Ken Norton

Why firing Ken Norton Jr. won't solve the Raiders' bigger, deeper problems

Why firing Ken Norton Jr. won't solve the Raiders' bigger, deeper problems

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.

'Limiting explosives,’ consistency key to improved Raiders defense

'Limiting explosives,’ consistency key to improved Raiders defense

ALAMEDA – The Raiders defense ranks among the NFL’s worst in yards allowed after eight games. There are, however, signs of life.

Their yardage totals went down in four consecutive weeks, with a season-best 270 over essentially five quarters in a 30-24 overtime victory at Tampa Bay. That’s only 23 yards less than the Denver Broncos average, but defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. sees it as a step in the right direction.

Not great, but better.

The Raiders have gotten by thanks to solid third-down defense and frequent, timely takeaways. They’ve been plagued in other areas where Norton saw improvement against Tampa Bay -- consistency and preventing the big play.

The Raiders only allowed two “explosive” plays – passes of 20-plus yards, runs of 10-plus – and were steadier against the Buccaneers.

“It’s a matter of really limiting those explosives, playing and executing ball for the entire game,” Norton said Thursday. “Not having times where we kind of let up a little bit, but at the same time, really seeing them execute for the entire five quarters. They’ve really set a high standard. Now it’s about being consistently playing at that high standard.”

Norton’s defense is premised on making things simple to play fast and not giving up the big play.

The Raiders defense had to hunt and peck at positives early on. Now there are broader strokes to be proud of during a continued work in progress.

“We’ve been seeing some good things on film, but only in segments,” linebacker Malcolm Smith said. “Now we’re starting to see things we’re practicing well show up more consistently on game day.”

Look, the defense knows too many flags are flying their way, including two for having 12 men on the field against Tampa Bay, on third down no less. Those pre-snap penalties and substitution errors won’t fly, and the coaches won’t dwell much on them after initial corrections.

At 6-2, they’d rather focus on positives.

The Raiders are executing better, and the yardage totals have dropped. If those totals improve and the defense’s third-down defense continues, this unit should improve.

“It’s kind of what we’ve expected, you know?” head coach Jack Del Rio said. “Doing some good things and there’s still some things to clean up there as well. But, yeah, coverage is tighter. We’re much more sound, not letting anything get behind us.”

The Raiders still stepped up in the clutch against Tampa Bay, with three straight three-and-outs to close the win and a yardage total finally deemed respectable.

“When I heard 270, it was very pleasing,” edge rusher Bruce Irvin said. “We’ve been averaging a lot more than that. It just shows that we have the guys we need to compete at a high level. As long as guys do their assignment and we leave it out on the field for each other, you see the results.”

Norton Jr: Raiders designed plan to increase Smith's interception total

Norton Jr: Raiders designed plan to increase Smith's interception total

ALAMEDA – Sean Smith has two interceptions already this season. His next will mark a career high.

That seems crazy for such an adept cover man, but it’s a verified low interception count that might be rising now.

Smith had 10 interceptions in seven seasons entering his first as a Raider, never more than two in a campaign. It’s something his new coaches sought to change with a personalized plan designed to insure Smith gets more picks.

He has two since signing a four-year, $38.5 million contract with the Raiders, and coaches believe he’s primed for several more this year after letting too many past opportunities slips through his hands.

“Early on, we knew he had good instincts and good knowledge, but he would always drop the ball,” defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said. “The ball would come to him and he’d drop it. We put him on a JUGS machine and threw the ball to him often and talked to him about how to catch.

“We set up certain drills for him, and we really individualized his drills to make him aware of what his weaknesses are. He really listened and it’s shown in his ability to get his hands on the ball.”

Smith has two interceptions that count, and picked off a two-point conversion in Baltimore. He let a few slip through his hands this preseason, proving his coaches’ point that he needed to improve in that area.

Last week’s pick against San Diego proves he’s made strides. Smith said he identified Travis Benjamin’s route early and anticipated Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers would favor a one-on-one matchup and go deep.

Smith made Benjamin seem open and quickly closed in after the ball was thrown. He undercut the route, made a leaping interception and returned it 27 yards.

It was a highlight in a solid three-game stretch. Smith has two interceptions and three passes defensed in that span, where passer ratings are exceptionally low when targeting his man. Quarterbacks have completed 8-of-19 passes for no touchdowns and the aforementioned pair of picks against Smith.

That’s a stark improvement over the first two games, when he allowed a touchdown and got benched at New Orleans and allowed two scores against Atlanta.

“Sean is a competitor, and is really prideful about his work,” Norton said. “You can’t get to this level without caring about what you do. He is new to all of us, and he wanted us to know that wasn’t him. He wanted to really show that he’s a really good football player. He is a really good player, and it comes down to consistency and working hard.”

Smith can extend this quality stretch against his former team when the Raiders host Kansas City on Sunday.