ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 24
NAPA, Calif. -- In each of the past seven offseasons, the Raiders have had a sense of optimism, but it never translated into positive results. Oakland lost at least 11 games each season from 2003 to 2009, an NFL record for futility.
But two days into training camp, the Raiders expect this year will be different.
The main reasons are the team has an experienced quarterback in Jason Campbell and the plug was pulled on the JaMarcus Russell debacle. Oakland believes Campbell will bring out the best in a young offense. Defensively, the team thinks it has the right blend of veteran leadership and youth to be much improved.
Oakland coach Tom Cable, one of the NFL's bigger optimists, is working to make his team believe this is the year. Check out what Cable said on the eve of training camp:
“We’re going to go after the AFC West. I’m not afraid to say that. If they picked someone else for it already, that’s too bad. It doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to play the games. This team will be ready to do that.’’
Added Campbell: “All we talked about this summer was winning.”
Will this finally be the year Oakland, 5-11 in 2009, stops being a bottom-feeder? The Raiders are acting that way in the early portion of training camp.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Will Campbell ignite this offense? He is the key to Oakland's season. If he performs well, the Raiders could win two or three more games than last year.
The Raiders were remarkably better with fiery journeyman Bruce Gradkowski last season than with Russell. It was as if the offense was relieved that the unprepared and ineffective Russell was not on the field. Oakland believes the unit will react just as positively to Campbell, who is more polished and experienced than Gradkowski.
But Campbell must prove he can be a difference-maker. All he really has been in the NFL since being drafted in 2005 is a decent game manager. Washington tried to upgrade at quarterback in 2009 and then succeeded in the offseason by trading for Donovan McNabb. Still, the earnest Campbell has a big arm and he fits what Oakland wants to do in the vertical passing game.
2. Can the Raiders stop the run? Russell wasn’t the only issue in Oakland in recent seasons. The defense was not good. Oakland ranked 26th on defense overall and 29th against the run last season. Teams can't dream of winning consistently if they can’t stop the run.
A big reason why the Raiders, who open the regular season against Tennessee and rushing champ Chris Johnson, haven’t been able to stop the run is they haven’t tackled well.
The Raiders have tried to upgrade their run defense by drafting middle linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive lineman Lamarr Houston in the first two rounds of the 2009 draft. Both players were very good against the run in college. If they can make an immediate impact, the Raiders should be improved. Both got into camp on time and will get plenty of repetitions.
Earlier in the offseason, Cable said he wanted one of the two backs to emerge as starter. Then he said he thought the powerful Bush and the elusive McFadden could share carries. Now Cable said he thinks it is going to be a great battle between the two in training camp.
It really doesn’t matter what the end result is, but what does matter is Oakland finding a successful running system, whether it’s Bush starting, McFadden starting or the two sharing carries.
For all their ability, Bush and McFadden have been inconsistent and the team has not found the right way to use these players.
The Raiders started training camp with Houston at starting defensive end and veteran Richard Seymour at defensive tackle. Seymour played mostly end last year, in his first season in Oakland. Seymour could end up back at end, but this is an interesting look for Oakland. If Houston can make an immediate impact and Seymour can clog the middle, Oakland will have a solid defensive front.
Oakland has neglected the offensive line the past few years and it is still a problem. Yes, the Raiders drafted good prospects in Jared Veldheer and Bruce Campbell in the third and fourth rounds, respectively. But it would be a stretch to expect these rookies to be difference-makers in 2010. If the Raiders can’t block, it won’t matter much if Campbell is an improvement over Russell or if the running game comes alive.
For the second straight year, Cable is having the Raiders go through glorified walk-throughs for the first eight training camp practices. The idea behind it is to have the players soak in the learning aspect of camp.
Cable said he has a good feeling about this team because of the way it responds to instruction.
Cable thinks a big plus for the team will be depth at linebacker. Among the backups are former starter Thomas Howard (the team is trying to replace him with Trevor Scott) and newly acquired Quentin Groves.
The Raiders struggled mightily on offense last year. They scored 17 touchdowns in 16 games, tied for the league’s lowest total. Cable said a goal in training camp will be improving in the red zone.
Even though the Raiders are excited about 2009 first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey, early camp returns indicate he must be more consistent. Heyward-Bey dropped too many passes last season.
The Raiders are cautiously optimistic John Henderson will help stop the run. But Henderson, 31, has been slowing down in recent years, so he will monitored closely in camp and not overworked.
Houston is a fun player to watch. He plays with a lot of fire and has a knack for getting on the nerves of offensive linemen. He went at it with guard Robert Gallery on Thursday. Expect more tales of Houston getting in summertime scraps at camp.