Between now and Sunday, you’re probably going to hear football pundits wax rhapsodic about the irresistible offensive firepower of the Oakland Raiders, the game-breaking abilities of their Hall of Fame wide receivers, and the breathtaking accuracy of quarterback Rich Gannon, the NFL’s most valuable player. Actually, you won’t have to wait that long. After the Raiders’$2 41-24 victory over Tennessee last Sunday, Sports Illustrated declared Gannon is “almost unstoppable.” The New York Times called the Oakland offense “explosive” and a “blur”—“a newfangled, up-tempo, crisp attack that rivals the timing and vertical passing scheme” of the offense that catapulted the St. Louis Rams to two of the last three Super Bowls.
And yet while it’s blessed with an embarrassment of All-Pros, the Raiders’ offense isn’t particularly pretty to watch. It isn’t even all that original: In essence, Oakland employs a version of the same highly structured, methodical West Coast offense that is favored by almost every coach in the NFL. The Raiders have perfected the ball-control logic of the WCO to the point of perversion. The strategy has worked so far, but it also says a lot about what’s wrong with the NFL these days. And there’s reason to believe that it will spell doom for the Raiders on Sunday.
The WCO eschews long-distance aerial strikes for short passes that yield modest gains. The Raiders rely heavily on the ability of two wide receivers, Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, to run short, precise routes, break tackles, and pick up yards after the catch. Gannon’s job is to deliver the ball to his receivers using an array of low-risk slants, screens, and quick-outs; he inflicts death by a thousand dump-offs. Statistically the results have been spectacular. Thanks to the offensive system, the Raiders led the league in total yards gained. Gannon’s 4,689 passing yards were easily the most in the NFL. In 10 games he threw for more than 300 yards, a new league record. During a Monday night game against Denver, Gannon completed a gravity-defying 21 passes in a row.
But the Raiders’ offense is also painfully boring. Though Gannon throws more than any other quarterback in football, he rarely looks to fling the ball downfield. Close to 80 percent of Gannon’s throws cover 10 yards or less, the most of any quarterback. This year Gannon’s passes yielded an average gain of 7.59 yards—a respectable figure, but still only the third-best yards-per-attempt average in the NFL. (By comparison, between 1999 and 2001 Kurt Warner posted a YPA of 9.1, which means that the Rams practically gained a first down every time Warner dropped back to pass.)
Gannon’s execution of the offense was showcased in all its risk-averse glory during the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s game against Tennessee. Leading 34-24, the Raiders got the ball on their own 31. On first down Gannon threw for 4 yards. Two plays later he hit tight end Doug Jolley for 7. On first down at the Titans’$2 44, Gannon really aired it out, throwing a 14-yarder to Jerry Porter. Then it was back to pinpricks: 3 yards to Charlie Garner, 6 yards to Tim Brown, 4 yards to Rice. Six and a half minutes into the drive, Zack Crockett ran 7 yards for the clinching touchdown. By then, most of the country had switched to the Golden Globes.
Gannon shouldn’t take the blame for being so dull. In the WCO, a quarterback’s imagination and creativity are subordinate to timing, accuracy, and strict adherence to “the system”; the actual strategizing is done by groups of coaches watching the action from stadium skyboxes. (The fact that the offensive system provides coaches with the comforting illusion that they can exert control over what happens on the field is one reason why so many NFL teams run some version of it.) It wasn’t always thus. When San Francisco 49ers’ coach Bill Walsh first introduced the pass-happy WCO in the 1980s, he was credited with saving the NFL from the plodding ground game that dominated the ‘70s. After the 49ers won five Super Bowls—due as much to the talents of Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Rice as to the genius of the system—the popularity of the offense began to spread. Walsh’s protege, Mike Holmgren, brought the system with him to Green Bay and promptly won a Super Bowl; Holmgren’s assistants, in turn, were given head coaching jobs by teams stocked with mediocre talent but desperate to reap the windfall promised by the WCO. (See Gregg Easterbrook’s dissection of these teams here.)
Once revolutionary, the WCO is now a plague—it’s the aerial version of the tedious ‘70s ground game. Moreover, it’s responsible for inducing a leaguewide abandonment of the most entertaining play in football: the long bomb. As a group, NFL quarterbacks this year completed a higher percentage of passes and compiled more passing yards than ever before. And yet those passes are producing smaller gains: The length of the average completed pass has dropped from 12.1 yards in 1998 to 10.8 this season, the lowest figure in a quarter-century. The average team threw 14 percent fewer passes of 30+ yards than it did in 1999.For the Raiders, a franchise once known for its penchant for the long ball, the dip has seemed even more acute. When Gannon tossed a 29-yard touchdown to Jerry Porter against the Jets two weeks ago, the Raider faithful instantly embraced Porter as the team’s new deep threat.
So what? Adherents of the WCO say you can’t argue with the results: After all, while quarterbacks such as Dan Fouts, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, and Warren Moon were racking up gaudier numbers during their careers, Montana, Young, and Brett Favre ran the WCO and took home the hardware. That’s why most experts are picking Gannon and the Raiders to win Sunday. But that ignores an important reality: The NFL’s best defenses, like Tampa Bay’s, are built to stop the WCO. The Bucs are loaded with the kinds of big, fast defenders who can disrupt Gannon’s rhythm, hound his receivers, and prevent them from turning short passes into big gains. The good news for the Raiders is that the Bucs run an equally unimaginative WCO with worse players, which means that the Oakland defense should keep them in the game. But the guess here is that in order for the Raiders to win, Gannon at some point will have to abandon the WCO, throw caution to the wind, and go deep.