If you’ve ever seen Jerry Springer’s game show Baggage, you have a sense of the matchmaking effort necessary to bring Rolando McClain to the Ravens.
McClain comes to Baltimore a 23-year old with 3 years worth of NFL experience but a lifetime of off-the-field baggage through which Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh had to sift. McClain is not without on-field baggage as well and I’ll focus on that.
Rolando Mcclain was clearly a very unhappy man in 2012. He played for a bad football team and lost the trust of his coach at a time when he’d actually played fairly well. To understand the situation requires some background. Here’s a brief summary of his 3 years in the league:
2010: McClain was drafted 8th overall by the Raiders and was installed as the every-down MLB in the Raiders’ 4-3 scheme, playing 93.5% of snaps. Rolando was effective against the run, but allowed 4 passing TDs to his assignments (more on that later) with 1 INT and 6 PDs. He was targeted 57 times of the 430 times he dropped to coverage and opposing QBs had a rating of 102.9 throwing to his assignment. He was used to rush on only 15% of pass plays and recorded ½ a sack and 3 QHs. He would finish 2nd on the Raiders with 85 tackles and missed 6 per PFF. It was a promising rookie season and above average for all NFL ILBs.
2011: The Raiders hired Hue Jackson despite an improvement by 221 net points and a 3 wins (5-11 to 8-8) the previous season under Tom Cable. McClain again played almost every down (93.8%) and was again 2nd on the team with 99 tackles (9 missed). He took a big step forward as a pass rusher with 5 sacks and 8 QHs. PFF scored him for 20 pressure events in 103 times rushing the passer, an outstanding percentage for any position, and of 14 PDs, they label 5 as passes batted at the line of scrimmage (LoS). Despite 9 PDs in coverage, Rolando allowed 3 TDs and had a opposing QBR of 105.1. It was probably the worst of his 3 seasons to date, but it’s a big positive when a young player proves he can perform well in another facet of the game.
2012: The Raiders again switched coaches, installing Dennis Allen to replace Hue Jackson after an 8-8 season. McClain played well for the first 3 games. However, in week 4 against the Broncos, his assignments were targeted 7 times with 7 completions for 106 yards. That included a TD pass to Eric Decker described below.
Allen removed McClain from the nickel package the following game (week 6, after the Raiders’ bye) and replaced him with rookie Miles Burris (4th round). Allen further enflamed the situation by saying that Burris was not a “repeat offender” in terms of losing coverage. McClain’s snaps fell from 278 of 289 in the first 4 games to 227 of 446 (51%) in his remaining activations for the season. McClain would continue to start and his snap count would actually grow steadily from 18 in week 6 to 42 in week 12.
At that point, it’s clear the Raiders decided they would not retain the services of McClain for the final 2 years of his contract when he was scheduled to make $4 million (2013) and then $5.8 million (2014). As is not uncommon with a losing football team (3-8), the Raiders wanted to see if their other linebackers could play. Rolando was then informed by Allen that he had lost his starting MLB role to 7-year veteran Omar Gaither. Burris would continue to play every down (he missed just 1 snap after week 4), so the change at this point was simply to award McClain’s running-down snaps to Gaither. McClain and Allen had a heated argument and Rolando was suspended for 2 weeks. Following his suspension, McClain made several unfortunate twitter posts heralding the end of his career as a Raider. Many thought he should have been released rather than risk locker-room attitude contagion, but the Raiders retained him and he returned to practice prior to week 15. He was inactive for the final 3 weeks.
For the season, he played the run well, but again was torched for an opposing QBR of 125.
I’m going to speculate as to the feelings of both the Raiders’ front office and McClain as of December 2012.
Summarizing from the organization’s point of view:
- McClain has had off-field issues with which we aren’t happy.
- Rolando can’t cover well, but worse, he forgets his assignment and tries to freelance at times (QBR against has been over 100 every season).
- He’s been a marginal pass rusher in 2012 after a pretty darn good year in 2011.
- While he’s effective against the run, that’s insufficient in today’s pass-first NFL.
- He has an enormous salary due for each of the next 2 seasons which we can’t justify.
- Since he won’t be retained for 2013, we may as well see what our other players can do, even if they aren’t as talented.
- His post-suspension twitter comments are testament to the immaturity we don’t feel is correctable.
Summarizing from McClain’s point of view
- I’m dealing with my off-field issues.
- I’m the best ILB on this team.
- The guy you have taking my nickel snaps (Burris) is AWFUL (Per PFF, Burris missed 20 tackles while making 86 in 2012, an atrocious ratio for a linebacker). And he can’t cover or rush the passer either (true, true).
- I’ve made some bad plays in coverage, but there are many NFL ILBs as bad. I’m young and athletic, so with understanding and coaching I could be much better.
- You aren’t playing me on passing downs or using me enough to rush the passer (he rushed the passer on 21% of pass plays when in), which is an important part of my contribution.
- If you don’t want to keep me next season, just release me now, so I can get on with the rest of my career.
2013: As expected, McClain was released on April 5th. The Ravens picked him up to shore up their ILB corps depleted by the losses of Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe.
In researching this piece, I read a lot of Raider-fan griping about his missed tackles and how he’s out of position regularly against the run. In watching video from 2012, I wouldn’t characterize it that way at all. McClain gambles or is assigned to run blitz frequently. When he does, he closes a gap, but that means another may be open. The payoff for McClain’s style is in running plays stopped near the LoS. McClain had 70% of his tackles as stops per PFF (I believe they use the FO definition for a defensive win), the 2nd highest percentage for all ILBs. By comparison, Jameel McClain had just 42% of his tackles as stops and most ILBs are in the low 50s. McClain ranked 8th in stops as a percentage of all running snaps among NFL inside linebackers (11%).
To summarize his on-the field play:
- He’s a well above average run defender who rarely misses tackles. He’ll immediately be the best ILB for run defense in the AFC North.
- He’s a poor coverage linebacker and opposing QBs know it. He’s picked on with approximately the same frequency as Ray Lewis or Dannell Ellerbe were last season. He allows a mess of YAC which has been a function both of some key missed assignments and a defense around him that wasn’t particularly good.
- His productivity as a pass rusher has been up and down, but that’s an area where he was successful in 2011.
His coverage shortcomings are the most significant issue. To review, PFF charged him with 9 TDs to his assignments in his first 3 seasons. Here is a brief description of each:
Week 4 (Q1, 0:33): With the ball at the Oakland 11, McClain lined up between the hashes and 9 yards deep. Dreesen released free from the LoS and caught Schaub’s pop pass at the 5 then ran over Huff into the end zone. Schaub exploited a zone rush scheme where DT Tommy Kelly dropped to a short middle zone. McClain made a half-hearted attempt to assist on the tackle.
Week 4 (Q4, 15:00): Schaub ran play action to Foster then threw a 10-yard TD (6 + 4 YAC) to Foster near the right sideline. McClain wasn’t burned by the fake, but he couldn’t keep up in single coverage.
Week 7 (Q2, 2:00): McClain lined up outside the right number opposite Moreno. Chris Johnson had the slot receiver who took off for the corner as Moreno used the pick to go inside. McClain was obstructed and was nowhere near Moreno when he caught the 7-yard TD pass.
Week 11 (Q4, 1:20): The Steelers lined up 3rd and 2 at the Oakland 17 in a 28-3 game. The Raiders had 6 men on the LoS with 2 linebackers set up to play the run. In a gratuitous attempt to run up the score, Roethlisberger threw a screen left for Redman who easily scampered 17 yards (-2 + 19 YAC). McClain had coverage of Spaeth and peeled off to try to catch Redman, but was blocked by Scott. This is a case where I think the coverage assignment was incorrectly labeled. Redman should have been the responsibility of Shaughnessy who rushed the passer from the right side of the defensive line and allowed the Steelers’ RB skip by without a hit.
Week 1 (Q4, 3:49): Denver lined up at the 9-yard line with 3 WRs left. Broncos LTE Fells crossed in front of McClain to clear the area between the hashes. Ball then floated out of the backfield between the tackles, caught the ball near the left hash and leapt over Routt for the TD. It wasn’t entirely (if at all) McClain’s fault, but the play design took advantage of the weakest part of the Raiders’ zone.
Week 5 (Q1, 12:09): McClain bit hard on a play action run left to Foster. Dreesen slid out of the backfield to the left sideline and was wide open near the left numbers as Schaub threw across the field off the naked boot right. McClain turned back against the grain and was 10 yards behind Dreesen who loped down the left sideline for the 56-yard TD (15 +41 YAC).
Week 17 (Q3, 7:41): With the Chargers leading 24-16 in a game where the Raiders still had a chance to win the AFC West, SD lined up at the Oak 13. Vincent Jackson lined up slot left and ran directly to the post where McClain had deep middle responsibility. McClain looked back at the last instant and tried to find the football, but could not as Jackson secured the ball in the back of the end zone.
Week 2 (Q4, 11:57): Miami lined up at the 14-yard line, 1st and 10. Fasano drifted out 5 yards, turned, and caught the football on the right hash. McClain was late to react and then missed the tackle. Fasano rumbled for 9 YAC past Michael Huff for the TD. It was Tannehill’s first NFL TD pass.
Week 4 ( Q3, 10:17): With the Broncos leading 10-6, they lined up at the 17-yard line. Manning rolled left and hit Decker who was inside in a 3-receiver set left for the TD (2 + 15 YAC). The outside receivers cleared out coverage from Burris, and 2 others (could not read the numbers). McClain chased Decker across then turned to rush Manning. It’s difficult to be sure of assignments in this case, because McClain may have had responsibility to rush the QB once Manning broke the pocket. However, because this was McClain’s final week as a regular, I’d assume he didn’t execute the coverage as expected. Manning would go on to complete all 7 of his passes to Rolando’s assignments for 106 yards.
Summarizing those 9 plays:
- Opposing teams regularly run pick or clearout plays where he is in the area. The prevailing thought seems to be that if you allow McClain to make a mistake in coverage, he will.
- Although he did miss a tackle on Fasano above, I’d say tackling isn’t the issue, it’s a matter of position and being able to find the ball in the air.
- His height/wingspan didn’t help him on these plays, but his career PD total (20) is good for a linebacker of his tenure. His size should be an advantage in coverage.
- McClain doesn’t have the speed to keep up with most receivers. Watching him cover is a little like watching Terrell Suggs try to play MLB. Both are similar in build (McClain 6’4”, 259), but Suggs has outstanding instincts and the ability to proactively deke a QB (remember his duck-and-leap interception off Roethlisberger?). Suggs’ instincts are useful near the LoS to diagnose screen passes and knock down passes, but they’d be minimized if he had to play in space.
- Given McClain’s size, I wonder if he could move to 4-3 DE.
- By definition, none of these 9 TDs were successes for the Raiders’ defense, so the sample is not intended to be balanced. I simply wanted to see what had made McClain so unpopular with the coaching staff.
What makes McClain a good risk?
- Price. Pure and simple, the Ravens are getting a good player for a bargain price. One reason to be less excited by the price is the lack of optionality in the contract. If McClain plays well, he likely will move to another team in 2014.
- The Ravens’ situation at ILB calls for competition and depth. They currently have Jameel and Rolando McClain, Bynes, and McClellan as candidates at ILB and it has been suggested that Courtney Upshaw could play some there. Bryan Hall is moving to ILB from DL. In addition, they are likely to draft an ILB with one of their first selections. For what it’s worth, I think Bynes is the dark horse specialist in this group since he has the most speed and might be able to learn how to cover. Bynes’ skill set is magnified by the Ravens’ current lack of depth at safety.
- Unlike Oakland, the Ravens have an entrenched coaching staff, none of whom need fear for their jobs. McClain is a kid who needs special treatment and has a history of infantile behavior. They will be firm and clear with their expectations of McClain. The discussions required with Harbaugh and Newsome along with the physical are solid evidence of a desire to communicate clearly.
- Rolando comes to a team with solid representation from his alma mater. Courtney Upshaw is an early 2nd round selection who is 5 months younger, but already a disciplined system player. Terrence Cody was also a teammate at Alabama and is one year older, but he may not make the team. While I believe the interview with Newsome was valuable, I’d think an open-door policy with the Alabama legend would only serve to undermine Harb’s authority.
- McClain himself is playing for his professional life. To the dismay of Raiders’ fans, he’s made a lot of money at this game, but an emotional implosion in 2013 will likely taint him permanently. His agent can help him through the math of early retirement at his current expense level.
- I’m actually encouraged by the reported behavior of McClain following the bye-week demotion (losing his nickel snaps) in 2012. He reportedly was able to say the right things. This is a year to be restrained and let his play do the talking. To that end, I’d hope his agent recommends he disengage from social media. It provides too much of an opportunity to say something he’ll regret later. Whatever he says in the locker room or on the practice field won’t be tried in the court of public opinion by the Ravens. His tweets and Facebook posts are effectively unretractable.
- He comes to Baltimore free from the burden of his 1st-round status and large cap number. He’s simply expected to play a role on a team with plenty of defensive talent surrounding him. If he plays decently and has a quiet year, he’ll have suitors for 2014.
- With most free agent signings, the team is buying into the decline phase of the player’s career. However, McClain comes with significant upside. He won’t turn 24 until July and he’s been both a good run defender and a good pass rusher for stretches in his career. A number of long-time NFL players didn’t get their first start until they were older, so that’s a fine place to start.