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2009 team preview: Oakland Raiders
It's a huge undertaking.
The Raiders have lost 11 or more games six consecutive seasons, a record of futility unmatched in NFL history, and are 24-72 during that span. If being above .500 is the mark of a good team, the Raiders have had exactly three good teams since returning to Oakland in 1995 - a run of division titles from 2000 through 2002, the last one culminating in a Super Bowl loss to Tampa Bay which started the crash.
The defeats have fostered a culture of losing that Cable thought he had conquered last December.
"I thought it was a mouse but it turned out to be an elephant," Cable said.
Unlike last year's offseason binge that included pricy big names such as safety Gibril Wilson through free agency and a trade for DeAngelo Hall, the Raiders instead decided to retain the services of their best players and develop their own talent.
"It was important to have that foundation," Cable said.
Cable hasn't been shy about the Raiders' goals. While predecessor Lane Kiffin made it a policy to downplay expectations to the point of criticizing the talent level on his own roster, Cable wants his team to contend immediately.
"We're in it to win a championship," Cable said.
The brave talk was blindsided somewhat in a 45-7 Week 3 preseason loss to New Orleans that had the non-competitive stench of two of last season's worst games, both in Oakland - a 41-14 season-opening loss to Denver and a 24-0 loss to Atlanta.
The prevailing notion following that game is that it can't happen again, and won't happen again.
The Raiders believe they can contend in an AFC West which had San Diego as a division champion with a .500 record and new coaching regimes in Denver and Kansas City.
For that to happen, Cable and Co. spent much of the offseason attempting to upgrade the NFL's least productive passing game around third-year quarterback JaMarcus Russell to complement a running game which was sixth in rushing in 2007 and 10th in 2008.
"You run to win in this league, but you pass to score points," Cable said.
Defensively, the Raiders vowed to be tougher against the run through better discipline and gap control with the personnel largely remaining the same.
After a shaky start, there are signs that Russell is coming around under the tutelage of quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett and a passing system with more downfield options installed by passing game coordinator Ted Tollner.
"It's a process and we're going through it together," Russell said. "It's not like it's one person's job. Everybody's job has to be done in order to get there. We're on our way."
Cable is gambling that all the time utilized to improve the passing game will not affect the Raiders' ability to run with a three-headed backfield featuring Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas and Michael Bush.
It was no accident that New York Giants' offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride was a twice-interviewed candidate before Davis decided to keep Cable. New York's ability to utilize three runners in Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw was of interest to the owner.
It will be Cable's job to get work for all three without diluting their talent, particularly when it comes to McFadden, a back of game-breaking rushing and receiving skill who was hampered by turf toe as a rookie.
Even with the right side of the offensive line looking a little shaky and the receiving corps extremely young with the addition of top pick Darrius Heyward-Bey and fourth-rounder Louis Murphy, there is reason for some optimism with regard to the offense.
However, as the Raiders were giving up more than 500 yards rushing in back-to-back preseason losses to San Francisco and New Orleans, it remains to be seen if they'll be any better against the run.
Defenders simply aren't shedding blocks and/or making tackles, and the defensive front four is too often moved aside.
"A lot of the old issues cropped up again," Cable said.
If that area doesn't improve, the stellar play of Asomugha and 2008 surprise Chris Johnson at cornerback won't make much difference.
Until the Raiders can successfully defend the run in a division where they've been tortured by the likes of LaDainian Tomlinson and Larry Johnson for years, their offensive upgrades and one of the better special teams units in the NFL won't be enough for Davis to see his team restored to what he believes is its rightful place as a postseason player.
COACHING: Tom Cable, 2nd year, second with the Raiders (4-8).
REMEMBERING: 2008 record: 5-11 (third in AFC West).
PREDICTING 2009: regular season record (6-10, second in AFC West).
Notes and Quotes
--Al Davis was the only player in pro football history to sign a player named Napoleon dating back to 1923.
He also became the first to sign a Napoleon twice. Then he became the first to sign and cut a player named Napoleon within a week.
The three Napoleons signed by Davis were Napoleon McCallum, Napoleon Kaufman and Napoleon Harris. Harris was the most recent, the second of two first-round draft picks who was dealt to Minnesota as part of the Randy Moss trade.
Research indicates the only player named Napoleon who didn't play for the Raiders was Napoleon Barrell, a 5-foot-8, 200-pound center for the Oorang Indians in 1923 -- six years before Davis was born.
One of Napoleon Barrell's teammates was Jim Thorpe.
Strategy and Personnel
--RB Justin Fargas has been sidelined by a hamstring injury but is expected to be ready for the opening game.
--SS Mike Mitchell had two good days of rehab and could take the field soon after missing three weeks with a hamstring pull, but it's not clear whether he'll have enough football under his belt to be ready to play in Week 1.
--DT Tommy Kelly has come under criticism for the Raiders' play against the run in preseason losses to San Francisco and New Orleans, but Cable absolved Kelly of much of the blame, saying he has played well.
--C John Wade came out of the Dallas game with a stinger, missed two weeks, practiced one day and then was on the sideline again.
--LB Slade Norris, who had been running as the second-team strong side linebacker and has played on special teams, has been limited with a calf strain.
--S Michael Huff sustained a quad injury against New Orleans and did not practice in the days following the game.
--T Khalif Barnes is out of his cast, walking without a limp and watching his teammates run through line drills, although he isn't expected to take the field until the regular season is under way.
PLAYER TO WATCH: WR Chaz Schilens - Schilens was the most productive player in training camp right up to the point where he broke a metacarpal in his left foot. He should return after missing a game or two and immediately be a go-to receiver for JaMarcus Russell.
Rd. 1/7, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, Maryland - He's going to drop a pass now and then, but he'll counter it with big plays.
Rd. 2/47, S Mike Mitchell, Ohio - Anonymous hit-man starting slowly because of hamstring issues, should contribute on special teams when healthy.
Rd. 3/71, DE Matt Shaughnessy, Wisconsin - Appeared to be challenging for starting role until foot sprain, will be given every chance to play.
Rd. 4/124, WR Louis Murphy, Florida - More polished as a receiver than top pick Heyward-Bey, looks like an instant contributor.
Rd. 4/126, LB Slade Norris, Oregon State - Running second team as strong side linebacker, he has promise as a blitzer.
Rd. 6/202, TE Brandon Myers, Iowa - Drafted as a blocker, has been a much better receiver than anyone expected.
UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS
Russell had a 90.6 quarterback rating over his last seven games, and after some revisions to the offense he struggled during the offseason and early in camp. He's played much better of late and is finding receivers downfield. As the future of the franchise, he'll start every game unless he falls on his face. Garcia gives the offense a different look and his experience is a plus, but it remains to be seen how he'll react carrying a clipboard. He wants to play. Gradkowski and Frye were even nearing the end of camp and either would be a decent backup, let alone a No. 3.
McFadden will get the most work as a runner/receiver, exhibiting the quickness to be effective in a one-cut zone blocking scheme and to get outside on the edge. He'll also split wide and in the slot, with good enough hands to catch passes both short and long. At those times, he'll be paired with Fargas, a steady gainer between the 20s with questionable hands as a receiver, and Bush, who should eventually supplant Fargas and be a co-feature runner with McFadden. O'Neal recovered from major knee surgery and has promise as a lead blocker, while Lawton and Reece will compete for a roster spot.
Miller went from 44 receptions as a rookie to 56 last season, and the hope is better production from wide receivers will make him a more effective red zone receiver (he had just one touchdown last season). He has the best hands on the team and knows how to find open areas, even deep down the middle on occasion. Myers was coveted for his potential as a blocker to pair with Miller, but has been a revelation as a receiver. He's caught everything and looks a lot like Miller. Stewart is a steady veteran who hasn't shrunk from the competition of the two younger players and has a core special teams role.
Until breaking the fifth-metatarsal in his left foot, Schilens was the Raiders' most consistent offensive player, catching everything in sight, short or long, whether he was covered or not. His return, anticipated after two or three games, gives Russell a jump-and-catch target for first downs and touchdowns. Heyward-Bey, his coaches believe, is already paying dividends in terms of drawing double teams. Next step is to catch the ball consistently. Higgins is a favorite for bubble screens and drag routes, and his four TDs receiving led the team last year. Murphy appears to be a more polished receiver than Heyward-Bey, a bargain in the fourth round, although ball-security was an issue in preseason. The wild card is Walker, who had offseason knee surgery and says he is pain free for the first time in three years. Watkins, on the roster last season, vies with Holland and Miller (an undrafted rookie free agent) if the Raiders go to six at the position.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Mario Henderson, LG Robert Gallery, C Samson Satele, RG Cooper Carlisle, RT Cornell Green. Backups - T Khalif Barnes, T Erik Pears, C/G Chris Morris, T/G Paul McQuistan, T Seth Wand, T/G Mark Wilson.
Henderson seized the job as the blind-side protector of Russell based on three strong performances to end last season and a solid training camp. Gallery is the Raiders' best all-around lineman, suited to cut blocking and operating in space as required in the zone blocking system. Satele has struggled in camp and during the preseason, as has Carlisle and Green on the right side. When Barnes returns from a broken ankle within the first two or three games, he could be asked to move to the right side to get the two best tackles on the field. Pears appears to be ticketed as a backup on both sides, while Morris, McQuistan and Wilson can each play two positions, which helps with line depth.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LE Greg Ellis, DT Gerard Warren, DT Tommy Kelly, RE Trevor Scott. Backups - DE Jay Richardson, DE Matt Shaughnessy, DE Greyson Gunheim, DT William Joseph, DT Desmond Bryant, DT-DE Ryan Boschetti.
Ellis replaces Derrick Burgess as a left side pass rusher and looked good in practices and preseason. Warren can be the most disruptive Raiders lineman but his performance has fluctuated from game to game throughout his career. Kelly didn't justify his huge contract last year, and the company line is that in Year 2 following ACL surgery he will be up to form. Scott has a good burst as a pass rusher but the question at 256 pounds is if he can hold up against the run. If not, Richardson or Shaughnessy could step in with Scott becoming a nice rusher. Joseph and Bryant made a late surge. Gunheim was a practice squad promotion who had a strong finale, sacking then-Bucs QB Garcia on the last play of the season.
The only secure spot is Howard's, who is one of the NFL's fastest weak-side linebackers and can range sideline-to-sideline as a playmaker. That he has occasional trouble getting off blocks isn't unusual for a weak-side linebacker, but it's a problem when the other two starters - Morrison and Alston - have the same issue. Morrison is a smallish middle backer and Alston has beefed up to more than 230 pounds but was drafted as a potential safety. Brown is challenging both Morrison and Alston but may not prevail at either position. Ekejiuba is a core special teams player who may carve out a 10-year career doing just that, but won't be in anyone's first-team defense. Norris was a fourth-round draft pick who is considered a good athlete but not ready for prime time. Williams has been with the Raiders since 2003 but has been given the chance to start on two occasions but failed each time.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - RCB Nnamdi Asomugha, LCB Chris Johnson, SS Tyvon Branch, FS Hiram Eugene. Backups - CB Stanford Routt, CB Justin Miller, S Michael Huff, S Mike Mitchell, S Rashad Baker, S John Bowie.
The Raiders were so intent on keeping Asomugha they guaranteed him $28.5 million over two years and a potential $45.3 million over three just to make sure they kept him around. Assuming he's healthy - he sustained a "chip fracture" in the third preseason game - his position is secure as a top-level talent. Johnson, the other starter, provided what DeAngelo Hall couldn't on the other side and earned a $4 million signing bonus for his efforts. Branch played in eight games before being injured on special teams but is being counted on as the starter on the strong side following an excellent camp. Eugene has done just enough to hold off Huff, a former No. 7 overall pick who has proved to be neither free safety nor strong safety. Routt is a slot corner who has never felt comfortable in traffic; Miller is a kickoff return specialist who filled in admirably at corner in a pinch late last year. Baker was the co-leader in picks with three last year; he was cut by Philadelphia and returned to the Raiders. Mitchell is an extremely raw talent who missed much of the offseason for different reasons, but who the Raiders hope will be an enforcer on both special teams and in the secondary. Bowe, who arrived with the fourth-round pick acquired for Randy Moss, has yet to display he's an NFL-caliber player.
The line on Janikowski is that he's extremely accurate from 39 yards and in, and much less so from farther out. That's the norm, but Janikowski was drafted in the first round to kick those long field goals, not make the short ones. Lechler would be a Hall of Fame punter, if the NFL believed in the concept of a Hall of Fame punter. He's got the paycheck to prove it. Miller and Higgins had two touchdowns each in their return specialties, and Miller didn't join the Raiders until the season was under way. Condo was exactly what you want from your long-snapper - anonymous - except for being adept at getting downfield to make tackles.