The Raiders once boasted of being the Team of the Decades. Now, they are desperate to avoid being labeled the Team of the Decayed. Such is the challenge facing first-time coach Lane Kiffin as he takes over a team that went to the Super Bowl after the 2002 season but has lost more games than any other team in the four seasons since then.
Kiffin overhauled predecessor Art Shell's coaching staff, installed his version of the West Coast offense and welcomed a potential franchise quarterback in JaMarcus Russell. He also has challenged his players to join him on a quest to prove a 32-year-old is capable of succeeding as an NFL coach and that the Raiders are capable of restoring the glory they once accepted as the norm.
To help the incumbents try to do that, the Raiders selected Russell with the first pick of the draft and tight end Zach Miller in the second round. They added several more players to an offense that scored a league-worst 12 touchdowns and allowed a league-worst 72 sacks last season. But getting the offense to be as productive as the defense, which ranked third in fewest yards allowed in '06, will take more than new personnel – it's going to take a new attitude.
"You need your players to understand how you're getting them better. I'm not going to be a sit-back head coach. I'm going to be in the middle of it," Kiffin says.
Offense: Kiffin and his run-minded coordinator, Greg Knapp, envision an offense designed around two backs sharing the load. However, newcomer Dominic Rhodes will miss the first four games of the season for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. That should give the team even more opportunities to use strong-armed quarterbacks Russell and Andrew Walter to stretch the field with deep throws. The tight ends and fullbacks also will play a key role in the passing game. New line coach Tom Cable has implemented a zone-blocking scheme – similar to the one used by the Broncos – in an effort to get more production out of the line, which underachieved last season.
Defense: Coordinator Rob Ryan relies more on the talent of his players than X's and O's. His excellent cornerbacks, Nnamdi Asomugha and Fabian Washington, have key roles. They play man-to-man, freeing the safeties – which includes late-offseason pickup Donovin Darius – to provide support against the run and in coverage elsewhere. Ryan also places a huge premium on his linemen getting pressure on a consistent basis so he doesn't have to rely too much on blitzes.
Quarterback TBA: Kiffin is confident that changes in the system, including using the rollout as a staple, will enable Russell, Walter or Josh McCown to succeed. Russell will be given a chance to earn the starting job, but he figures to need some time to adjust to the nuances of the NFL. Russell's arm strength is unmatched, and he has the size to fend off even the biggest defenders. He needs to cut down on his mental mistakes and avoid forcing the ball into tight spots. Walter or McCown could begin the season as the starter, but Kiffin won't wait long before turning to Russell, especially if the other two falter. Walter has above-average arm strength and a good feel for the game but takes too many sacks and commits turnovers in critical situations. McCown compensates for his lack of arm strength by being accurate and smart. Quarterback is a huge question mark entering the season.
RB LaMont Jordan: The ineffectiveness, inconsistency and injuries that punctuated incumbent starter LaMont Jordan's first two seasons with the Raiders prompted the team to pounce on free agent Rhodes and draft Michael Bush. The coaches say Jordan can improve the 3.8-yard average he had in each of his first two years with the team. He has decent speed and solid hands. The Raiders are counting on the addition of Rhodes and the new system to spark Jordan. Both veterans are accustomed to playing complementary roles, so sharing the workload shouldn't pose a problem.
OT Robert Gallery: Four of the five linemen return from a disappointing unit. Team officials blamed the unit's poor play on the blocking scheme, saying the players are talented enough to succeed in the right system – Cable's zone-blocking scheme. The players won't be expected to hold their blocks as long, which could make them more productive. Gallery struggled in his first season at left tackle and now faces the prospect of losing his job to the man he replaced, Barry Sims. If so, look for Gallery to move back to the right side, the spot he occupied his first two NFL seasons. Both Gallery and Sims are solid, but neither is dominant.
CBs Nnamdi Asomugha and Fabian Washington: Asomugha and Washington have developed into one of the top cornerback combinations in the league. Their play is critical to the overall success of Oakland's defense because Ryan likes to use safeties Stuart Schweigert and Michael Huff in other capacities. With Asomugha and Washington on the corners, Ryan can do that without fear of it leaving the team vulnerable to big plays.
VINNIE IYER'S TAKE
Considering the youth of Kiffin and Russell, Raider Nation must show great patience with the offense while expecting more good play from the defense.
Prediction: 3-13 (fourth in the AFC West).
The Raiders haven't won more than five games since 2002. They haven't won a division game since 2004. They play in one of the league's toughest divisions, which features teams that appear to be at least as strong as last season. The Raiders' season-opening quarterback won't be the one who was there last year, and he might not even be the same guy who is starting at the end of the season.
That only scratches the surface of the challenge Kiffin faces – and doesn't take into account the pressure of working for hands-on owner/GM Al Davis. Don't count on a Saints-like worst-to-first season, but this team can't help but be better than last year's 2-14.
Steve Corkran covers the Raiders for the Contra Costa Times and Sporting News.