It’s a new era in Oakland. Whether it’s going to be a better era than the mostly-dismal one over the past decade remains to be seen.
There’s no more Al Davis calling the shots for the Silver-and-Black after the franchise patriarch passed away last October. The new regime, led by Al’s son Mark, made a clean sweep after the Raiders faded to 8-8 last season, missing out on what looked to be a likely playoff berth much of last autumn when losing four of their last five games, including an especially painful, 38-26 final-game setback vs. San Diego that would have put Oakland into the postseason for the first time since the Super Bowl campaign of 2002.
When the smoke cleared, coach Hue Jackson, who had just one year on the job after serving as Oakland offensive coordinator under Tom Cable, walked the planked. The younger Davis thus enlisted a regime with his own fingerprints, led by new GM Reggie McKenzie, who got to run his first draft in late April after working alongside Ted Thompson in Green Bay.
Indeed, McKenzie seems intent on modeling the new-look Raiders after the Packers, which might make Al Davis roll over in his grave, but seems a prudent idea after Green Bay’s recent successes (and Oakland’s recent failures). New head coach Dennis Allen has been a well-regarded NFL defensive assistant for the past decade and arrives in Oakland after a stop in Denver as John Fox’s defensive coordinator for last year’s Broncos.
Allen is being given total authority to handle his coaching staff and on-field matters, a departure from the old Raider way of doing things in the era of Al. This is reminiscent of the operation in Green Bay, where a similar delineation exists between GM Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy.
On McKenzie’s end, there was little to work with in the April draft, with the Raiders minus a first-round pick (surrendered to the Bengals in the Carson Palmer trade) and without a selection until the 95th pick overall, late in the third round. It’s doubtful any rookies make much impact, although 4th-round LB Mike Burris from San Diego State has some intriguing upside and should help immediately on special teams.
McKenzie instead spent much of the offseason purging some of Al’s big contracts from the roster, releasing highly-paid but underachieving sorts such as CB Stanford Routt and LB Kamerion Wimbley. McKenzie was somewhat active in free agency, though was working mostly on the periphery while adding a few modestly-priced vets. Of those, ex-Texans G Mike Brisiel was probably the highest-profile addition, along with lesser-priced CBs Ron Bartell (ex-Rams) and Shawntae Spencer (ex-49ers) and DE Dave Tollefson (ex-Giants).
McKenzie also tweaked the offensive personnel, letting former QB Jason Campbell and RB Michael Bush both walk in free agency. Campbell’s departure puts extra pressure on Palmer to stay healthy, with disappointing ex-Heisman winner and free agent signee Matt Leinart the only experienced cover for Palmer on the roster.
New offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, the Texans’ QB coach the past two seasons, will be implementing a new-look West Coast-style package as well and will also be re-installing the zone blocking schemes last used in Oakland when Knapp was working for Lane Kiffin’s regime in 2007-08.
Palmer showed he could still wing it last season when he was thrown into the lineup cold in the sixth week of the season, partially explaining his 16 interceptions vs. only 13 TD passes. When Palmer had time to set and scan the field, however, he often looked as good as he did in his best Cincinnati years.
Palmer’s receiving corps is regarded as one of the up-and-coming ones in the AFC. Former first-round draftee Darrius Heyward-Bey finally began to flash some of his considerable upside when catching 64 passes a year ago. Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford are other wideouts who can also get deep.
On the opponents’ side of the 50-yard-line, however, the Raiders always remain a threat to at least put three points on the board with shaved-headed, strong-legged PK Sebastian Janikowski, whose achievements last season included kicking a NFL record-tying 63-yard field goal in Denver’s thin altitude in the opening Monday night game. Janikowski remains virtually automatic inside of 53 yards.
Without Bush as a nice change-of-pace and capable replacement, however, it will be important for RB Darren McFadden to stay healthy, which has not been easy the past couple of years. McFadden gained 5.4 ypc in 2011 but only played in seven games due to injury issues which have recurred throughout his career.
New defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, most recently the co-defensive coordinator at Stanford, has junked the old Raiders defense, authorized by Allen to implement a new look, multiple 4-3 that will hopefully highlight a deep and disruptive group of linemen featuring Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly on the inside and Lamarr Houston and Matt Shaughnessy on the outside, with ex-Giant Tollefson versatile enough to provide depth at all positions.
The concern defensively is in the secondary, especially on the corners, where ex-Ram Bartell and ex-49er Spencer did not have stellar 2011 campaigns in their former locales. Bartell, in particular, must be watched closely after missing action due to neck problems a year ago. Allen and Tarver will also be hoping the defensive front becomes more disciplined as it tries to better stop the run. Along those lines, Allen and Tarver could also use MLB Rolando McClain to improve as a run-stopper.
Summary: The uniforms will look the same, but much else appears to be changing post-Al Davis in Oakland. New owner, new GM, new coach, new offense, new defense...that covers about everything. Keeping Palmer and McFadden healthy will be key to the new, West Coast offense moving smoothly, while the restructured defense figures to be a work in progress.
They didn’t build Rome in a day, and it’s doubtful Reggie McKenzie’s vision of building the Raiders into an AFC West model of the Packers will happen overnight, either. We’d be surprised if the Raiders are as involved in the playoff chase as they were a year ago, or do better than last year’s 8-8 mark.
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