Despite the loss of longtime owner and NFL legend Al Davis, the Oakland Raiders remain steadfast in their “Commitment to Excellence.” Unfortunately, the attitude has not translated to on-field success. Since the Raiders’ loss to Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII, the team has posted a record of 45-99 including a run of seven consecutive seasons with 11 or more losses. On the other hand, Oakland has posted back-to-back years at 8-8 and finished one game short of the AFC West crown last year. Having plucked away new head coach Dennis Allen from the rival Broncos, the Raiders look to finally get back to respectability in its new era.
2011 Record: 8-8
Key Additions: G Mike Brisiel, RB Mike Goodson, DE Dave Tollefson, QB Matt Leinart, WR Duke Calhoun, FB Owen Schmitt, OT Ed Wang, CB Shawntae Spencer, CB Ronald Bartell
Key Losses: RB Michael Bush, QB Jason Campbell, CB Stanford Routt, DE Kamerion Wimbley, CB Chris Johnson, DT John Henderson, WR Louis Murphy, TE Kevin Boss
Offense: Hue Jackson went down swinging last season by acquiring QB Carson Palmer from Cincinnati for two premium draft picks, including this past April’s first-rounder. Palmer, who forced his way out of town by threatening to retire, threw 16 interceptions in 10 games. He also threw 13 touchdowns and ranked in the top 10 in a number of passing categories over the second half of the season. He faces big expectations this year, as he will control arguably the fastest offense in the league. Wide receivers Denarius Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Jacoby Ford all have tantalizing, blazing speed at their disposals. Moore, a fifth-round pick out of Tennessee, quickly built a solid rapport as Palmer’s preferred target. Heyward-Bey started to shed some of his “draft bust” label in 2011, catching 64 passes for 975 yards and four touchdowns. Expect Oakland to use Darren McFadden fully at the beginning of the season, especially after backup Mike Goodson injured his neck in practice. McFadden posted huge numbers through six games, averaging more than five yards per carry and scoring six times. But, a foot sprain cost him the next nine games. Injuries have been a calling card for Run DMC in his time in the NFL, but when healthy, he is among the game’s most talented all-around offensive players.
Four starters return along the offensive line, including left guard Cooper Carlisle who was cut and brought back at a discounted salary. The Raiders splashed on guard Mike Brisiel in free agency, signing him to a five-year contract.
Defense: Statistically, the Raiders were near the bottom of the league in defending both the pass and the run. They ranked 27th in both categories, respectively. The Raiders cut several high-priced veterans on defense, most notably pass rushing specialist Kamerion Wimbley and top cornerback Stanford Routt. The secondary is a huge question mark entering the season, especially on the outside. Shawntae Spencer and Ronald Bartell each signed one-year contracts and are projected to be the opening day corners. Bartell (neck) and Bryan McCann (ACL) are both coming off of serious season-ending injuries. Demarcus Van Dyke, who ran a 4.28 40-yard dash at the combine last year, will have to translate his speed into meaningful cover ability. Oakland does have solid depth at safety, with Michael Huff, Matt Giordano and Tyvon Branch all returning.
Richard Seymour posted the third-best sack total of his career in 2011 and returned to the Pro Bowl. He’s come into camp lighter and committed to Allen’s new schemes. Seymour and Tommy Kelly should be a nice 1-2 combo in the middle, but who else will be able to get to the quarterback? Projected ends Lamarr Houston and Matt Shaughnessy have a total of 18 career sacks between them. As far as the linebackers go, the offseason has not been kind to the Raiders as Aaron Curry battles injury and Rolando McClain may face a suspension from the league for his assault conviction.
Coaching: Allen, the defensive coordinator last season in Denver, became the seventh different Raiders head coach since 2002 when he was hired on January 24. His style is prone to surrender large yardage, a problem the Raiders had last year. Perhaps the biggest challenge for Allen will be reducing the number of penalties the team takes. Oakland committed 163 penalties last year, shattering the NFL record. Worse, the Raiders took 25 personal fouls, a league high. Hue Jackson’s bully attitude translated into more needless penalties than any team can endure. Allen has a very young team which often struggles with maturity. He will need to rely on his veterans early on to set the tone and try to re-establish a winning culture.
Breakout Player: The Raiders’ running back situation took a major hit this offseason when Michael Bush signed a four-year deal with the Chicago Bears. But, that was compounded when new addition Mike Goodson suffered a neck injury in training camp. Given McFadden’s propensity for injury, it will be important to have another back waiting in the wings. The Raiders hope it will be Taiwan Jones, a sixth-round pick last year out of Eastern Washington. Jones also runs a risk of injury, battling hamstring issues throughout his college career. But, he has speed to burn. He was clocked at 4.33 in his pro day 40,and he will play behind a very solid run blocking line. Should he get the opportunity, he has superb home run potential.
Prediction: When healthy and not acting foolishly, the Raiders can be an extremely dangerous team. No one can match their collective speed, but no team thinks less frequently than the silver and black. The ultimate question will be if McFadden can play anywhere close to 100 percent for a significant portion of the season. If the answer’s yes, Oakland will contend for the division crown. If not, the Raiders may be drafting in the top 10 again. Considering the talent on the roster and the amount of mistakes the Raiders tend to make, it’s hard to see them finishing anywhere but right smack dab in the middle. I’ll take the Raiders to finish 7-9 in what should be one of the most hotly contested divisions in the league.
Overview: Raider Nation admittedly does not feel the same without Al Davis around. Sure, there will be fans dressed as pirates, criminals and Darth Vader, but not seeing Davis in his bright white track suit with slicked-back hair should come as a disappointment to all NFL fans. Without Davis, the league would not be where it is today. While most casual fans today probably associate Davis as the crazy old man who bad-mouthed Lane Kiffin or paid JaMarcus Russell some $50 million to play the worst quarterbacking imaginable, he’s the same man who built Oakland into a football powerhouse for the better part of six decades. He also stands as one of the sport’s greatest supporter of civil rights, refusing to allow his team to play a preseason game in Mobile, Ala. in 1963 as a protest to the state’s segregation laws. He hired the NFL’s first black head coach, the first female chief executive and the league’s second Latino head coach. The Raiders are, and always will be, Al’s team. “Just win, baby” will be a phrase echoed from generations of fans to come.