The Raiders snapped their string of seven straight seasons with 11 or more losses last year and finished 8–8, sweeping the AFC West and avoiding a losing record for the first time since reaching the Super Bowl in 2002. But they didn’t make the playoffs, and that failure along with some off-field controversies cost coach Tom Cable his job.
Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson was promoted by team owner Al Davis to replace Cable. He’s the Raiders’ sixth coach since 2002, when Bill Callahan took over for Jon Gruden. Like Gruden, Jackson is a passionate, high-energy coach. He got the Raiders’ offense back on track last year, but now he faces the much bigger job of leading the entire team and ending its playoff drought.
With Jackson as their new coordinator last season, the Raiders made huge strides on offense, scoring 410 points compared to just 197 in 2009, but there’s still plenty of work left to do. The Raiders averaged 25.6 points per game despite getting little production from their young receiving corps. Tight end Zach Miller (since departed via free agency) and running back Darren McFadden were the team’s top two pass-catchers. That’s not the vertical attack that Davis and Jackson want, and it will be up to wide receivers Darrius Heyward-Bey, Louis Murphy and Jacoby Ford, among others, to put some fear into opposing defensive backs. Heyward-Bey has blazing speed but caught only 26 passes, far too few for a receiver who went seventh overall in 2009. By the end of the year, Ford, another speedster, was the team’s most productive and dangerous receiver, and his role should become even bigger this season as Jackson and offensive coordinator Al Saunders find new ways to get him the ball. Tight end Kevin Boss, a former Giant, was signed to replace Miller as a pass-catching tight end.
After surviving a tumultuous first year in Oakland, quarterback Jason Campbell returns as the undisputed starter. Last year he was benched after halftime in Week 2 against St. Louis in favor of Bruce Gradkowski. Injuries to Gradkowski gave Campbell a chance to redeem himself, and he played well enough to earn another chance this season. Campbell has never carried a team, but his strong arm fits Oakland’s deep passing game, and he could be poised for a breakout year now that he has been in Jackson’s offensive system for a season.
McFadden is coming off a career year, rushing for 1,157 yards and leading a running attack that ranked No. 2 in the NFL. He thrived in a scheme that emphasized more straight-ahead power blocking and downhill running under Jackson and less of the zone blocking that Cable favored. Fullback Marcel Reece, a converted college wide receiver, gives Jackson another dangerous weapon to exploit in the passing game.
The offense’s biggest concern is the line, despite the return of both starting tackles. Jared Veldheer returns on the left side after earning the starting job early in his impressive rookie campaign, and Khalif Barnes was re-signed to play right tackle.
Rookie Stefen Wisniewski was all but anointed the starting center on the day he was drafted. Guard Bruce Campbell, a second-year pro and Davis favorite, could move into the starting lineup. If the kids aren’t ready to play, then the Raiders will have to turn to some veterans.
The Raiders return most of their starters from a group that ranked 11th in total defense last year and is positioned to make even bigger strides in 2011, despite the loss of Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha to free agency. Davis gave Pro Bowl defensive tackle Richard Seymour and cornerback Stanford Routt huge contract extensions and made outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley the team’s franchise player.
The entire front seven returns intact, and the front four of tackles Seymour and Tommy Kelly and ends Lamarr Houston and Matt Shaughnessy has the potential to be a true force. That foursome combined for 24.5 sacks. After losing weight and reporting to camp in the best shape of his career, Kelly had seven sacks and finally justified the huge contract Davis game him after the 2007 season. In Shaughnessy and Houston, the Raiders have two young, high-energy players with decided mean streaks, exactly what Jackson likes as he tries to “build a bully” in Oakland. Wimbley, who came to the Raiders last year from Cleveland for a third-round draft pick, exceeded expectations.
He had a team-high nine sacks and showed his athleticism and versatility, playing as a standup linebacker in the base defense then moving to defensive end in the nickel. For all their apparent talent up front, the Raiders still failed to solve their longstanding problems against the run, ranking 29th in the league. It’s incumbent upon middle linebacker Rolando McClain, who had a solid if unspectacular rookie season, to become a more disruptive force in the middle.
The Raiders’ No. 1 job will be to replace Asomugha on the right side. Veteran Chris Johnson appears in line for the first shot, but the Raiders drafted two cornerbacks last year (Walter McFadden and Jeremy Ware) and two more this year, taking DeMarcus Van Dyke in the third round and Chimdi Chekwa in the fourth.
As a rookie kick returner last year, Ford turned out to be a record-setting weapon. He used his dazzling speed to return three kickoffs for touchdowns, setting Raider single-season and career records. Jackson has said he’ll consider having Ford return punts this year, too, although that could depend on how big Ford’s role as a wide receiver becomes after his impressive rookie season.
Punter Shane Lechler made his sixth trip to the Pro Bowl last year and continued to be huge factor in the field position game. He averaged 47 yards per punt with a net average of 40.8, leading the AFC in both categories. Placekicker Sebastian Janikowski didn’t make the Pro Bowl, but he had one of his best seasons since coming to the Raiders as a first-round pick in 2000. Janikowski made 33-of-41 field goal attempts, but three of his misses came during a Week 3 nightmare against Arizona, and five of his misses came in the first three games. Over the final 13 games, he was 25-for-28, with makes from 50, 51 and 59 yards. Janikowski was also a force on kickoffs with 29 touchbacks, second-most in the NFL.
The Raiders made major strides last year, and they should be even better this year with most of their key players back and the aggressive Jackson in charge. But there’s no guarantee that they’ll end their eight-year playoff drought in the rugged AFC, especially given the fact that they face a tougher schedule this year than they did in 2010. For the Raiders to reach the playoffs, they’ll need a career year from Campbell as well as improved play on the offensive line.
Outside the Huddle
The Raiders lived up to their bad boy image last year with 148 penalties for a team single-season record 1,276 penalty yards, leading the league in both categories. The league averages were 96.9 penalties and 814.2 penalty yards. The old team mark for penalty yards was 1,274 set in 1969. Of course that was in a 14-game season.
At 6'3", 240 pounds, Marcel Reece is built like a fullback, the position he now plays, but he spent his entire college career at Washington as a wide receiver. He had a 98-yard touchdown catch against Arizona for the Huskies, setting a school record. He showed off his receiving skills last year with 25 catches for 333 yards and three scores.
If the Raiders ever run out of healthy quarterbacks, they know they can turn to punter Shane Lechler. He passed for nearly 5,000 yards during his career at East Bernard (Texas) High School. As a senior he completed 86.1 percent of his passes for 1,640 yards and 11 TDs. Lechler keeps his QB skills sharp by throwing passes during warm-ups before practice. It could be time for Lechler to fake a punt and throw his first NFL pass.
Let’s Make a Deal
The Raiders traded their 2011 first-round pick to New England in 2009 for defensive tackle Richard Seymour. The Patriots used that pick, No. 17 overall, to take Colorado offensive tackle Nate Solder. Seymour and Solder face off in Week 4 when the Patriots and Raiders meet in Oakland.
Class of 2010 Shines
Al Davis has received plenty of criticism for past draft mistakes, a list that includes quarterback JaMarcus Russell, arguably the biggest draft bust in NFL history. But Davis deserves credit for a solid 2010 draft. All nine players drafted made the team, and the top three picks — linebacker Rolando McClain, defensive end Lamarr Houston and offensive tackle Jared Veldheer — started as rookies. Jacoby Ford made a big impact, too, as a wide receiver and kick returner.
After the Raiders drafted Eastern Washington running back Taiwan Jones in the fourth round, they didn’t have to buy him a plane ticket to the Bay Area. He drove to team headquarters from his home in Antioch, some 40 miles east of Oakland. “This is a home team for me,” said Jones, a product of Deer Valley High School. “I’ve been in this backyard for awhile, and it’s good to be a Raider.”
Former Raiders know where to apply if they want to get into coaching. Four ex-Raiders are on the 2011 coaching staff. Greg Biekert is the linebackers coach this year after serving as an assistant last season. Hall of Famer Rod Woodson joined the staff this year as cornerbacks coach, and Steve Wisniewski was hired as assistant offensive line coach. Willie Brown, another Hall of Famer, is in charge of squad development.
New head coach Hue Jackson and former Raiders coach Jon Gruden were on the same college coaching staff at the University of the Pacific in 1989. “The person that really shaped me in football is Jon Gruden,” Jackson said at his introductory press conference. “We were both young, aspiring coaches. We shared an office together, and Jon Gruden … used to put me on the (chalk) board at nighttime for three months straight, and we would talk football. That’s where my start happened.”