31 Days, 31 Teams: Oakland Raiders
By Jeff Falconio
The motto of the franchise has always been "Commitment to Excellence" but for the last six years the Oakland Raiders have only been committed to bad football and poor personnel and coaching decisions. Oakland's claim to fame is the answer to the trivia question "who was the last AFC team other than the Patriots, Steelers or Colts to appear in the Super Bowl?" Oakland's run to the Super Bowl in 2002 feels like a lifetime ago.
But there's hope for the Raiders. Oakland finished with a 3-3 record after replacing Lane Kiffin with Tom Cable as head coach. Included in that stretch was a week 17 win over Tampa Bay that knocked the Buccaneers out of the playoffs. The finish to '08 gave the Raiders some momentum into the offseason, which was highlighted by a number of key free agent signings. Oakland signed tackle Khalif Barnes, one of the top linemen available, and linebacker Greg Ellis. The Raiders also picked up quarterback Jeff Garcia in an attempt to jumpstart the career of inconsistent JaMarcus Russell, the former overall number one pick. Oakland is hoping the quarterback controversy will breathe a little life into a very stale passing attack. The Raiders were at the bottom of the league in passing stats, due partly to the uneven play of Russell but also to the lack of talent at wide receiver. In another move to bolster the offense the Raiders took receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey with their first draft pick. Oakland was successful running the football thanks to a solid year from Justin Fargas and rookie Darren McFadden.
Thanks to a good, young secondary the Raiders were respectable in defending the pass and the return of free agent Nnamdi Asomugha brings continuity to that unit. However, against the run the Raiders got ripped apart by some of the better running teams in the league. By year's end Oakland had given up an average of nearly 160 rushing yards per game. That will continue to be a problem considering the running backs the Raiders will face in '09.
Burning Question: Can the Raiders bring it together this year? By naming Cable the permanent head coach in the offseason, the Raiders are hoping to start building some consistency not seen since the days of Jon Gruden at the start of the decade. With Michael Bush joining Fargas and McFadden the Raiders have proven they can run the ball but Oakland needs more balance on offense as well as defense. The free agent signings should help and the pieces appear to be coming together but the Raiders are always a wild card and can easily implode by midseason.
The Raiders will be better than last year if: Russell takes command of the offense and finally displays the potential that made him the first pick in '07. Heyward-Bey becomes a legitimate target which is necessary considering tight end Zach Miller and McFadden were the leading pass catchers last year. McFadden stays healthy and the three-headed backfield, bolstered by the presence of Barnes, turns Oakland into a ball control team. This helps keep the defense of the field, thus covering up the weakness of run defense. This team could legitimately finish .500.
The Raiders will be worse than last year if: The quarterback issue still is not resolved, McFadden gets hampered by injuries and rookie Heyward-Bey turns out to be the reach everybody thought he would be. The other three AFC West teams destroy Oakland on the ground as do other run-first teams like the Ravens, Steelers and Giants. Cable gets the axe midway though the year and the Raiders once again start rebuilding.