The Oakland Raiders have finally declared a winner in their quarterback battle. According to multiple reports, including the NFL itself, Terrelle Pryor will start Week 1—removing the sliver of doubt that the Raiders might go back to Matt Flynn.
Now that the starter has been determined, the Raiders will shift their focus to putting Pryor in a position to be successful. This is the job of any football coach, but it's particularly crucial for a quarterback like Pryor to be put in situations that emphasize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses.
A talent-deprived roster needs to get the most out of every player, but the quarterback position is the most vital. The team's success—relatively speaking—depends on Pryor's success, and there is a lot the team can do to ensure a solid start for the athletic quarterback.
The task of ensuring a successful start for Pryor falls upon head coach Dennis Allen, even if offensive coordinator Greg Olson will be the one calling the plays. Allen's job may be at risk if the Raiders falter, and Pryor is his lifeline, so he needs to be heavily involved in how the team goes about using him.
Go Off Script
Coaches like to script everything, but a guy like Pryor isn't yet a consistent enough passer to stay "on schedule" as they would like. Most coaches like to move the chains, take safe completions and put the offense in position to score.
The Raiders are no exception to this line of thinking, which is why they brought in Flynn in the first place. Script plays, adjust to the defense only as needed, avoid mistakes and execute better than the other team. Move the chains.
It's a chess game, and the players are the pieces—but with Flynn, the Raiders were trying to play chess with a pawn at quarterback. Pryor is no queen, but he might be Dennis Allen's dark knight.
Pryor is a completely different type of quarterback, and ensuring his success also means accepting a certain amount of failure.
Trying to force Pryor to play it safe isn't going to do him or the Raiders any good—it will only limit the big-play potential. Pryor would still make mistakes, so the Raiders would only be limiting themselves.
The Raiders need to let Pryor go off script. Pryor has made his biggest plays this preseason not on designed runs, but on broken plays that require him to scramble and improvise. The uncertainty of improvisation is scary, but in this situation at least the outcome could be positive—more so than trying to play it safe with Flynn.
A defense can adjust to and stop designed plays, but even a defender spying Pryor can't keep him from gaining big yardage on a scramble. A spy would also be one less defender covering receivers and would give Pryor the opportunity to make a big play with his arm.
The biggest question is not what the Raiders should do, but probably how they should do it. Improvisation is by definition unplanned, but no one is suggesting the Raiders don't go into their games without a good plan of attack.
Plan For Improvisation
The answer might be to simply study the opposing defense in detail, but use the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) method on offense. Cut down Pryor's reads from three to just one or two.
It's not that Pryor isn't capable of making all of his reads, but he needs enough time to improvise with his feet. The offensive line isn't going to give him a ton of time to diagnose the defense, and it's just Pryor's second career start.
On passing downs, give Pryor a deep, intermediate read, then tell him he can scramble or take the checkdown. Cut the field in half and tell Pryor to play as fast as possible, but only to throw when he is extremely confident there is an open receiver.
Believe it or not, the Raiders have actually already demonstrated their willingness to use Pryor this way. That gives the Indianapolis Colts some idea of how the Raiders will use him, but it doesn't necessarily mean they will be able to stop him.
Pryor threw an interception in the final preseason game down the left sideline intended for Jacoby Ford, but an important detail was missed. The Raiders had created a game plan for Pryor, and the interception was a good example of the Raiders giving him two reads before asking him to run.
Pryor's read was just too late, and the result was an under-thrown pass. Being late meant pressure was in Pryor's face, and he threw the ball off his back foot. Pryor stuck on his primary read too long and needs to make that decision in less time.
Instead of waiting, Pryor should have quickly moved to his second read—and if that wasn't open, run. The hesitation to throw to Ford not only resulted in an interception, but he missed wide-open tight end Jeron Mastrud and the opportunity to pick up yardage with his feet.
Quarterbacks have about 2.5 seconds to throw the football, and a quarterback who can't use his legs like Pryor has to go through at least three reads to get the ball out before they get sacked.
Pryor can make one or two reads and then take off running, but he can't stubbornly stay in the pocket or try to force passes when he's on the run.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Pryor was 8-of-13 when he threw the ball within 2.5 seconds. Those are numbers on par with Michael Vick and Russell Wilson this preseason. Pryor's problem has been when he takes longer than 2.5 seconds—he must make quicker decisions.
If the pass isn't there, then he needs to make smarter decisions on the run. Pryor's ability to escape pressure is amazing, but once he has to scramble, his best move is usually going to be to run. Based on the way Pryor was used in the final preseason game, the Raiders already know this.
The blueprint is there, and you can see the Raiders are trying to put Pryor in a position to be successful. At times it worked beautifully (three rushes for 48 yards), but it also backfired on occasion (two sacks and an interception in one half).
Pistol + Pryor = Production
The Pistol formation is everywhere, and it's going to become a part of the NFL lexicon as much as the Shotgun formation—if not more so. The reason is simple: Teams can run pretty much their entire offense out of the Pistol. This includes power runs, zone runs, passes and—for a team with a mobile quarterback—the read-option.
For Pryor, the Pistol gives him and the Raiders several distinct advantages because of his ability to run, including using the read-option—which is as much about running back Darren McFadden as it is about Pryor.
Pryor and McFadden are the most dynamic players on the roster, and it just makes sense to force the defense to account for both of them at the same time. Defenses may eventually adjust to the read-option, but it's a lot easier said than done.
Three of the top five rushing teams in yards per carry last year had mobile quarterbacks and used the read-option. The Carolina Panthers were the other team that used it extensively, coming in eighth in team yards per carry.
The quarterback can rush anywhere from six to eight times per game and add anywhere from 30 to 50 rushing yards. That's production on top of whatever benefit there is to the running back, which can be substantial.
The Seattle Seahawks in particular were able to use the read-option to benefit their running game. Russell Wilson was least likely to run the ball of the four read-option quarterbacks in the NFL last year, but his rushing game theoretically benefited the most.
However, the 49ers are the team the Raiders should seek to emulate. Instead of using a lot of zone-blocking concepts, the 49ers are more of a downhill or man-blocking team. Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen wrote an excellent piece breaking down the 49ers' Pistol offense when he worked for the National Football Post.
McFadden is going to be the key to the Raiders offense regardless of which quarterback is under center—but with Pryor, the Raiders have another tool at their disposal to get McFadden going.
The threat of Pryor only adds an extra element.
Getting Pryor away from the line of scrimmage also means he doesn't have to worry as much about pass-rushers on passing downs that immediately beat his offensive linemen. Even if the Raiders allow immediate pressure like they did for most of preseason, Pryor will have a chance to use his feet to escape.
For the Raiders, being conservative should mean using the read-option and the running game, not holding Pryor back. If the coaches restrict Pryor, he doesn't have a chance.
For the Raiders and Pryor, success might not be measured in wins and losses. Success for the Raiders might simply be staying competitive. If Pryor can keep the Raiders in games, he'll be a success.
Throw out the traditional metrics used to measure a quarterback, as they don't really matter as much for Pryor. The ratio of big plays to bad turnovers is probably the best measuring stick. The coaching staff must realize starting Pryor gives them the best chance to win, but that he's also going to blow it a few times.
It may resemble an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway; there will be laughs, points that don't matter, and the Raiders could get buzzed off the stage a lot. But at least with Pryor at quarterback, everyone wins—even if the Raiders, you know, don't actually win.