OAKLAND – Dennis Allen, the Raiders’ head coach, will attempt to ride two horses at quarterback this season – Matt Flynn and Terrelle Pryor. Think the Alex Smith-Colin Kaepernick arrangement for the 49ers during the first half of last season. Is Allen making the right decision? Or will he fall off the horses?
Allen explained his decision Friday night after the Raiders 19-17 preseason win over the Cowboys. “I fully anticipate Terrelle being a guy we can mix in there,” Allen said. “He’s a dual threat. He can run the football and I thought he threw the ball pretty well at times tonight. We want to try to use that skill set. Hopefully it will add another dimension to our offense.
“When you look at Matt Flynn, you’re not going to be wowed because he’s the biggest, strongest, fastest, best arm. But that’s not what being a great quarterback in this league is all about. Being a great quarterback in this league is more about the mental part of the game than it is the physical part – it’s timing, it’s decision-making, it’s accuracy. Those are some of the things I see him being able to do.”
Allen hopes Flynn and Pryor will complement each other and give the Raiders’ offense a spark. On Friday night, there was evidence this may work.
Both Flynn and Pryor led long field-goal drives. Flynn completed four of five passes and seemed to have chemistry passing to the Raiders’ best player, running back Darren McFadden. Pryor completed six of 10 passes for 88 yards and rushed three times for 31 yards. The Raiders flew down the field when he was on it.
But if you look closer at Friday night’s exhibition game, you’ll see red flags.
Neither Flynn nor Pryor attempted a pass that traveled more than 20 yards in the air. That’s because neither guy has a strong arm.
Neither guy is accurate, either. I’m not talking about completion percentage. I’m talking about ball placement, hitting a receiver in stride. It’s the most important quality a quarterback can have. It’s what Joe Montana had in spades. It’s what Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith have.
Flynn hits receivers, but he doesn’t consistently hit them in stride. Pryor often misses receivers completely. His throwing motion looks painful.
He played well Friday night against the Cowboys’ second-string defense. Pryor was throwing to wide open receivers. When he got into the red zone and the coverage tightened, he immediately threw an interception.
After the game, Pryor explained to reporters how the game is slowing down for him. “I can break it down to you like this – last year, the last couple of years I’ve been playing, even sometimes at Ohio State, I wouldn’t know the protections. If you know the protections, you can start moving away from there and deliver the ball. I didn’t know any of that. I was just going out there and playing football. There’s more to being an NFL quarterback. Once you know the protections and you keep on mastering that, the game slows down an awful lot. I made about four or five calls in protection today and it felt awesome.”
Does that sound like a quarterback who’s going to take the league by storm this season?
Flynn and Pryor are going to look better in the preseason when defenses don’t game plan. When the regular season starts, defenses are going to stack the line of scrimmage against both of them to force Flynn to beat them with deep passes, and to prevent Pryor from running the read option.
In other words, Allen is backing the wrong horses.
The right horse is right under his nose. Rookie fourth-round draft pick Tyler Wilson, currently buried at the bottom of the depth chart, has the arm strength and ball placement to succeed in the NFL. You wonder if Allen, a defensive coordinator before he became the Raiders’ head coach, knows what he has.
“Just like most rookies, there’s a process,” said Allen, referring to Wilson. “He’s got to continue to improve in the mental aspect of the game. That’s the toughest part for any quarterback, specifically a rookie.”
Allen wants Wilson to sit on the bench and learn, but that’s the wrong approach. Wilson is the future of the franchise. Flynn and Pryor are not. The Raiders should speed up Wilson’s learning curve so he can lead them to the playoffs next season.
Luckily for the Raiders, Allen might be forced to play Wilson sooner than later. Look at the Raiders’ schedule. They could lose seven of their first eight games. Their best shot to win a game will be Week 2 at home against the sorry Jaguars.
If the Raiders start the season 1-7 and Flynn and Pryor flop, Allen’s job will be on the line. He’ll need to turn his team over to Wilson and hope Wilson can keep him employed.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.