The Oakland Raiders haven’t gotten much love from the national media this offseason.
As the opening of training camp approaches, no one is predicting the Raiders are the team to beat in the AFC West or suggesting that Oakland might surprise the NFL in the way the cross-bay San Francisco 49ers did in 2011.
After all, the Raiders are coming off an 8-8 season in which they failed to make the playoffs yet again – Oakland has now missed the playoffs every season since 2002 – and a tumultuous few months in which head coach Hue Jackson was blown out, new general manager Reggie McKenzie took over, Dennis Allen has been installed as head coach, new offensive and defensive systems have been put in place and several key players from 2011 were allowed to leave (or were pushed out) because of performance or salary-cap issues.
All in all, it doesn’t sound like the foundation for a turnaround in 2012.
However, in the NFL where parity can allow teams to quickly reap rewards and taste success even after a number of down years, the Raiders could be a much better team this coming season based on five key factors:
1. Carson Palmer and the new offense: The quarterback Jackson paid dearly to acquire last season has had a full offseason to acclimate after being thrown into the fire after a long holdout in 2011. Going into training camp, Palmer has had a chance to absorb the new West Coast offensive scheme the team will use, which could help Palmer be more effective in 2012. Over the past few seasons, Palmer has been plagued by interceptions. It’s possible that with a West Coast system – where shorter timing routes are emphasized – the Raiders’ passing game will be more efficient and less prone to turnovers.
2. Darren McFadden’s health: When McFadden is on the field, he’s one of the NFL’s best and most explosive running backs. In 2011, he was off to his best start until he was injured in the seventh game. Though coming back from a Lisfranc foot injury can be dicey, if McFadden is healthy and can remain so, the Raiders’ running game can be explosive again. And, paired with a more efficient passing game, that could mean a more balanced attack in 2012.
3. Better discipline: One of the first things McKenzie said upon taking over the Raiders was that the team needed to play smarter and more disciplined football, which means – among many other things – cutting down on penalties. The Raiders were the most penalized team in the NFL last season, both for number of penalties and yards lost. Many times in 2011, promising drives on offense or crucial stops on defense were wiped out by flags. A big improvement here under a new coaching staff could go a long way to a couple of more wins in close games.
4. The new defense: The Raiders’ defensive scheme of the past, held dear by owner Al Davis, included a reliance on man-to-man coverage, standard defensive fronts and few blitzes. Now, under Allen, the defense will feature multiple looks, both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts, and more blitzing. Veteran safety Michael Huff, for one, welcomes the shift to a more modern philosophy. “We’re just looking forward to playing for a defensive head coach, getting to play a real defense,” Huff told reporters last month.
5. Fresh blood and new enthusiasm: McKenzie didn’t go after big-name free agents and had no high draft picks to use in April. But he’s tried to rebuild his roster with high-character, hard-working rookies and veterans he believes might bring more of a blue-collar, team-oriented approach and change the culture of the Raiders organization. It’s possible – if everything falls into place – that the sum of its parts might be far greater than the individual pieces.
“I personally think we’re further along than I thought we would be,” McKenzie told Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group after minicamp last month. “I knew we were going to throw in a lot on both sides of the ball. But it was good to see things going right a lot more than wrong as far as the coaches yelling and screaming, running a play over again.
“You didn’t hear a lot of that. That’s a good indication that the players are getting it and coaches are coaching it. Hopefully in training camp they digest it even more and we become more complete.”