Offense’s new calm, collected leader
Todd Downing’s NFL odyssey began at age 19, first driving around then-Minnesota owner Red McCombs’ grandchildren and soon thereafter working as a public relations intern for his hometown Vikings.
So when he reached a fresh and important plateau last Sunday in Tennessee, his first regular-season game as offensive coordinator for the Raiders, the adrenaline flowed, right? He barely could contain his excitement, yes? Well, sort of. “Honestly, it didn’t come until after the game,” Downing said. “I think our preparation really gave me a sense of peace going into the game. Afterward, there was kind of a rush of emotion because I accomplished one of my career goals.”
Head coach Jack Del Rio handed his offense to a poised, detail-oriented 37-year-old with widely lauded people skills. Downing’s debut was encouraging: The Raiders moved the ball well (359 yards of total offense) and scored 26 points, even if they sometimes stalled in Titans territory and settled for four Giorgio Tavecchio field goals.
Still, as the Raiders head into Sunday’s home opener against the Jets, boundless confidence surrounds the offense. The Raiders added running back Marshawn Lynch and tight end Jared Cook to a dynamic core of quarterback Derek Carr and wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree.
And, yes, a large and mobile offensive line.
Downing recognizes the abundance of supremely skilled players at his disposal. He spread the ball around against Tennessee; Carr com-
pleted passes to eight receivers, many on quick, short throws designed to keep pass rushers away from him.
Also worth noting was Oakland’s balance. Carr attempted 32 passes and the Raiders ran the ball 29 times, including 18 carries for Lynch. They mixed it up nicely in the first half, then leaned on Lynch while trying to protect their lead and run down the clock in the fourth quarter.
Downing might be new at this play-calling thing, but he finds strength in his rapport with Carr.
“When you see the game the same way as your quarterback, it’s easy to call plays,” Downing said. “… It’s just one week, just a step in the right direction. There’s plenty we need to improve on, but it takes out some of the angst when you know how your quarterback thinks.”
Downing displays a grounded persona befitting his Midwestern background. He’s not above jumping into the fray with his players, either. At the start of Thursday’s practice, he filled the running-back role during one drill, taking handoffs and pitchouts from backup quarterback EJ Manuel.
All the while, Downing recited plays to his quarterbacks. His demeanor is one reason Carr expects Downing to prosper in his new role.
“He’s the same every day,” Carr said. “He’s never going to blow up on people or freak out. No matter what’s happening on the field, he’s the same.
“And when guys see that over time, you start to feel like, ‘Oh, this guy is cool all the time.’ So if you mess up, it’s not like, ‘Oh, man, I’m about to get ripped.’ No, it’s the same — just make the correction and move on.”
Downing landed his first coordinator job amid uncommon circumstances. The Raiders ranked sixth in the league in total offense last season, but Del Rio knew Downing was starting to attract heavy interest around the league as an offensive coordinator.
So the Raiders unloaded Bill Musgrave, last year’s coordinator, and promoted Downing before he could leave.
His inaugural strategic challenge was considerable, because Tennessee has a Hall of Fame defensive coordinator in 80-year-old Dick LeBeau. The Jets also could pose a tougher-than-expected test, with the league’s 11th-ranked defense last season.
The Raiders clearly have faith in Downing, who has come a long way from his days as a chauffeur and PR intern.
“I think he has leadership qualities and organization, a good presence,” Del Rio said. “He had a nice start. He won against a real legend of the game with LeBeau last week, and now it doesn’t slow down with (head coach) Todd Bowles and what they do.”