Working for Al Davis is one of the most difficult jobs in the NFL, or in any profession, for that matter. The coach of the Oakland Raiders must have a focused master plan, thick skin and a fair amount of luck to succeed.
Interim coach Tom Cable will have an opportunity, at least through the end of this season, to turn those problems around. And it isn't the impossible task some would have you believe. Here are five positives the Raiders' next coach will have to build on:
1. A trio of explosive running backs
No team in the league (save for maybe the Giants) is as deep and talented in the backfield as the Raiders. RBs Justin Fargas, Michael Bush and rookie Darren McFadden all have lead-back ability, but in Oakland they are complementary players whose abilities make this unit even better than the sum of its parts. Fargas and McFadden share strong similarities -- both can gash a defense inside and get to the soft edge outside. Fargas is more experienced and, not surprisingly, the superior blocker. McFadden is a big-play weapon who provides insurance against an injury to the somewhat fragile Fargas. McFadden's versatility and experience playing the quarterback role in Arkansas' single-wing "Wild Hog" scheme (on which Miami's "Wildcat" package is based) is a wrinkle that gives Oakland's running game even more potential.
The 245-pound Bush is a powerful inside presence whose style is an excellent changeup from those of Fargas and McFadden. This is a unit that has the depth to stay fresh and wear out a defense, especially in Cable's zone blocking scheme. The offensive line isn't special, but it specializes in run blocking and meshes well with the backs.
2. A potentially dangerous vertical passing game
With a massive frame, good mobility for his size and possibly the strongest passing arm in football, QB JaMarcus Russell has a skill set similar to that of Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. And although the Raiders expected Russell's development to be a long process, some of the blame for the passing game's failings falls to Kiffin. His schemes lacked imagination and were too conservative, especially for an offense whose run game should have made the play-action pass a natural weapon. WRs Javon Walker, Ashley Lelie and Chaz Schilens (an intriguing seventh-round pick) have excellent size-speed ratios and can pressure defenses on the back end. That would create space underneath for WR Ronald Curry, an athletic possession receiver, and WR Johnnie Lee Higgins, who has the explosiveness to turn a slant route into a big gainer. Without fear of the occasional deep ball, opposing defenses have been able to overplay the run with eight in the box, pressure Russell and tighten up coverage on his receivers.
Although Russell likely stunted his own growth by leaving college early and missing training camp as a rookie holdout, he is capable of more right now. He has hit his spots when given time, and his frequent use of TE Zach Miller suggests he is reading the field. He has had enough time to get in synch with the offense, gain an understanding of coverage concepts and learn his hot reads. The protection is leaky, but Russell moves well -- an advantage that needs to be exploited. Offensive coordinator Greg Knapp incorporated the spread option into his West Coast offense to maximize Michael Vick's abilities during his time in Atlanta. With Kiffin gone, Knapp has the freedom to create designs that get Russell away from pressure and challenge defenses downfield more often. Kiffin didn't seem to trust Russell, but the Raiders can't afford to coddle their quarterback any longer.
3. A gifted defensive coordinator in Rob Ryan
If Oakland's offense simply had held it together in the fourth quarter against Buffalo and San Diego, the Raiders would be 3-1 and poised to challenge Denver atop the NFC West right now. Instead, two turnovers and a three-and-out late in those games put the defense in tough spots, and the record is reversed. Kiffin seemed to imply at times that Ryan's bunch shared equal blame for Oakland's shortcomings, but the truth is the defense, with only slightly more offensive support, could carry this team. Ryan has used more pressure schemes, to good effect, since his unit was picked apart by the Broncos in Week 1. Playing a safety in the hole and making use of his cornerbacks' man-to-man coverage skills, Ryan has gotten a lot of mileage out of five- and six-man pressures. Moreover, he's a hard-working coach whom players respect and rally around. He works with what he's got and puts his players in position to win.
4. An excellent young linebacker corps
Thomas Howard, Kirk Morrison and Ricky Brown are an athletic group that is responsible for a lot of the plays Oakland's defense has made. They are active hit-and-run players who attack downhill gaps and disrupt blocking schemes. Although a bit undersized, they continue to improve against the run and can thrive as long as the defensive line is controlling gaps and keeping blockers off the second level. In particular, Howard and Morrison have played at a Pro Bowl level in stretches and are two of the league's brightest young players. They are three-down defenders (a tremendous asset) who match up well against backs and tight ends in coverage and have a knack for timing up pressure schemes. Their instincts and ability to read routes and get into passing lanes allow Ryan to man up on the perimeter.
5. Outstanding cover corners
CB Nnamdi Asomugha continues to be overlooked by the casual fan, but he might be the NFL's best cornerback. His ability to match up with No. 1 receivers allows Ryan all kinds of flexibility. Ryan can build a game plan that targets an opponent's offensive strength. He can provide safety help to CB DeAngelo Hall (who isn't as steady but can safely match up in single coverage at times). He can set up combination coverages, move a safety into the box in run support, position a linebacker in a throwing zone the possibilities are endless.
The Raiders still have issues. Davis isn't about to give up control of day-to-day operations, but he needs more guidance in the decision-making process. The scouting department lacks manpower. A culture of accountability needs to be established and reinforced. Cable and Ryan already are helping in that last regard, but it's always tenuous in Oakland. Even with a favorable schedule down the stretch and a passionate fan base, this team faces an uphill climb over the remainder of 2008.
In any case, Oakland's new coach will inherit a roster that might not be exceptionally deep but is by no means in shambles. The silver lining in the black cloud hovering over this franchise is brighter than most realize. The Raiders, hard as it might be to believe, are close to contention.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.