NFL: Can the Oakland Raiders Finally Make the Playoffs?

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NFL: Can the Oakland Raiders Finally Make the Playoffs?
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Since being routed 48-21 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII, the Oakland Raiders have been the laughing stock of the NFL. AFC West bottom feeders for a decade, the once-proud Raiders were relegated to black-cladded whipping boys until finishing 8-8 in 2010. Following another .500 season in 2011, Raider Nation is all atwitter with postseason speculation, wondering if this is the year Oakland finally returns to the playoffs.

If coach and quarterback are the two most important pieces of any football team, then Oakland could be in trouble. Rookie head coach Dennis Allen is the latest in the rapidly expanding and less distinguished list of Raiders sideline generals. Middling quarterback Carson Palmer – yes the same Carson Palmer Oakland gave Cincinnati a first and conditional second-round, which could become a first-round pick, for – is closer to mediocre than elite.

Allen is Oakland’s first defensively-minded head coach since they promoted linebackers coach John Madden to the helm in 1969. Spending last year as defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos, he’s also worked for the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons in variety of capacities but always on the defensive side of the ball.

That Allen has never been a head coach is not necessarily a terrible thing. Think of those still wet-behind-the-ears front men who have reached the playoffs in their first season at the helm: Mike Smith in Atlanta; Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh; John Harbaugh, Baltimore and Pete Carroll, Seattle. If Allen’s talents are equal to that foursome’s, then Oakland has its coach for the next decade.

At one point, Palmer was thought to be on the precipice of greatness, joining the likes of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning as the NFL’s elite signal callers. Injuries and too much time with the Cincinnati Bengals have stripped away a once astonishingly bright future.

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Palmer was pedestrian, if not below average, for the Raiders last year. In 10 games, including nine starts, he was 199 of 328 for 2,753 yards, 13 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.

As the initial rounds of preseason games commence, Palmer appears to be the worst starting quarterback in the AFC West.  He’s miles behind Philip Rivers, although neither of their lackluster playoff resumes truly inspire. Who knows how far back Peyton Manning truly is, but a 60 percent Manning is still heads above a 100 percent Palmer. When last healthy, even his old USC backup, Matt Cassel, was more productive throwing for 27 touchdowns in 2010, which Palmer hasn’t equaled since 2006.

Coach and quarterback are significant, but not a franchise do they make. Oakland was a slightly above average offensively and miserable on defense last season. Entering 2012, the Raiders haven’t significantly improved on either side of the ball.

When healthy, Darren McFadden has shown he can be a premier running back. Problem is McFadden is rarely healthy, never appearing in more than 13 games a year. Bigger problem is tag team backfield partner Michael Bush, who often carried the load when McFadden was sidelined, is now a Chicago Bear. Why would this season be any different for McFadden? What evidence is there he can be a franchise back?

Oakland’s passing game was OK, but probably not as vertical as the late Al Davis would have liked. Former first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey looks to be rounding into form, but still has a long ways to go before truly justifying his draft slot. Denarius Moore is likely to be the team’s No. 2 wide out. Last season the duo combined for 97 catches for 1,593 yards and nine touchdowns, roughly the same production as Wes Welker (122 catches, 1,569 yards, 9 touchdowns). That won’t be enough this season.

Oakland’s defensive issues warrant their own separate story. The Raiders folded at critical times, letting one lead after another slip away. Richard Seymour was his typical Pro Bowl self, but needs a lot more help.

Special teams are Oakland’s calling card. Placekicker Sebastian Janikowski, punter Shane Lechler and long snapper Jon Condo are probably the Raiders’ three best players. Janikowski and Lechler will combine to win Oakland a game this year.

The Raiders’ issues aren’t all internal. The AFC West, particularly the Broncos and Chiefs, have gotten significantly better. Will Denver get a vintage Manning? Nobody knows. What is known is that play from quarterback position for the Broncos won’t be as rocky as last season. (Can anyone remember who played quarterback for Denver in 2011?)

For Kansas City their three core pieces – Cassel, Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry – all return after missing most of last season.

Two murderous stretches could also derail the Raiders’ playoff journey. In Weeks 3,4 and 6, the Raiders host Pittsburgh, head to Denver and after a bye, visit Atlanta. All three were playoff teams last year. Roughly a month later in Week 10, Oakland crosses the country for a 1 p.m. EST game with Baltimore. West Coast teams rarely win these contests especially versus a quality opponent. A week later, New Orleans comes to town with a trip to Cincinnati to follow.

Is this is the year Oakland finally returns to the playoffs, probably not. Oakland has less firepower than anyone in its own division and cannot be considered among the top-shelf teams of the AFC. Unfortunately for Raiders fans, the commitment to excellence cannot buy a postseason berth.

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