Sparano either as a head coach, coordinator or offensive line coach—averaged more than four yards per carry in five of his eight years, peaking at 4.4 in 2009.
Sparano’s running game was successful until Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown began to age. In 2011, the Dolphins somewhat successfully transitioned to a timeshare between Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas, but the issue at quarterback hurt the team’s chances of winning games.
Teams have been no better or worse off in the running game upon Sparano’s departure and have actually taken a dip in production on a yards-per-carry basis upon his arrival by an average of 0.6 yards per carry. The majority of that dip came when Sparano first entered the NFL as an offensive line coach in 2000.
In seven of the last eight seasons, Sparano has had a running back with 1,170 total yards or more. Darren McFadden has accomplished that feat just one time in his five-year career. McFadden also might be the most talented running back Sparano has ever coached.
It’s worth noting that Reggie Bush averaged 4.6 yards per carry in 2011 under Sparano and that Bush did explode for 316 yards the two weeks after Sparano was fired. Bush got hurt with the heavier workload.
The offensive line coach has to be able to teach technique in pass protection more than anything else. The NFL is a pass-heavy league now and lineman will find themselves pass-blocking at least 60 percent of the time.
The biggest problem in trying to figure out how well Sparano teaches pass-blocking is the fluctuation of quarterbacks throwing the ball behind his offensive line. Sparano has had only one year when his offensive line had a sack percentage (sacks divided by dropbacks) that was below the league average.
The offensive line in Dallas improved their sack percentage every year Sparano was the offensive line coach. The Cowboys transitioned from the statue Drew Bledsoe to a more mobile Tony Romo when Sparano was offensive line coach, and that makes the sack percentage hard to use to evaluate Sparano. A lot of the improvement could have had to do with the transition to and the maturation of Romo.
At least the Oakland Raiders had a very good offensive line when it came to pass blocking in 2012, with a sack percentage of 4.1 percent which was good for sixth in the NFL. The five teams better had Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford and Tom Brady as their quarterbacks. Of course, the offensive line in Oakland could look very different in 2013.
This is the one area to keep tabs on with Sparano as the offensive line coach.
Along with his offensive coordinator Dan Henning and his quarterbacks coach David Lee in 2008, Sparano was a big part of bringing the Wildcat offense to the NFL. The use of the formation has fallen out of favor and the zone-read and pistol have now become popular in the NFL. There’s an undeniable link between these three offenses in that they are all rather recent additions to the NFL game.
The Denver Broncos used the zone-read to get into the playoffs with Tim Tebow as the quarterback in 2011, and the San Francisco 49ers broke out the pistol on their run to the Super Bowl this season. Sparano and Tebow were thought to be a perfect marriage in New York, but that never came to fruition.
McFadden ran the Wildcat in college at Arkansas under then-offensive coordinator Lee, who in turn brought the offense to Sparano in Miami. Sparano’s offensive coordinator with the Dolphins was Henning, who tutored Mike McCoy. McCoy is the man who implemented the zone-read with Tebow in 2011 and parlayed his success into the head coaching job with the San Diego Chargers.
It’s not a stretch to imagine the Raiders running the Wildcat, zone-read or pistol with Terrelle Pryor and McFadden. Many of these offenses came about when coaches were simply looking to maximize the talents of the players on their team. Whatever the Raiders do, they need to commit to the offense if it’s going to be successful.
The Wildcat enabled the Dolphins to use Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. The zone-read enabled Tim Tebow and Willis McGahee to run the ball effectively enough that Tebow didn’t have to use his arm. The 49ers realized they could use Colin Kaepernick’s legs and arm by running the pistol.
The Raiders should find creative ways to use Pryor and McFadden together, which could be by utilizing the Wildcat, zone-read, pistol, veer, inverted veer or some other form of the option. What’s nice about Sparano is he’s not afraid to try new things, and he could convince offensive coordinator Greg Olson to install plays for Pryor.