Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023 | 2 a.m.
The gap between the two offenses couldn’t have been wider in Josh McDaniels’ final game as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders before team owner Mark Davis fired him a day later.
When the Raiders had the ball at Ford Field on Monday night against the Detroit Lions, everything was labored. Las Vegas managed only 157 total yards and continually struggled to either establish any rhythm or find any room to operate.
The Lions meanwhile had space for big gains repeatedly and flew down the field with a graceful split of run and pass plays that kept the Raiders’ defense off balance. Detroit didn’t finish many drives with touchdowns, hence the relatively restrained 26-14 final score, but it more than tripled Las Vegas’ production with 486 total yards.
“The last two weeks, we weren’t ourselves,” new Raiders interim coach Antonio Pierce said in his introductory news conference Wednesday at the team’s Henderson headquarters. “Obviously, I was focused on the defensive side of the ball, coaching the linebackers, but you could sense that as a team, feel the aura in the building, the aura in the locker room when you’re around the guys. Did I have a good sense of it? Yes. Was it my place to talk about it and discuss it with anybody? No.”
McDaniels’ failure as a playcaller and personnel evaluator — along with also-fired general manager Dave Zielger — was immediately cited as the biggest reason but it takes two to create that large of a dichotomy. Detroit offensive coordinator Ben Johnson deserved as much praise on the other sideline as McDaniels received scorn on his own.
The 37-year-old Johnson is perhaps the coaching industry’s biggest rising star. He’s set to be the NFL’s top head-coaching candidate this offseason, a year after he surprised many by turning down interviews to remain as an assistant with the Lions.
With the league’s first coaching vacancy this year, Davis and his team have the most time to strategize how they can achieve what they failed to do in early 2021 by bringing in the right guy.
They’ve got to make a run at Johnson.
Davis could be hesitant about Johnson since he comes from a similar background as McDaniels — as an offensive coordinator. But that would be silly because Johnson succeeded with something McDaniels was never tasked with in his career: Davis pulled an offense from the dregs of the NFL to near the summit.
McDaniels inherited a Super Bowl-winning unit with the New England Patriots, starring a player widely considered the greatest of all-time, quarterback Tom Brady, and maintained it.
Johnson took over playcalling for the Lions midseason in 2021 with the team sitting at 0-8 and ranking in the bottom 10 of the league in offense. Ever since, Detroit has gone 18-15-1 with a top 10 offense in the league.
Lions quarterback Jared Goff transformed from a player whom fans wanted benched to the fringes of Most Valuable Player award conversation under Johnson’s watch.
In Las Vegas, Johnson would have more autonomy in deciding the identity of the quarterback he wants to build the Raiders around.
Jimmy Garoppolo is on the books for another year, but at a relatively inexpensive salary for quarterback standards of $24 million. He doesn’t figure to factor into the franchise’s long-term plans given that Las Vegas is now benching him and turning to rookie quarterback Aidan O’Connell as its starter for the rest of the season.
“The guys are rallying behind (O’Connell). They’re excited to watch him get his opportunity,” Raiders interim general manager Champ Kelly said Wednesday. “I was there as (Pierce) was speaking to the team, and he had their eyes. There was an energy that was tangible in the room. There was a true excitement, and guys are geared up.”
The next coach could stick with O’Connell if he impresses over the second half of this season, though that seems like a long shot. The Purdue University product looked outclassed in his first career start, committing three turnovers and holding onto the ball too long en route to seven sacks in a 24-17 loss to the Chargers.
The 25-year-old turned heads as the NFL’s top-rated passer in the preseason, but there’s little precedence for a fourth-round pick climbing into as much as a league-average quarterback.
The next general manager and coach are likelier going to be finding their starter at the sport’s most important position at the top of next year’s NFL Draft. The good news is, analysts are calling this year’s draft class a historically strong one for quarterbacks with as many as eight players capable of eventually earning first-round grades.
The rookie-quarterback route is arguably the path Ziegler and McDaniels should have gone with from the time they arrived in Las Vegas. They reportedly considered it, but Davis wasn’t interested in a rebuild coming off the 2021-2022 season where the Raiders made a surprise playoff run.
Las Vegas instead extended then-quarterback Derek Carr and traded for his close friend/superstar receiver Davante Adams. Carr and McDaniels failed to click with the former’s benching late last season now looking like the beginning of the end of the latter’s tenure.
Don’t expect the rest of this year’s season to go anything like the last time the Raiders moved on from a coach midseason, in the aforementioned 2021-2022 campaign. Pierce could be every bit as capable of then-stopgap head Rich Bisaccia in ’21-’22 but he doesn’t have as strong of a setup around him.
The Raiders were 3-2 when Bisaccia stepped in — as opposed to 3-5 now — with forgiving portions of their schedule ahead. Las Vegas’ slate the rest of the way this year is daunting as it’s not currently favored by the betting market in another game past Sunday’s home date with the New York Giants.
There’s a chance the Raiders could rally behind the fiery Pierce’s lead. The former Super Bowl-winning linebacker only ended is relatable in that he had a nine-year NFL career as a player that only ended in 2009.
“I’m not promising we’ll go undefeated,” Pierce said. “I’m not promising we’re going to redo the record books. But I am promising you this: We’re going to have fun doing it. And I know when you have fun and guys start believing in one another and start engaging with each other and believing what the coaches are telling them and decide that’s in their best interest, then we are in this together. When you put the ‘we’ aspect in it and ‘us’ into it, it changes.”
Las Vegas also retained defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, who’s well-liked and has improved his unit this year, and elevated quarterbacks coach Bo Hardegree to offensive coordinator in the shake-up.
Pierce can lean on both of them, but he’s still relatively green as a coach. He didn’t decide to give the occupation a try until 2014 when he took the head-coaching role at Long Beach Poly High School in his native Southern California after a stint as a television analyst at ESPN.
Joining McDaniels’ staff with the Raiders two years ago marked Pierce’s first NFL job.
Unlike Bisaccia, he’s probably not going to get serious consideration for the head-coaching role long term.
Davis has valued experience with all of his coaching hires in his current position, but McDaniels showed that far from guarantees success. Still, there are some big-name candidates Davis could pursue this offseason for a second stint as an NFL head coach like current Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris and Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores.
Harbaugh was throwing his name into conversations and meeting with teams the last time the Raiders’ job was open, however, and Davis didn’t show any interest. That could change but the owner may also not consider the coach a fit with the Silver and Black.
Morris and Flores would check the box of coming from different backgrounds than McDaniels. They’re both Black, and Davis has championed diversity leadership as seen most recently by choosing Pierce and Kelly as his current interim heads.
“Although the circumstances are not ideal, there’s always opportunities in difficulties,” Kelly said. “I couldn’t be prouder to accept this opportunity. … I’m so eager and excited to get to work.”
Morris and Flores also stray from McDaniels in that they carry a defensive expertise, although most teams have opted for offense recently.
And that’s with good reason. The top of the NFL standings is currently littered with examples of teams that have brought in young offensive minds to lead the way including Philadelphia’s Nick Sirianni and Miami’s Mike McDaniel.
Davis probably thought he was going a safer route at the end of his last coaching search by choosing a more established presence in McDaniels. But McDaniels’ offense consistently came off as out-of-date, over-complicated and limited without someone the caliber of Brady at the helm.
Davis must have noticed as much on multiple occasions during his franchise’s 9-15 record under McDaniels, but he definitely did on Monday in Detroit.
For the sake of Raiders’ fans, let’s hope he was paying as close of attention when the Lions had the ball and saw the way the home team proceeded with pace, poise and purpose.
Johnson deserves a share of the credit for turning around a long-suffering franchise like the Lions. He could do it again with the Raiders.
McDaniels and Zielger realistically didn’t leave Pierce and Kelly enough to thrive the rest of the year, even though the new power duo is expressing confidence.
“We have the team, we have the people in this building, the players in this building to go win,” Pierce said. “Enough talk. Enough sitting here having these little (camera) clicks in the corner. That’s what I told the guys: Put the (expletive) pads on, go to work tomorrow in practice and let’s get to it. Bottom line, and see where the results go on Sunday.”