NAPA -- The script has been flipped and the roles reversed. Somewhat.Because a decade ago -- in a stadium the Raiders used to call home -- Carson Palmer was the mentor and Matt Leinart the student. Now, while Palmer remains the unquestioned starter, as he was entering his senior season at USC, it is Leinart who he has had to lean on while learning a new offense.Same offense Leinart played in the past two years at Houston under his quarterbacks coach, Greg Knaap, the former Raiders offensive coordinator who is now returning to Oakland in the same capacity under first-year head coach Dennis Allen.Ironic, no?"It's an interesting turn of events," Leinart said Tuesday. "To be with Carson again, it's crazy. It's 10 years removed since he left USC. It's 10 years, we're back together, which is fun. It's interesting because Carson's been around the game a long time, (but) for me, being part of this offense a few years, I'm still competing my butt off, but this is the first year I've really felt like that veteran leader to help the young guys."Because we're a young football team, so this is the first year I've really felt like I'm helping the young guys."Except Palmer is not that young. Not in regular years -- he's going to be 33 years old on Dec. 27 -- or football years -- he's entering his 10th NFL season after being the No. 1 overall pick of the 2003 draft as the reigning Heisman Trophy winner."He's the same guy," Leinart said with a knowing grin. "Three kids now, married, but he's got the same personality. That's why we get along so good, both being from Orange County and kind of the same personality, lifestyle type thing. He's no different, though, than he was when he was 21."Leinart, though, grew up rooting for the Raiders, even as he succeeded Palmer at USC and won his own Heisman two years later, in 2004. Palmer was simply a football fan. And now, Palmer is getting coached up by Leinart in Knapp's version of the West Coast offense with a zone-blocking scheme.Yet while Palmer does not see the irony in it all, he is appreciative of Leinart's, ahem, coaching."No disrespect to my quarterback coach, Coach Flip (John DeFilippo) and Coach Knapp, but its different when you hear it from a player, for whatever reason," Palmer said. "Your coach can tell you the same thing over and over again and every once in a while Matt will chime in and say, You know, I hit this on this play against this team or whatever. Its nice to get a coaching point from a player some times. Not all the time, but sometimes."Hes got experience in it because hes done it and if he hasnt done it, hes seen it done by another quarterback in (Matt) Schaub or T.J. Yates or whoever it was. Its really nice to get kind of the same coaching points, but its a little more believable when you get it from a player sometimes."Leinart, though, was not about to take the credit. Not when he's been around Palmer most of his adult life."I know he's getting coached better then he's ever been coached," Leinart said. "And that's nothing against the other former coaches. But just the way Coach Knapp coaches, and this offense, I think it's different for Carson but it's something that I think he can thrive in."This is an offense that is very similar to what we ran at USC with Coach (Norm) Chow and (Steve) Sarkesian and all those guys, Coach (Lane) Kiffin, and it's funny, I know myself and Carson both like getting out of the pocket and throwing on the run. Some offenses you don't do that a whole lot. But in this offense, with all the misdirection stuff we do and the running game we have, that bootleg stuff, that's why Houston is so good at it."And why the Raiders believe they can do it toowith Leinart acting as a conduit for his old college teammate.
ALAMEDA – Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio was twice asked about making in-season changes at his Monday press conference.
He wouldn’t rule it out. Del Rio said he would do anything necessary to help the team “win now,” and later said "we're not getting into staff questions this week."
Then he fired Ken Norton Jr. the next day, hoping the dismissal will provide a spark.
It might. More likely, it might not do enough.
It is a shot across the bow at its base, a signal that subpar play won't be tolerated.
“We played under our talent level,” defensive tackle Justin Ellis said, “Those things come with consequences.”
New play caller John Pagano has a unique style and knows how to bring creative pressure, disguise a simple play as complex and exploit weak links, but he won’t be using his system this season. He’ll still be working within Norton/Del Rio’s scheme and, more importantly, he’s still playing chess with existing, often inferior pieces. The Raiders understand that, and likely won't judge him on this final stretch alone.
Why? The defense doesn’t have enough talent in the secondary, the interior defensive line or the inside linebacker corps. That’s not on Norton or Pagano.
Pagano can’t do a thing about an offense struggling mightily to catch passes, block consistently and let plays develop downfield.
The Raiders have some major talent problems, with rush and coverage rarely working together as desired. That, and some uninspired schematics, have produced awful statistics.
The Raiders don’t have an interception, and are the first team to go 10 games without a pick. They’re on track to have the second-worst opposing completion percentage (72.3) and passer rating (113.3) in NFL history, per the Associated Press.
They’re also last in sacks for the second straight year, with just 14 this season despite having reigning defensive player of the year Khalil Mack.
They're thin because last year's second and third round picks, Jihad Ward and Shilique Calhoun aren't contributing. This year's draft class had to make an immediate impact, but Gareon Conley played two games, Obi Melifonwu spent eight games on IR and Eddie Vanderdoes as underwhelmed after a promising start.
Highly paid free agents haven't performed well enough, and many could be shown the door.
It’s possible roughly half of the starting lineup doesn’t return next season, with Sean Smith, Reggie Nelson, Bruce Irvin and NaVorro Bowman likely out the door as free agents or roster cuts.
In sum, this isn’t all Norton’s fault.
He was, however, the easiest cut. You can’t fire players en masse during the year, and Pagano was an easy replacement without disrupting the position coaches. Pagano has extensive experience calling plays. He was the then-San Diego Chargers’ defensive coordinator from 2012-16.
Norton wasn’t an innovative play caller. He was passed over for coordinator jobs while serving as Seattle’s linebackers coach, after Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn were hired as head coaches. Del Rio, who played with Norton in Dallas back from 1989-91, hired Norton shortly after being hired by the Raiders.
The Raiders' defense has never been good under Norton/Del Rio, and Norton was on a hot seat most of last season. It was surprising when Pagano was hired that Norton was retained and allowed to continue despite underwhelming performance.
Norton was immensely popular in the locker room, especially with members of the front seven. Mack and Irvin in particular were Norton guys. Norton and Irvin go way back to Irvin’s Seattle days, where the coach helped the player get and stay on the right path.
That’s why this firing was deeply felt on Tuesday. The players were told in an afternoon meeting, following a walk-through focused on corrections from Sunday’s New England loss.
"The axe came down on everybody," free safety Reggie Nelson said. "Everybody felt it in this building. Players, we love Norton, regardless. Unfortunately, the production wasn't a high standard this year and it's a production league. He's not playing. We are.”
The Raiders are 4-6, and can’t afford to lose many more games. They might need to be perfect down the stretch to avoid a messy tiebreaker situation. That’s a tough ask for a team that’s been woefully inconsistent on both sides. This team was always expected to shoot for the middle defensively and have a potentially great offense score points by the bushel.
The offense has been most disappointing, performing far below its pay grade and talent level. There was no movement on that side of the ball. The Raiders hope, with fingers firmly crossed, this defensive change provide the spark necessary to create turnovers and quarterback pressure than has been lacking in a disastrous season to this point.
Ken Norton Jr.'s time with the Raiders is up.
With the team underperforming, Oakland has fired Norton as the defensive coordinator, the team announced Tuesday afternoon. John Pagano will handle the play calling duties when the Raiders take on the Broncos this Sunday.
Head coach Jack Del Rio issued the following statement regarding the news:
“After careful thought, I have made a difficult decision to part ways with Ken Norton, Jr. as defensive coordinator. I have the utmost respect for Ken as a person and as a coach, but I feel that moving John Pagano into the play-calling role will best utilize his wealth of experience. I appreciate Ken’s passion and commitment to the Raiders since coming aboard and wish him the best going forward.”
The Raiders defense under Norton this season ranks 26th in the NFL in yards allow per game (367.0), is allowing 24.7 points per game and has yet to record an interception through 10 games.
"We played under our talent level. Those things come with consequences," defensive lineman Justin Ellis told reporters shortly after the news broke.
"The axe fell on all of us. We love Coach Norton. We didn’t want to see this happen," safety Reggie Nelson said.
Norton joined Del Rio's staff prior to the 2015 season.