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New NFL reflects old insight from Davis

The SportsXchange

As the new safer, faster year-round circus known as the National Football League finally enters its official 2013 in-season schedule this week, strategic and personnel insight from a controversial Hall of Fame icon reverberates, once again mocking those who believed they buried his complex legacy with him two years ago.

The indomitable voice of Al Davis, who achieved greatness long before recent twitter-time minds declared him archaic and irrelevant, echoes loudly in 2013. And the resulting debates are just as hot as when he was alive.

Despite massive reconstruction to eradicate his imprint on the franchise he midwifed and branded 50 years ago, the born-again Oakland Raiders are forced to concede to one of his final, controversial personnel decisions.

And, confronted with the latest offense-of-the-future, defensive minds around the league are concluding that the basic precept Davis preached for decades may be a, well, basic precept.

Terrelle Pryor, taken in the 2011 supplemental draft by the Raiders on instruction from Davis less than two months before his death, should start at quarterback Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. And, with a nod to oft-injured running back Darren McFadden, Pryor becomes the healthiest excuse for the high price of admission on a team whose overhaul is underwhelming.

In their desire to design against the confounding run-option offenses, defensive coaches across the NFL are all but quoting Davis' half-century-old mantra -- "in the first few plays of a game, the quarterback must go down and he must go down hard."

Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews ignited a firestorm this week by re-phrasing the Davis mantra out loud, admitting what all defenders in the league know to be their next reaction to attacking the volatile run-option offense, the same one that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick used to rip apart the Packers with 444 total yards, including an NFL quarterback record 181 rushing in the 2012 divisional playoff game.

Soon after Matthews admitted the Packers will go after Kaepernick in Sunday's season opener, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh whined aloud his fear that his quarterback was being "targeted." This forced the NFL's head of officials to clamor for a clarifying rules statement, which most of the media screwed up so badly that the whole issue became even more murky and perplexing.

It is the kind of distracting confusion that Davis loved.

With all due respect to Davis' chaos strategies, we are here to present the reality, confirmed by experts who know the subject well and have no axe to grind, image to hone or job to protect. They are former NFL czar of officials, Mike Pereira, now the pretty-boy rules analyst for FOX Sports, and John Madden, who after a short stint as an NFL offensive tackle and before becoming a Hall of Fame coach and game icon, was one of pro football's best defensive coaches, in charge of linebackers on a Raiders team that played in Super Bowl II.

In summary, Madden is certain all "32 teams" will focus harder than ever on getting the quarterback; Pereira explains that those quarterbacks are only vulnerable to legal, harsh treatment if they are in a running and not a passing "posture" ... and they both believe, despite Harbaugh's public concern, that offenses are already prepared with next-step strategy.

"Every defensive coordinator in the offseason worked on how to defense that run-option after it came up last year and defenses were really behind and on their heels," Madden said Friday. "I think every team is going to have someone assigned to the quarterback. When he runs that read-option they are not going to read him, they are going to go after him ... and hit him. There are 32 teams in the NFL and right now that is their answer, I think we all know that.

"We don't know if it will work, but what we should watch for is how the offense is prepared to react."

Pereira explains that defenses can certainly go after the quarterback and even hit him, but within certain rules.

"When the quarterback receives the ball he doesn't get any more protections than any other player until he shows a passing posture," Pereira told The Sports Xchange. "While executing a fake, with the ball in the belly of a running back and making the zone read ... if he hands off and makes a move as if running -- he is still a potential runner and can be treated as such.

"If, after the mesh point," Pereira said, indicating that instant in which the quarterback and running back appear both to be touching the ball, "the quarterback drops back and becomes a passer, now he gets the special protection as a quarterback. The whole language seems clear to me."

Although Pereira's background as an athlete is mostly baseball -- highlighted by a hitting a home run for Santa Clara against a San Francisco Giants team and then getting within one game of the College World Series -- he is a smart man who absorbed plenty of football since first officiating Pop Warner football in 1971, long before he became the Senior Director of NFL Officials.

"We know defenses are going after the quarterback," he said. "But now the question is how will the offenses use this to their advantage? Defenses who commit one man to the quarterback have one less man to cover, right?"

Right. And despite his protests, Harbaugh certainly knows that and is as ready as the over-wound spring that he is to respond.

Even the Raiders should have Pryor prepped for this obvious defensive ploy. He is not celebrated as one of the league's major run-option threats, such Kaepernick, Seattle's Russell Wilson or Washington's Robert Griffin III. But he has extraordinary size, speed and arm strength -- those basic elements Davis adored -- and the ability to disassemble an overeager defense.

That makes him a more compelling quarterback for the otherwise lackluster Raiders than sore-armed Matt Flynn or undrafted, but interesting, rookie Matt McGloin. They are both better able to run a system offense, which requires more adjacent talent to work than the Raiders have.

"Pryor is the only one who has any offense at all going for him," said Madden, now a Raiders season ticket holder. "They need somebody to give them some juice. They can't use a system quarterback because they don't have enough other pieces. They need somebody who gives them a chance to light it up and that is what Pryor gives them."

Al's final gift.

--Cooney is Publisher of The Sports Xchange, covered the NFL for more than five decades and is a 20-year member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.
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