The Oakland Raiders haven’t had a winning season since losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Super Bowl a decade ago. They’ve had seven head coaches since, who’ve combined for a 45-109 record. Their “Commitment to Excellence” has been mocked and renamed to something else that will not be mentioned here.
But is there hope for their long-suffering fans?
Could 2012 be the year that the Raiders bring the pride back to the Bay?
In the mediocre, yet competitive AFC West, it’s quite possible. The Silver and Black almost made the postseason in 2011, tying the Denver Broncos with identical 8-8 records, but lost the tiebreaker for the division crown. The Broncos are one Peyton Manning injury away from disaster, the San Diego Chargers and coach Norv Turner always seem to underachieve, and the Kansas City Chiefs are rebuilding under new coach Romeo Crennel.
So the opportunity is there for the Raiders’ new man, Dennis Allen. Here’s five things that must happen for them to breathe the postseason air once more:
1. Darren McFadden must play a full season.
It hasn’t happened yet, as the former Arkansas running back has missed at least three games due to injury in each of his first four NFL seasons (missed 16 of 44 starts). When healthy, McFadden’s an elite running back. When he’s out, the Raiders lose nearly all respect on the ground from opposing defenses.
New offensive coordinator Greg Knapp comes over from Houston, where he molded Arian Foster and the Texans into a punishing ground unit (2nd in the league in 2011). The carries will be there for McFadden. If he can avoid getting hurt, the Raiders’ offense will be as potent as any in the division.
2. Carson Palmer has to rediscover his touch.
He only played in nine games in 2011 as a Raider after being traded from Cincinnati, and the rust was evident. Palmer threw 13 scoring passes, but was intercepted an eye-opening 16 times. If he’d played a full campaign he was on pace for nearly 30 pickoffs. That can’t continue in ’12 if the Raiders want to snap their playoff drought.
3. The Raiders and their longtime spouse – penalties – need to divorce.
Allen is a discipline disciple, which is a distinct, albeit welcome change in Oakland. For decades Raiders fans have embraced the swashbuckling, personal foul-plagued style of play because it added to the team’s image. But it’s also added to their losses and playoff absences.
Since 2010, the Raiders have been flagged 237 times for a whopping 2,143 yards. That’s almost 10 yards per yellow hankie, so it’s not hard to guess what sorts of mistakes the team is making (personal fouls, holding, pass interference). The days of Jack Tatum, George Atkinson, Ben Davidson, and Ted Hendricks are the stuff of NFL Films lore, to be sure. But living in the past is no way to look toward the future, and the ’12 edition of the Raiders need to be smarter and more disciplined. From 2006 through 2009 the team averaged only 676 yards in penalties, and that could be the difference between a 10-6 season and an 8-8 one.
4. The defense needs a new look.
Oakland has long been a defense with a four-man pass rush and man coverage. But new defensive coordinator Jason Tarver is changing things up - promising multiple fronts, more blitzing (something Davis was hesitant to do), and a shoring up of the run defense, which has ranked in the bottom 10 of the NFL nine of the last 10 years.
The Raiders ranked 29th in the league in total defense in 2011, allowing more than 385 yards and 27 points per game. Yet the team still managed to win eight games, which suggests that even a modest improvement defensively could go a long way toward improving postseason chances.
5. The post-Al Davis management needs patience.
New general manager Reggie McKenzie’s first act was to fire Jackson. Now that he’s got Allen and his staff in place, McKenzie needs to be un-Raiderlike and relax. Give the new staff time to succeed – a luxury that coaching staffs under Davis’ watch didn’t have.
Davis was a fascinating NFL owner. He moved the franchise from Oakland to Los Angeles and back again. He drafted infamous robo-QB Todd Marinovich, and colossal bust Jamarcus Russell. He even traded coach Jon Gruden to Tampa Bay for draft picks and cash, only to see Gruden have the last laugh in the Super Bowl. Davis’ “Just Win, Baby” philosophy hasn’t produced fruit in many years.
Maybe “Just Make the Playoffs, Baby” is a more appropriate goal for the post-Al Davis Raiders in 2012.
It’s not nearly as catchy.
But it is possible.