Oakland Raiders: 5 Reasons the Raiders Could Overtake the AFC West
It's a strange time to be an Oakland Raiders fan, caught in between feelings of optimism birthed in 2010 and 2011 and pessimism swirling throughout the offseason.
On one hand, the Raiders are coming off (easily) their best two seasons in a decade, winning eight games and competing for the division title in each of the last two seasons. In fact, in 2011, the Raiders were 7-4 before losing four of their final five games.
Then, the offseason happened.
Needing to shred bad contracts and still paying the price for risky trades, the Raiders were forced to part with numerous 2011 difference-makers. Among the toughest losses were the team's two top cornerbacks, Chris Johnson and Stanford Routt, and their most reliable running back, Michael Bush. The team also lost quarterback Jason Campbell.
While most teams have to deal with the war of attrition during the offseason, unlike most other teams, the Raiders were without any draft picks before the end of the third round. While most teams could have turned to free agency to make some waves, the Raiders and new general manager Reggie McKenzie were also well over the salary cap.
So with limited money and few draft picks, McKenzie and new head coach Dennis Allen did their best. Among the best moves made were defensive backs Ronald Bartell and Shawntae Spencer, two players who have considerable upside given their discounted price.
The Raiders were also able to retain some of their top players, including defensive standout Tyvon Branch.
For most fans, however, all of this seems too much to process at once.
To recap, a Raiders team on the verge of the playoffs in 2011 has a new coach, a new roster and the same quarterback. Where does that leave them?
Well, here are five reasons to believe all of that could add up to an AFC West title if things fall the right way.
New Head Coach Dennis Allen
If there's one reason for optimism in Oakland, I think that's new head coach Dennis Allen.
Gone are the days when coaches wouldn't touch the Raiders job with a 10-foot pole, as evidenced by McKenzie's ability to lure the rising star Allen to his first head coaching position.
Allen, who served as Denver's defensive coordinator last season, brings one thing that Oakland has needed for years: an emphasis on defense.
Often loaded with defensive prospects like Rolando McClain, Michael Huff and Aaron Curry, the Raiders may have found the coach who can channel all of that talent into production.
While Allen's talent pool will be smaller than last season, it's safe to assume he'll get more production out of the players he does have, so the drop-off shouldn't be noticeable.
The second reason Allen excites me is because of the age-old Raiders problem: penalties. While Hue Jackson talked about stopping the problem, he failed to do so in both seasons as head coach.
With new blood in town, the prospect of reduced penalties is as present as ever, and the Black Hole can hope Allen is the man to solve this problem.
Whether you agree with the trade that brought Palmer to Oakland or not doesn't really matter because the fact of the matter is that he's here and the Raiders will win or lose with him at the helm.
The good news? With more than a few days to learn an offense, Palmer will almost assuredly be better than he was last season.
Palmer, who was notoriously acquired for what many people described as far too sweet a package, came off his couch to play for the Raiders in the final 10 games of the 2011 season. In those 10 games, Palmer threw for 2,753 yards, 13 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
Those numbers, however, can be a bit misleading.
For starters, the first game Palmer played in (literally days after being signed) should be erased from the ledger in order to gauge how effective he really was. Without that zero-touchdown, three-interception game, Palmer's numbers are far less appalling.
Finally, we must remember that Palmer was without Darren McFadden, Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford for most of those games.
With all that said, the biggest reason to believe in Palmer is because he'll finally have some time to learn the Raiders playbook. Sure, it's new, but learning a new playbook with an entire offseason in front of you is a lot easier to learn a new playbook in a few hours.
Like Carson Palmer, the Darren McFadden factor comes with a lot of "ifs."
For starters, can McFadden finally stay healthy for an entire season? In four NFL seasons, Run DMC has never played in more than 13 games, and the seven he played in during the 2011 season were the fewest of his career.
While McFadden says he'll be as good as ever in 2012, we'll have to see it to believe it. Then again, if the Raiders have playoff aspirations, it's safe to say it's unlikely they can reach the postseason without their top offensive weapon.
Through the first six games of last season, McFadden was arguably the top back in the league with 754 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns. Then, a Lisfranc foot sprain carried into Week 7 and ended his outstanding season prematurely.
If McFadden can stay healthy, the Raiders should be among the league's most exciting offenses. Without him? The Raiders might be in trouble. With the departure of Michael Bush, McFadden's backups are second-year speedster Taiwan Jones and free agent Mike Goodson.
While the names Denarius Moore, Jacoby Ford and Darrius Heyward-Bey don't exactly instill fear in the hearts and minds of opposing teams, they will.
While they lack the presence of one dominant, go-to receiver, this young batch of Raiders receivers might be among the best in the league by the end of 2012.
In Ford, the Raiders have a guy who can start from just about anywhere on the field and outrun almost anyone in the league. Moore, on the other hand, is an ideal deep threat who displayed incredible hands last season and speed similar to that of Ford's.
Finally, 2011 was the coming-out party for Heyward-Bey, who was just 25 yards short of his first 1,000 yard season. While blessed with incredible speed and size, Heyward-Bey surprisingly developed into a fairly reliable possession receiver in 2011.
With all three guys on the field at once, the Raiders have the unique ability to do just about anything. With all three among the fastest guys in the league, any of the group could go deep at a moment's notice, making them difficult to game plan against.
Other guys who could establish themselves this season are Louis Murphy and Juron Criner. Murphy, entering his fourth year in the league out of Florida, has battled injuries for the past two seasons after a promising rookie campaign.
As we noted earlier, this year's defensive unit will be slightly less talented than last season. However, if this unit can finally come together and meet their expectations, they could be very good.
Stocked with numerous first-rounders and exciting players, the Raiders defense has long been a source of confusion for fans. While players like Tyvon Branch and Lamarr Houston have transitioned from college to the pros excellently, other top draft picks have failed to do so.
Most notably among those are Michael Huff and Rolando McClain.
Combine those four players with additions like Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly and Aaron Curry, and the Raiders have an excellent base on paper. Unfortunately, however, things have failed to come together in the past.
While, at times, this unit has carried the team and established itself as one of the best in the league, they also allowed 28-plus points in eight games last season.
If Dennis Allen can get this group on the same page and playing together, opponents will come to fear playing against the Raiders. If they fail to do so, however, 2012 could be a long year in Oakland.