The Oakland Raiders are a bit of a mystery entering the 2012 season. The organization has undergone a huge shakeup since the death of long-time team owner Al Davis. New general manager Reggie McKenzie went out of his way to put his imprint on the team by jettisoning head coach Hue Jackson and replacing him with Dennis Allen.
Both McKenzie and Allen are in their respective roles for the first time with any organization, so Raiders fans have no idea what to expect.
Meanwhile, last night's preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys gave fans their first look at what Oakland will look like on the field this season. The 3-0 loss looks ugly in the box score. But the most you can say about the Raiders after just one preseason game is they are an uneven work in progress.
The game started off well as running back Darren McFadden proved that he is in top form. There don't appear to be any lingering effects from the foot injury that limited him to just seven games during the 2011 season. He gained 20 yards on two carries and caught another pass for an 18-yard gain during Oakland's first offensive possession before shutting it down for the night.
Of course, being healthy now won't help the Raiders much unless McFadden can maintain that status throughout the 2012 season, something he's been unable to do during his first four years in the NFL.
Aside from McFadden, both teams looked very much like two groups of players that were playing their first organized football in almost nine months.
Starting quarterback Carson Palmer still needs a lot of work to get into a rhythm with his wide receivers. The blame can probably be split evenly between Palmer—who's going through his first training camp in two years—and a young group of wide receivers who are still trying to figure out how to play the position at the NFL level.
No matter how you interpret it, the passing game needs a lot of work. Rookie Rod Streater looked solid, catching six passes for 66 yards from backup QB Matt Leinart. But collectively, the receiving unit dropped a lot of easy passes.
The defensive line looked solid in run defense and in putting pressure on Dallas quarterback Tony Romo who was unable to get anything going in limited action. But it would be generous to give too much credit to the Raiders with the Cowboys dealing with injuries to an offensive line that is not very good even when healthy.
The pass defense looked good on paper, limiting the Cowboys to 148 yards and an interception while completing 15 of 27 pass attempts. But that doesn't reveal the fact that Dallas receivers got open for some long gains that made it obvious that Oakland's defensive players are still learning their assignments.
The Raiders special teams looked shaky as the team missed to very makeable field goals. But veteran kicker Sebastian Janikowski is the least of the Raiders' concerns heading into 2012.
The most intriguing player in last night's exhibition was Oakland's third-string quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Getting his first real taste of NFL action since being selected in last summer's supplemental draft, he looked very much like a raw talent who hasn't played much football in the last 18 months.
But Pryor also showed the athleticism and elusiveness that made him such a highly recruited talent coming out of high school.
It's evident that Pryor needs a lot of polish to become a competent passer at the pro level. But he looked like a guy that could be a good NFL starter someday if he receives proper coaching and is willing to put in the work.
What we basically learned last night is that the Raiders are still very much a work in progress. McFadden will likely need to carry the offense early in the season until Palmer and his receiving corps can develop some chemistry, and provide some balance to the Raiders attack.
The Raiders did commit only five penalties last night, which could be a sign that the days of reckless, undisciplined play are finally behind them.
While they have some talented players on the roster, they don't have enough experienced NFL players to overcome sloppy play. So for the sake of their playoff chances, Oakland fans have to hope that the low penalty count will continue throughout the 2012 season.