Yeah, I know what many people will think after reading the title. "The Raiders? This guy must be crazy." Even some Raiders fans may think that this may be too strong of a statement. But if you look at the AFC West, it would be hard to dismiss the Raiders as a team that could win the division.
Again, I know people will bring up the transition that the organization has gone through—new general manager, new head coach, new defensive coordinator, practically new everything—but in this case, I don't think it is going to matter.
Let me remind you that the Raiders weren't expected to do much last year with new, 1st time head coach Hue Jackson, when they ended up in 1st place during the 1st half of the season. Then they lost 4 of their last 5 games.
When you factor in the fact that they lost their starting quarterback Jason Campbell, starting running back and at the time, the NFL's leading rusher Darren McFadden along with the majority of their starting receiving corps (Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore), the Raiders still ended up tied with the Chargers and the Broncos with an 8-8 record in the AFC.
If you are still wondering why I think they could win the AFC West in the 2012 season, continue reading. Those of you who already understand where I'm coming from and where I'm going, well... keep reading as well!
Dennis Allen will be the 3rd coach of the Oakland Raiders in 3 years. Just having to mention this gives a clear indication of the instability that has existed in the organization. With the departure of both Tom Cable and Hue Jackson, I really believe the addition of Dennis Allen is an improvement, and he hasn't even completed his first official practice.
Don't get me wrong, I liked Cable and Jackson. But Cable never really seemed like he could inspire or move the team in the right direction. Jackson, was silenced when he was the offensive coordinator under Cable, and after his departure I see why. As much as I liked him, it appeared that he relished the limelight of being a coach more so than actually coaching.
To be a head coach requires a certain demeanor that demands respect before you open your mouth. Based on what previous coaches and players who worked with Dennis Allen have said about him, he garnishes this quality. The current players who are working under him have stated several times that he is a no nonsense type of person. This is exactly what the Raiders need.
Both Cable and Jackson said that they would solve the penalty problem. But lets be honest, did either of those guys make you feel like they could do it? Penalties have haunted the Raiders for years.
I believe Dennis Allen possesses the persona that could nullify this problem. If he can cut the penalties, he will win more games than both Cable and Jackson, and lead the Raiders to their first winning season since 2002. That year, they went to the Superbowl with another 1st year head coach Bill Callahan.
Carson Palmer will have OTA's and Training Camp for the 2012 Season
Just 5 years ago, Carson Palmer was named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2007 Pro Bowl. He was clearly one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He threw for over 4,000 yards in both 06 and 07 seasons. Just for the record, he was 30 yards short of the 4G mark in 2010.
Last season, Carson Palmer literally went from his living room to live action in just 5 days. Mind you, Palmer hadn't had an opportunity to learn much of the playbook, his teammates or coaches. In spite of this, he made no excuses about the whirl-wind he experienced. He simply got down to work. This is a precursor of the level of character and leader the Raiders received in what Jackson called "the best trade in football."
Janet Jackson (no relation to Hue) made a classic song in 1986 titled "What Have You Done for me Lately?" Given everything that Palmer endured last season, consider what he still managed to accomplish.
Carson Palmer's average yards per throw was 8.4. This is ahead of the likes of Drew Brees, Tony Romo, Phillip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger. Let me put it this way. There were only 3 other quarterbacks in the league that had an higher average.
Lastly, his average yards per game was 275.3. This puts him ahead of Matt Schuab, Matt Ryan, Alex Smith and several other quarterbacks previously mentioned.
A completely healthy Carson Palmer, combined with the OTA's, training camp and a group of hungry receivers, the Raiders are set to surprise the AFC West in 2012.
The receiving corps has depth, speed and hunger
Regardless of whatever was said on the NFL network or ESPN, the Raiders still finished 11th in Passing and Receiving for the 2011 season.
I know that injuries are a part of the game, but they became a part of the team last year when it came to the receivers. Several key players were out for multiple games. Although Jackson made the phrase "next man up popular," there is a reason why a starter is a starter.
Just a quick run down of the losses to the passing game. Kevin Boss and Louis Murphy went down in the first week. The following week Jacoby Ford's hamstring pulled him out. In week 5, Campbell was lost for the season. Denarius Moore was lost for a game and wasn't at full strength for a period afterwards.
With all of that being said, the Raiders were still better than 2/3 of the league. Darius Heyward-Bey had his best season and has shown a glimpse of what he was drafted to be. He had more total yards (975) than Michael Crabtree, Percy Harvin and Reggie Wayne. His average yards per catch was 15.2. That's better than the great Wes Welker and Roddy White.
Heyward-Bey is most definitely coming into his own.
The combination of Heyward-Bey, Jacoby Ford, and Denarius Moore is a very dangerous one. Let alone, the promising rookie Juron Criner appears to be a bigger, stronger version of Moore. If Louis Murphy can return to form, the new number the Palmer is wearing may remind some of a gentlemen they use to call, the Mad Bomber.
Darren McFadden is one of the best Running Backs in the NFL.
Despite only playing in 7 games last season, (well... he really didn't play more than a play in the 7th) Darren McFadden was still the 4th ranked running back in the league. Although people may be sleeping on the Raiders, they definitely are aware of who McFadden is.
Darren McFadden is without question one of the most explosive backs in the league. He has great hands combined with an uncanny and deceptive quickness, that poses many problems for opposing teams.
Last season the Raiders were the 7th ranked running team in the NFL. This is a testament of how good the line was and how hard Michael Bush ran. Although Bush is gone, McFadden is back, the O line is in tact and with the addition of Mike Briesel, I would be lead to believe that it actually improved.
There has been lots of rumbling about the switch from the power blocking scheme to a zone blocking scheme, and whether McFadden will be able to be successful in it.
Greg Knapp is known for zone blocking and it seemed to work well with Adrian Foster. I think with McFadden's power and quickness, the ZBS will allow him to get into the secondary, and from there, it could be a problem for anyone in the league, let alone the AFC West.
Although Mike Goodson was a major pick up for the Raiders, I am imagining Taiwan Jones in this scheme. He is a change of speed back that will make this season very interesting.
Richard Seymour at 33 is still one of the most productive Linemen in the game.
Every single team in the NFL that has ever played the Raiders, already knew what they would be facing defensively. Under the auspices of the late great Al Davis, the Raiders have operated from a bump and run formula for 50 plus years. If you played the Raiders you knew you were facing a 4-3 (for the most part), with a limited amount of blitzes and the corners playing man to man.
With the passing of Al Davis, all of this will change. Enter Jason Tarver. If you check this guy's resume, it is apparent that he is quite the mastermind. Not because he has a degree in Chemistry and a M.A. Biochemistry, but because of the impact he has had on the defenses of the 49ers and Stanford.
When he joined the 49ers in 2005, they were dead last in the league in total yards allowed and 2nd to last in points allowed. When he left in 2010, the were ranked 13th. While at Stanford, their defense was ranked either 1st or 2nd in 8 separate categories.
Now that Tarver is in Oakland, he has indicated that he plans on running a hybrid defense. Many of the players have noted that they love the idea of running multiple schemes which will allow the defensive players to make plays.
Yes, he has his job cut out for him, but the Raiders defense finished 29th in the league last season. Just by changing the scheme alone, it will force opponents to approach the Raiders in a different manner.
It won't be as easy to run plays specifically designed to beat the zone defense that the Raiders played. An improvement to the defense will contribute to the Raiders rise to the top of the AFC.
The entire Raider organization is under the watchful eye of Reggie McKenzie
The passing of Al Davis sent shock waves throughout the Raider organization, and the entire league for that matter. Being that Mr. Davis was so deeply involved in practically every aspect of the organization, when he transitioned, many watched and waited to see what would happen to the Raiders.
Then, it was announced that Reggie Mckenzie would be the new General Manager. Hue Jackson made what turned out to be a prophetic statement when he said, "they are going to gut this place." Mckenzie did just that. Being a former Raider himself, I think that Mckenzie has done what he has had to to place the Raiders where they ought to be. At the top of the league.
If you look at the job he has done with the financial straits that the Raiders were in, it was nothing short of remarkable.
The biggest impact that Mckenzie will have is not so much who he has brought in, but it is how it's being done. Many of the free agent acquisitions that have been signed have been extended 1 year contracts. What this will force each player to do is to play for another one. This will bring the best out of each player in each position because it becomes clear—if you don't perform, you won't play on this team.
With that being said, I think that the chemistry is finally right in Oakland. I understand that there are plenty of issues that need to be addressed as well, but I think that at this point, there are more answers than there are questions.
Do you feel that? It is the Autumn Wind and it's finally blowing again. The Raiders will return to their natural spot, at the top of the AFC West.