New-look Raiders seek to end losing ways
The first offseason for the Oakland Raiders since the death of longtime owner and architect Al Davis was one full of changes.
A general manager was brought on board to run the football operations, the team hired its first defensive-minded coach since the 1970s and there was a significant roster shake-up as the new regime tried to rectify mistakes that led one of the league's most storied franchises into a lost decade.
General manager Reggie McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen were widely praised for their overhaul. Now they get to find out if the changes in the organization lead to changes in results as the Raiders try to end a nine-year stretch without a winning season or playoff berth.
''We respect what Mr. Davis was able to do here, the brand he created with this organization,'' Allen said. ''We're going to do it our way. That's the only way we know how to do it. Reggie and I have a plan and we hope to have success doing it that way.''
Davis' way that was once so successful, leading to three Super Bowl trophies and 16 division titles in his first 40 seasons, had not worked of late. During this current nine-year run, the Raiders have gone through six coaches, four last-place finishes and a number of embarrassing moments that tarnished Davis' legacy before his death last October. That led to Davis' son, Mark, hiring McKenzie to oversee the football side of the franchise. He immediately fired bombastic coach Hue Jackson and replaced him with Allen, who has won over his players with his attention to detail that they hope will lead to more success.
''It is different,'' defensive tackle Tommy Kelly said. ''Everything is detailed. Everything's got a plan to it. It's not just wait a minute and we'll find out. You know everything. You know what you've got to do, down to the second.''
Despite a bloated salary cap and a paucity of draft picks, the new regime did not inherit a bare cupboard upon taking over, providing hope in the organization that the rebuilding can happen quickly.
Darren McFadden has proven to be one of the most dangerous running backs in the league the past two seasons when healthy.
Quarterback Carson Palmer came off the couch a year ago in a bold trade by Jackson and showed signs of being the topflight passer he was just a few years ago in Cincinnati. Palmer should be even better this season after a full offseason to learn the offense and build a rapport with speedy receivers like Denarius Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Jacoby Ford.
The defense features an imposing line led by Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly and versatile safeties in Tyvon Branch and Michael Huff. Then there's perhaps the top pair of specialists in punter Shane Lechler and kicker Sebastian Janikowski.
So the task for Allen and his staff is to turn that talent into a winning team.
''The perception was just of a team that was extremely talented but lacked discipline,'' backup quarterback Matt Leinart said. ''That's kind of what everyone said, `Hey, guys, we're playing the Raiders this week. They're going to get cheap penalties, so make sure you don't retaliate.' But the talent was never questioned. Coach Allen and Reggie McKenzie, with the new regime, we're going to cut down the penalties, we're going to cut down the turnovers, we're going to play together as a team.''
While the offense figures to look a little different with a zone running scheme and more bootlegs and rollouts by the quarterbacks, the real difference will be on defense. Davis oversaw that side of the ball for most of his tenure, often hand-picking the defensive coordinators for his offensive-minded coaches.
The Raiders almost exclusively played tight man-to-man coverage on the outside, with a four-man line to pressure the quarterback and one safety deep in the secondary. Now Allen and coordinator Jason Tarver are mixing different fronts, different coverages and all sorts of blitzes that the Raiders hope will confuse teams that used to know exactly what to prepare for against Oakland.
''That's the one thing with this defense. You never know what you're going to get,'' safety Michael Huff said. ''It puts people in position to make plays. And it is up to us to make the play.''
Kelly said the constant harping about being disciplined and playing with the proper technique is already paying dividends. He said the Raiders are tackling better in the preseason than they have in his first eight seasons in the league and might finally be able to conquer the penalty bug that has plagued the team for years.
Allen knows the true test begins Sept. 10 against San Diego.
''To win in the National Football League you've got to learn how to not beat yourselves,'' he said. ''That's one of the things that causes you to lose football games. It's my job to get them to understand that, and then at the end of the day it's the players' jobs to make sure they get it corrected.''
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