Monday night’s matchup between the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders is a mystery date.
With little to go on but performances in meaningless summer exhibition games, injury reports and what coaches and players have said from training camp practices, it’s hard to predict how the season-opening prime-time matchup between two underperforming teams from 2011 will unfold.
Oddsmakers have made the Raiders a 1-point favorite in the game, but NFL prognosticators are almost evenly split. At CBS Sports, five writers pick the Chargers and three writers (plus a computer) give the nod to the Raiders.
Though San Diego has had recent success in Oakland, the players in silver and black uniforms Monday night will largely be a different cast, with nearly half the roster new from 2011.
This Raiders season features a new owner, new GM, new coaching staff, new offensive and defensive schemes, new offensive line, new set of cornerbacks – and a new, long-range plan for long-term success.
General Manager Reggie McKenzie, hired away from the Packers, is rebuilding the Raiders in his own way and knows it’s not an overnight process. He’s cleaned out the roster of players he believes were a) underperforming or b) overpriced.
“We’re going to do it our way,” says rookie head coach Dennis Allen, a defensive-minded former Broncos coordinator. “That’s the only way we know how to do it. Reggie and I have a plan, and we hope to have success doing it that way.”
First on the overhaul list was the Oakland defense, which often collapsed late in games in 2011, and gave up an astounding 4,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards in one season, the first NFL team to do so since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
The Raiders – long known for playing a basic 4-3 defense with little blitzing and a lot of man-to-man coverage – have morphed into a defense that Allen has modernized. Defensive fronts will change, as will coverages, and the Raiders will blitz more often.
The Chargers, meanwhile, kept head coach Norv Turner and GM A.J. Smith after again missing the playoffs, yet have lost big-play wide receiver Vincent Jackson, hard-running backup running back Mike Tolbert and Pro Bowl linemen Kris Dielman and Marcus McNeill. Plus, the Chargers go into the game with two very key injuries. New left tackle Jared Gaither – who replaces McNeill – has been hurt and replaced by undrafted rookie Mike Harris from UCLA, who struggled in the preseason. Running back Ryan Mathews, hurt in the preseason, says he’ll be ready to play Monday night, but is questionable.
Harris will need to protect quarterback Philip Rivers’ blind side against a more aggressive defense that is likely to test him. Plus, if Rivers is hurried often Monday night, he could be susceptible to making mistakes. Last season, the veteran QB threw 20 interceptions and fumbled the ball away five times.
On offense, the Raiders go into their 2012 opener with running back Darren McFadden healthy again, quarterback Carson Palmer comfortable after a complete offseason with his new coaches and a pair of rookie wide receivers in Rod Streater and Juron Criner who displayed big-play ability. The Chargers – who’ve never seen Oakland’s new offensive scheme – may be tested by it.
This will be the first regular-season game McFadden and Palmer will play together.
“I’m like a kid in a candy store,” Palmer told Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group. “I cannot wait.”
It also gives the Raiders a balance they lacked last season, when Oakland was a run-oriented team.
“Obviously, if you’re putting your attention to him (McFadden) to minimize those (big) plays, it adds opportunities for someone else,” Chargers coach Norv Turner told the media this week. “Carson played awfully well against us in both games (in 2011). We’ve got a lot of respect for what he’s capable of doing.”