The Oakland Raiders will finish in last place this year. And history will eventually judge this season as the most impressive and important since Rich Gannon led the Raiders to the 2003 Super Bowl.
Finally, after years of confusion, chaos, and a commitment to the total antithesis of excellence, the Oakland Raiders have become a football team.
With every move, whether it is trimming the salary cap fat from the prior regime or tempo in practice, a Raiders fan has to be more convinced than ever that general manager (imagine that, a GM in Oakland) Reggie McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen are the right combination to take the Raiders out of the woods, into the football world in 2012, and eventually into the playoffs.
Al Davis was a genius. He built some epic Raiders teams. But, you could argue, and I have, that the game passed him over the last 10 years. Perhaps he hired the wrong people. Perhaps, his control of everything, his archaic ways, forcing assistants on the head coach, were counterproductive to the cause of winning. And Hue Jackson abused his power after Mr. Davis’ death last year and was rightfully terminated.
Enter McKenzie and Allen, and not a moment too soon.
The offseason matters. The OTAs and minicamp practices matter. The Raiders are becoming a totally different team.
Allen and McKenzie are savvy, prepared and thoughtful. They come from championship programs. I’m sure it won’t be all smooth sailing. It’s the first time McKenzie and Allen are in their respective positions. But they are football people.
Talking to McKenzie a few weeks ago on the SiriusXM Blitz, he rightly can’t stop raving about Allen. When we asked what was most impressive about his young head coach, McKenzie gushed, “His leadership skills are off the charts. His command in the meeting room. It’s his command with the coaching staff, the scouting staff, the defensive room, the entire team. He takes it over. He communicates his point. His knowledge and passion comes over clearly. Dennis and I connect on many different fronts and the coaching staff and the players respond.”
Read that paragraph again. When was the last time the Raiders could actually say that the entire coaching staff and upper management were on the same page? It shouldn’t be a novel concept, but in Oakland, it counts as a major development.
I love the idea of Dennis Allen. In two years, if he stayed in Denver, he would’ve been the hot name in coaching circles. Talking to Allen on Monday morning on the SiriusXM Blitz, he confessed a natural learning curve for the job. But there is no doubt who is leading the Raiders. And the players are buying in, not looking sideways wondering if they can circumvent the coach by going to the owner’s office.
Allen told us his Raiders will bring, “a physical and mental toughness. We will be a smart football team. We will understand situations and execute. We will be disciplined. We will train ourselves to do the right thing.”
He spoke with conviction. Allen spoke of practicing these core values so they wouldn’t be a sound bite or lip service, but a way of life on the practice field, in the meeting room, with the carry-over to game day. When was the last time a Raider fan believed this?
Allen is a defensive guru and should maximize the talent. Allen doesn’t hide his expectations, saying, “We will be a tough, smart, fly-around aggressive defense that will dictate to the offense.” He reports that Rolando McClain, “has done everything we’ve asked him to do since we’ve been here,” and says “from our interactions, he’s a good guy.” Allen stressed honesty with every player.
It will be tough to win games this year. Peyton Manning is a Bronco. San Diego has talent. The Chiefs are getting their key players healthy. Davis and Jackson left the cap a mess and with a lack of draft picks, too. Jackson sold his soul and the 2012 draft for Carson Palmer and it predictably backfired. While I applaud Palmer for his work ethic this summer, and Allen says he is, "determined to have a great year with the hunger of a rookie," I wonder aloud if Palmer can still play at a high level.
The best thing to happen to Palmer and the Raiders would be a healthy rebound season from star running back Darren McFadden. Allen told us at the NFL Scouting Combine that McFadden playing 16 games is a huge key, and the coach had to help ensure it. Allen praised McFadden for being healthy during minicamps and said he has spent extra time with the strength and conditioning coaches.
I think the upside is 8-8, with the Raiders being well coached and a difficult out every Sunday. Here are my guarantees. The Raiders won’t lead the league in penalties. They won’t lead in the league in picks. They will be smart, fundamentally sound and make the fans proud. They won’t be a punch line.