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Blackjack Del Rio Doesn’t Care About Win Probability

Thanks to the coach’s calculated gamble, Oakland’s hype train can keep chugging along

Getty Images
Getty Images

With 47 seconds remaining, and his team down 34–33 in New Orleans, Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio made a rare kind of decision: one that defied both conventional and statistical wisdom. With the choice between going for two or kicking the extra point, the armchair quarterback said “Take the points” and ESPN’s win probability model gave Oakland a 51 percent chance for victory if the team kicked, compared to 44 percent if it went for two.

As Del Rio declared triumphantly after the game, good thing ESPN isn’t coaching the Raiders.

Win probability doesn’t account for individual matchups, and in Del Rio’s eyes, the odds were in Oakland’s favor. Derek Carr could throw to Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree against the Saints’ butter-soft pass defense that had already given up 319 yards and lost top cornerback Delvin Breaux to a broken fibula. Instead of playing it safe, as coaches almost always do, Del Rio channeled the late Al Davis’s motto of “Just win, baby” … and well, that’s what happened. Carr hit Crabtree near the pylon with a back-shoulder fade, the defense held, the Raiders won a barnburner on the road to start their season 1–0, and Del Rio earned himself a new nickname.

Coming into Sunday, Oakland was everyone’s favorite sleeper pick. The Raiders already had the talented duo of Derek Carr and Amari Cooper on offense and the superstar, multipositional monster Khalil Mack on defense. Then, an offseason spending spree brought in guard Kelechi Osemele, linebacker Bruce Irvin, safety Reggie Nelson, and cornerback Sean Smith. On paper, the Raiders roster looked greatly improved, and a Week 1 loss to a Saints team that finished 2015 28th in DVOA would’ve severely tempered that hype.

After Drew Brees found Brandin Cooks up the sideline for a 98-yard touchdown with 8:03 left in the third quarter, New Orleans pushed its lead to 24–10, and Oakland’s bubble was about to burst. But Del Rio stayed aggressive, trusted in his young playmakers, and Oakland found its way back into the game.

The winning two-point try wasn’t Oakland’s first two-point attempt of the game; it wasn’t even their second. After a four-play, 60-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter, Del Rio had his team go for two to cut the lead 24–21, but a pass attempt to Crabtree failed. Then, after a New Orleans field goal, rookie Jalen Richard broke an electric 75-yard touchdown run, and a two-point conversion on a quick out route to Amari Cooper tied the game at 27.

After another Saints touchdown, Carr put together a signature 11-play, 75-yard drive; he completed four of his six passes for 43 yards, and capped it with a 10-yard touchdown throw to Seth Roberts that set up the make-or-break two-point conversion.

Now, let’s not consider this a wild gamble; it was calculated. The Raiders broke the huddle with Crabtree and fullback Jamize Olawale split out to the left wing. New Orleans countered that look with a single-high man scheme (called “man-free”) that was tipped by Olawale’s initial positioning. As he motioned into the backfield, he was mirrored by Saints linebacker Michael Mauti, so Del Rio and his offensive staff knew that they would have man coverage with rookie DB Ken Crawley on Crabtree on the outside.

Del Rio called a timeout, and then put the exact same look back on the field. Olawale motioned inside again, was followed by Mauti again, and Carr wasted little time in throwing a floater toward Crabtree’s outside shoulder. In man coverage against a rookie again, Crabtree timed his jump perfectly and made the catch.

The Raiders became the first NFL team to score a go-ahead two-point conversion in the final minute of the fourth quarter since 2008, and just the fourth team to win the game on a successful two-point conversion with less than a minute remaining since the option was implemented for the 1994 NFL season. Del Rio’s decision evoked memories of Tom Osborne’s fateful decision to go for two back in the 1984 Orange Bowl national championship game. With less than a minute remaining, a Nebraska touchdown pulled the Cornhuskers to within one point of the Miami Hurricanes, and Osborne went for the win instead of the tie. Except, it failed.

Of course, this game didn’t have the same championship implications, but credit Del Rio for empowering his players in a situation most coaches would shy away from. It shows his team — well, his offense — that he has faith in them to execute and make a big-time play with the game on the line. It was a nice comeback and an important road win for a franchise pretty short on wins outside of Oakland over the past decade. (The Raiders’ .331 road winning percentage going back to 1996 is fourth worst in the NFL over that span.) The Raiders scored 22 points in the final frame and racked up 486 yards across four quarters. It’s an auspicious start for Carr, who finished the game 24-of-38 for 319 yards, a touchdown, no picks, and two two-point conversions. The chemistry between Oakland’s quarterback and his top two targets, Cooper (six catches for 137 yards) and Crabtree (seven catches for 87 yards), is apparent.

The win doesn’t mean it’s all sunny in Oakland, though: Despite the offseason additions, the defense was terrible, conceding a whopping 507 yards to Brees and the Saints’ explosive offense, and Smith was benched in the third quarter after giving up that bomb to Cooks.

Of course, the Raiders won’t be the last defense to get picked apart by last year’s passing yards champion, and while the Saints defense was terrible last year, their offense was seventh in DVOA. It looks even deadlier this year with the emergence of Willie Snead (nine catches for 172 yards).

With the Broncos and Chiefs also grabbing big wins this week, the Raiders keep pace in one of the most competitive divisions in football — and as we find out every December and January, a team’s season often hinges on one or two early season wins or losses. It wasn’t always pretty, but the comeback was impressive, and Del Rio’s bold decision shows that he believes in his team just as much as the preseason prognosticators.