When the 2008 season started, it appeared that the Oakland Raiders had picked up right where they left off in the '07 season.
The offense was once again anemic, scoring only one first half touchdown in the first four games while averaging just over 250 yards per game, mostly on the ground.
The defense under Rob Ryan was was equally as disappointing, as they continued to fold up like a like a lawn chair in the fourth quarter by suddenly switching to soft zone coverages as if they were leading by 21 points with two minutes to go.
After Lane Kiffin's highly publicized firing, the Raiders suddenly became a powerhouse and dominated the NFL with their new head coach Tom Cable, who was voted coach of the year and the sexiest man alive...well not exactly.
The way it really happened, is that our new interim head coach (who looks just like Norm from the TV show Cheers) struggled as the team spiraled out of control for the next six games. Team morale was low and it showed on the field as the Raiders were just 1-5 during that stretch.
During the final six weeks though, something began to change. It was a roller coaster ride of good games and bad games ending the season with a 3-3 record including winning against two good teams to finish the season.
Even when the Raiders played badly during that stretch, they no longer fit the dysfunctional tag that applied to them.
Going into next season the Raiders have an opportunity to build on last seasons strong finish. There's plenty of work to do for the new Cable crew, but the question remains is that can this team continue to get better.
These are a few things that the Raiders could improve on and some that need to continue to get better:
No. 1- Can Darren McFadden become that elite back? Everyone knows he has wheels, but it takes a back that can evade defenders to be productive in the NFL. Outrunning college kids and out running professional NFL players are two totally different creatures. McFadden needs to learn how to be evasive.
No. 2- Can Nnamdi Asomugha take it to the "greatness" level? He's undoubtedly the best active corner in the league, in fact he made his first Pro Bowl this year, so what can he improve on? Interceptions!
Right now that's what separates him from the great corners of the past. Whether it's Lester Hayes, Mark Haynes, Deion Sanders or Champ Bailey, all of these hall of Famer's, Future Hall of Famer's or Should be Hall of Famer's(Lester Hayes) have one thing in common.
They could bait the QB in to doing something stupid and throwing at them. Asomugha has all the tools to do the same exact thing and if he wants more opportunities at INTs, then he has to figure out how to get thrown at more than eight times a year, he needs to add a little deception to his resume.
No. 3- Will the young wide receiving corps continue to get better? Chad Schilens and Johnnie Lee Higgins stepped up their game in the last few weeks of the year, but they still need to get better. If they don't, then the passing game will be nothing more than mediocre.
Schilens improved the most during the season, proving to be a long threat who is willing to fight for the ball, but he still looked like a rookie sometimes and that's because he was.
Higgins had a great year as a returner, especially after his early case of fumbleruski. As a receiver though, he was often criticized for running wrong routes in training camp. When he did catch the ball though, his speed often turned first downs into touchdowns.
Both Schilens and Higgins looked lost sometimes and now that they have a year of experience, that needs to stop. They need to stay on the same page as Cable and Russell through the whole game.
The Raiders cannot afford for these two not to go into the season un-prepared. Are they up to the task?
No. 4- After Cable finally let go of the Kwame Harris project, he let Mario Henderson start. The result was that JaMarcus Russell had more time on his feet, because defenders never got in back of Henderson, not one sack was surrendered.
Mario Henderson played lights out at the end of the season. He took on the Texans Mario Williams like he was the second coming of Lincoln Kennedy. Can Henderson be the next dominant offensive lineman of the Raiders or is he a three-game wonder?
No. 5- The combination of Tommy Kelly, Gerard Warren, Terdell Sands and William Joseph at the defensive tackle position was in a word...impotent. Something needs to change, because they either do not understand the position, or they are really just that bad.
No. 6- The coaching staff that are Cable assembled and Al approved have allot of damage to repair and a short time to do it. The defense can't stop the run and the offense can't figure out who to run.
Cable has emerged as a clear leader and has changed the losing mindset that Oakland marinated in the last six years.
For new defensive coach John Marshall, it will be especially tricky because no one knows what they are capable of, considering they did play well at times despite former coach Rob Ryan.
Tom Cable had a big lesson on momentum. If you have the momentum, don't jeopardize it by pitching the ball to a guy who never touches the ball unless it's with his foot. I mean really, 4th-and-10 and your going to ask your pudgy kicker to run for a first down? I don't think Janikowski is capable of running 10 yards without pads on!
Benching Kwame Harris should have come allot sooner than it did. Cable held on too long, thinking that he could make him into a prodigy. Harris has all the physical talent to make him an elite blocker, but the mentality for the NFL just wasn't there.
In other words, body by NFL, brains by Mattel! Can Cable let go of a bad ideas?
When the '09 season kicks off for the Raiders, they will, without a doubt be better than the '08 Raiders. Cable has brought Continuity and Stability and gave the dysfunctional tag the boot.
The only question remains can the Raiders carry the momentum into next season?
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