’08 Preview: Raiders banking on changes

The Oakland Raiders don’t rebuild; they just reload. So goes the thinking of owner Al Davis. No one dares mention the dreaded “R” word in Davis’ presence.

But it’s difficult to call what the Raiders have done the past five seasons anything other than rebuilding. Just about every player from their 2003 Super Bowl team is gone. Young players man most of the so-called “skill positions.” The Raiders no longer take on players who are on the verge of retirement.

It’s all part of coach Lane Kiffin’s grand plan to make over the Raiders in short order, rid the locker room of its losing mindset and do whatever it takes to make the team relevant again.

2008 TEAM PREVIEWS

AFC EAST: BUF | MIA | NE | NYJ

AFC NORTH: BAL | CIN | CLE | PIT

AFC SOUTH: HOU | IND | JAC | TEN

AFC WEST: DEN | KC | OAK | SD

NFC EAST: DAL | NYG | PHI | WAS

NFC NORTH: CHI | DET | GB | MIN

NFC SOUTH: ATL | CAR | NO | TB

NFC WEST: ARI | SEA | SF | STL

To that end, the Raiders have turned over the keys to the offense to 22-year-old quarterback JaMarcus Russell, added 20-year-old running back and all-around playmaker Darren McFadden and infused an underachieving defense with DeAngelo Hall and Gibril Wilson, who both are younger than 27.

This doesn’t ensure instant success. The Raiders are still fighting the demons of a 19-61 record over the past five seasons and seeking a reason to believe that things will be different in 2008.

Offense

The Raiders employ a run-oriented offense that relies upon ball control, ball security and field position. Kiffin and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp aren’t averse to opening up the offense against teams that excel at stopping the run. However, their preference is to grind out yards as a means of wearing down opposing defenses while keeping their own off the field.

Defense

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan likes to keep things simple, for the most part. He asks his cornerbacks to play man-to-man coverage, his linemen to apply pressure on the quarterback and his linebackers and safeties to concentrate on run support. He doesn’t like to blitz as often as most coordinators.

On occasion, Ryan will switch to a three- or five-man line in an attempt to create confusion for the offense. However, he counts on his base defense to perform well enough so he doesn’t have to resort to too many looks.

The book on: Nnamdi Asomugha

A rival sizes up the Raiders’ top-flight cornerback:

“Asomugha is the rare kind of player who can make those around him better because of his ability to excel in man-to-man coverage and help his teammates recognize tendencies. His instincts are matched by few at his position. He has that rare combination of size, speed, instincts and tackling ability, something matched perhaps only by Champ Bailey.

“Asomugha took a while to develop into a front-line player but, once he gained confidence, he elevated his game into the stratosphere. Sometimes, you have to remind yourself just how good he is because teams rarely throw his way. You get the sense that he has the work ethic and character to keep getting better, even though he is at the point in his career where he is going to be among the highest-paid players in the league …

“Having someone like Asomugha on your team is a luxury few teams have in that you know you’re going to get a standout performance from him every game and you don’t have to worry about him getting into any trouble off the field. It’s mind-boggling how this guy hasn’t been selected to a Pro Bowl yet.”

Bottom line

The Raiders play only one team that finished with a winning record or made the playoffs last season in their first 12 games this year. Davis made a series of bold, expensive moves designed to jolt the Raiders from their five-season funk.

The dynamic McFadden joins Russell on offense. Add it all up and things are seemingly rosy. However, there are just too many question marks to think Oakland can make the leap from 4-12 to playoff contender in one season. This team would do well to win eight games and show continued progress in its rebuilding process.

SN prediction: 3-13, fourth in AFC West.

Steve Corkran covers the Raiders for the Contra Costa Times and Sporting News.


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Updated Thursday, Jul 17, 2008