Oakland Raiders Owner, formally called Manager Of The General Partner, passed away today at the age of 82. Davis, or Mr. Davis, will be remembered for his contributions to the hiring of minorities, and especially blacks in front office positions, and for his marketing skill. But this blogger will most remember his contributions to the modern NFL passing game. For, next to Sid Gillman, for whom Davis was an assistant coach with the San Diego Chargers, Al Davis had the greatest impact on the NFL passing game.
To understand Mr. Davis contributions, one must first understand Sid Gillman’s passing attack philosophy. I remember his expression of it, because during the late 70s, the NFL game day program for Oakland Raiders games had a featurette on NFL strategy. I must have read the one about Gillman and passing 50 times. In addition, in 1979, then-San Francisco Examiner sports columnist Glenn Dickey had a classic article that mentioned Gillman while comparing and contrasting the Raiders and the San Francisco 49ers passing game, after the Niners hired Bill Walsh as head coach. I saved that and taped it in my own personal NFL playbook.
(That’s right. I created my own offensive and defensive playbook. But that’s for another blog post.)
Regarding his approach to the passing game, Gillman said “First, we will use all of the field, from sideline to sideline. Second, our receivers will stretch the field. Third, our running backs will not come into the passing game. The quarterback will read the field, and not know who he’s throwing to until the defense reveals its coverage.”
What “we will use all of the field, from sideline to sideline” means, is that the formations called will have the widest receivers placed to about two-to-three yards within the sidelines. Think about what that does to a defense – it stretches it horizontally. Then, the receivers are asked to run deep patterns, so the defense is stretch vertically.
But Gillman’s statement “our running backs will not come into the passing game,” was different by today’s standards. In other words, don’t expect to see the Chargers throwing deep to the running backs; they blocked and caught short passes – rarely.
When Al Davis became coach of the Oakland Raiders in 1963, he brought much of that passing ideology to the Silver and Black, but with some significant differences. First, the Raiders did throw to their running backs, and at times downfield. Second, the Raiders moved the quarterback on rollout passes on occasion. Third, and most significant, the Raiders extensively used something called The “Slot” Formation.
Recall that Gillman wanted to stretch the field horizontally; Al Davis wanted to create an overlaod situation on one side of the field, the strongside, and then throw to the “weakside” of it. To do that, he took the Flanker receiver, which lined up outside the tight end, and placed that person between the Split End and the Offensive Tackle, as shown the the image on the right. No, Davis wasn’t the first to use the Slot Formation, but he was the first NFL head coach to make extensive use of it.
Then, where Gillman was content to take what the defense gave the offense, Al Davis wanted to take what the Raiders wanted from the defense, throw deep, and score touchdowns. To do this, Davis placed a lot of pressure on his offensive line to hold blocks for far longer than considered normal in the NFL.
Finally, Davis was known for pushing the tight end deep. And with then-head coach John Madden, made Notre Dame Tight End Dave Casper an Oakland household name, by sending him on deep post routes – “Ghost to the post,” recognizing that Casper was also the name of the cartoon character, Casper The Friendly Ghost. Casper gained national fame running that post pattern and catching an over-the-head pass from Raiders Quarterback Ken Staber to score and tie in the final second of the game versus the Baltimore Colts in an epic double-overtime AFC Divisional Playoff win in 1977. (You can watch the whole game here.)
The Deep Passing Game Today
What really made the Raiders passing game so effective up to the late 80s, was what would eventually kill it: the drafting of players on defense who were bigger and faster than their offensive counterparts. Cornerbacks who could not only keep up with wide receivers, but out-run them to the football, with Deion Sanders being the best example. And defensive lineman who were at or over 300 pounds in size, yet capable of running as fast, in some cases, as running backs.
With that physical change, asking an offensive line person to hold a block for a long time became both an unreasonable and an ineffective request. Today, defensive coverage and offensive actions dictate the ability to successfully throw deep. A play action fake can still freeze and fool the best cornerback at the right time. An exotic formation can cause a blown coverage, leaving a receiver wide open. And now, defenses leave “seams” open between zones that offenses, like that of the Indianapolis Colts, throw into.
The modern Raider passing game under Hue Jackson reflects the NFL of the 21st Century. Now, if Quarterback Jason Campbell can keep mistakes to a minimum, the Raiders will win in 2011.