At Lions Raiders, Jon Gruden’s “Old School” Oakland Offense Was A System, Not A Collection Of Plays

The Oakland Raiders beat the Detroit Lions 16 to 10, and while the story is that Jon Gruden returned to the Oakland Coliseum, and earned an NFL Preseason victory on his first try in too many years, the one true tale all of the reporters will miss is that the Raiders, for the first time since Hue Jackson and Gruden himself in 1998, had a true offensive system, and not a collection of unrelated plays.

The Jon Gruden Raiders Offensive System was presented to the World on the first play: Quarterback Derek Carr ran a bootleg in the direction of the wide receiver in motion, and threw the ball to him to gain eight yards. Sounds simple, but the flow to the man-in-motion established what the Raiders set of related plays would include. And just a few plays later, we saw what it was all good for.

Star Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch has a hard time gaining yards in the Jack Del Rio / Bill Musgrave / Todd Downing offense. And plays that Lynch performed well in, like off-tackle runs from I formation or single-back sets, were seldom seen. Instead, the habit was to ask Lynch to run plays that dragged the entire defensive front right to the area Lynch was running, as if the concept of misdirection was never invented. For Lynch, that problem ended with the Jon Gruden Era, and in one play.

On the same opening drive, the Raiders lined up in a formation similar to the one used to start the game – and the wide receiver went in motion in the same direction, from left-to-right along the offensive line. Except this time, Derek Carr took the snap and handed-off to Lynch, who was headed to the area the motion man came from, rather than going in the motion man’s direction. The confusing cross action caused part of the Lions defense to go with the motion man, and made it easy for the Raiders Offensive Line including Rookie Offensive Tackle Kolton Miller to block Lions defenders on the side away fromn the motion man, but where Lynch was running, off-tackle, and around the end. Lynch accelerated, and kept running – untouched, he scored a 60-yard touchdown!

The play unfolded so well, that the NFL Officials aparently could not believe their eyes and so threw a flag, charging Miller with a holding call that a replay would reveal was questionable, at best. Still, the message was sent: this Oakland Raiders Offense was a true system of related plays, and not a collection of schemes with no apparent rhyme or reason. And it’s about time.

NFL Offenses were becoming defined by the ‘unrelated play’ approach, where one play was designed and called for one particular situation, and never used again. Many offenses, including the Raiders Offense under Jack Del Rio, were contaminated with plays that were designed to be used in one situation, or against one type of defense, or a specific player, and had no companion plays.

Take Todd Downing’s celebration of a touchdown by Amare Cooper against the Philadelphia Eagles last year. He designed a play and pass pattern specifically for the tendency of one Eagles cornerback to “bite” or commit on a pass pattern. So, the Raiders had that one play that could be used only against that defender, and at a particular time in the game – and with no companion plays to set it up, or ways to make sure the Eagles stayed in that defense they used.

That style was unheard of in the 20th Century of the NFL, where coaches like Tom Landry of The Dallas Cowboys made their mark by forming whole offensive game plans of systems of plays to, in the case of Dallas in Super Bowl VI, cause the Dolphins vaunted three-man-front defense to pursue the ball carrier one way, and then get caught going the wrong way. Then, to keep the Dolphins honest, the Cowboys ran quick pitch plays to the outside, and watched the shocked Miami Defense helmed by Middle Linebacker Nick Bonaconti stand seemingly flat-footed. Point is, the Dallas Offense game plan had plays that could be used to set up other plays in a game.

For Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers, it was employment of sweeps against the same Cowboys, only to run a reverse with wide-receiver Freddy Solomon – all the better to fool the Dallas Defense, on the way to The Catch, and one of the greatest combacks in NFL History.

In the Lions Raiders game, it became clear Jon Gruden pulled a fast one with a media that consists of reporters either too young to remember the 20th Century of NFL Offense, or not football-schooled, or not really interested in technical football as much as they are the latest gossip about the players. When Coach Gruden said he wanted to take everyone back to 1998, he didn’t mean old technology, or a time before analytics – no.

Gruden was talking about systemic football – a lost art, today.

Thanks, Coach Gruden. Thank you very, very much for bring it back. It’s long past time.

Stay tuned.

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