Last year's version of Hue Jackson's "Bullies" were sailing along by Week 5 of the season, riding the dynamic tailback play of the league's leading rusher Darren McFadden, along with the steady if unspectacular play of quarterback Jason Campbell.
Darrius Heyward-Bey began paying dividends as his questionable hands caught up to his fleet feet. Rookie Denarius Moore showed the preseason wasn't a fluke as he made sure his presence was felt, negating the injuries the rest of the receiving corps seemed to get.
Right up until the snap of a collarbone against Cleveland.
The Raiders' gamble to rescue Carson Palmer from Cincinnati did not pay the immediate dividends Hue had hoped for and the Silver and Black limped home to their second consecutive 8-8 record. Hue found himself on the way out of Oakland and the Raiders found themselves looking at yet another rebuilding opportunity. But as the sun rises on the latest version of the Raiders, there is reason for optimism in Oakland and it all starts on the offensive side of the football.
From the Mad Bomber to the Snake, stretching the field has been the hallmark of the franchise since its inception. But the most successful era since the team's return to Oakland was led by a hyper-accurate passer who ran a West Coast offense to perfection but rarely threw the ball more than 20 yards—Rich Gannon.
There are those who think that the Raiders have the next version of that tenured quarterback looking for a career rejuvenation.
Too bad it's their second-team signal-caller!
Hold on Raider, fans—before you go starting a quarterback controversy, let's take a look at the facts.
The clear, established starter will be Carson Palmer—he of the strong arm and veteran presence. The primary problem with Carson's season last year were poor decisions leading to interceptions. He threw 16 in 10 games (1.6 per game), compared to 1.1 per game in his career. Supporters quickly point out that he had no training camp and is playing in a new system with receivers he still had to learn.
That might all be true but the fact remains that since his injury in 2008, he hasn't been the same quarterback. He has a lot to prove if he intends to make fans forget the bounty of draft picks the Raider organization surrendered to obtain his rights. Oakland doesn't have the luxury their cross-bay neighbors have—keeping the game close and hoping the defense will win it for them.
They enter this season knowing full well they'll need to outgun the opposition most Sundays.
There are those around Napa that have whispered that Matt Leinart may be a better option to run Gregg Knapp's West Coast offense. Predicated on a moving pocket and intermediate routes, Leinart has had a few seasons working with it along with Knapp in Houston. He certainly looked the part against Dallas, looking comfortable in his read progressions and taking positive yardage where available. Leinart is clearly going to start the season as second fiddle, but should Carson struggle early on, don't be surprised to see No. 7 get an opportunity.
And if that weren't enough, lurking in the shadows behind the two USC veterans stands the chiseled visage of Terrelle Pryor.
The young man has enough adjectives associated with him to make Mel Kiper Jr. get dizzy: high ceiling, athletic, versatile, instinctive, gifted runner. You can add to that unproven, erratic arm and disappointing—if his first preseason test is any indication. He spent last Monday evening throwing off his back foot and missing open receivers badly.
Still, for every bad pass there was a breath-taking glimpse of the elusiveness that could make him a valuable asset to this team. It's unlikely he'll be at quarterback any time soon, but it's not hard to imagine a wildcat package with Pryor, Marcel Reece and Darren McFadden lined up three across in the backfield.
Sort of makes you think, doesn't it?
After waiting three years to catch a glimpse of the explosive running of Darren McFadden, a top-five draft choice from Arkansas, Raider fans rejoiced in his 600 yards and five TDs in the first six games of the season. But a date with a lisfranc fracture changed all that and shelved DMac for the rest of the season.
In fact, until this past Monday, Palmer and McFadden haven't shared the field together as teammates. Against the Cowboys last year, Darren touched the ball three times and picked up 38 yards, showing the speed and power that accurately had him compared to Adrian Peterson. He's improved dramatically at blitz pickup and offers Palmer the ultimate dump-off target and security blanket.
If he can only stay away from the trainer's table.
Michael Bush, thunder to McFadden's lightning, has departed for the colder climate of Chicago to back up Matt Forte. Interesting choice for a back who was said to be determined to find a destination to be "the man!" Taking his place will be some combination of the liquid-fast Taiwan Jones and veteran Mike Goodson.
Coach Knapp has returned to the zone blocking scheme favored by the long-departed Tom Cable and that should benefit Goodson. Look for Jones, a tremendous straight-line burner, to struggle in a system predicated on cutback running. The team will no doubt be combing the waiver wire as camp goes on to see if there are any backs to add depth to an unproven squad.
It's hard to imagine the Raiders being comfortable trying to replace McFadden with heavy doses of Goodson.
Returning to the fold is fullback Marcel Reece. The converted wideout remains a matchup nightmare and a solidly average blocker. It remains to be seen if rookie head coach Dennis Allen will call Reece's number more than Hue did.
Backing up Reece is veteran Owen Schmitt, a rugged blocker who caught 19 passes two years ago in Philadelphia. He may be a better fit for a grind-it-out rushing attack but lacks the speed and deep threat Reese brings.
It's hard to know what to make of this crew.
Gone are Louis Murphy and oft injured Chaz Schilens. In fact, three of the top six pass-catchers (Bush, TE Kevin Boss and Schilens) have departed. But Heyward-Bey was just 25 yards short of a 1,000-yard campaign (out-gaining Michael Crabtree by 101 yards, but who's counting?) and Denarius Moore was an absolute revelation leading the team with five TD receptions and adding another on the ground.
Jacoby Ford struggled with injuries most of the season and was unable to build on his successful rookie campaign. He'll need to return to form and intriguing rookies Rod Streater and Juron Criner will need to get up to speed quickly to give this group a chance. Eddie McGee will get an opportunity to show he belongs. Many pundits question the lack of a veteran presence in this group, but salary cap numbers being what they probably preclude that adding a Plaxico Burress to the mix is unlikely.
Moore is a field stretcher who ran routes remarkably consistently and quickly became a Palmer favorite. Heyward-Bey is another burner who really turned the corner last year and became a reliable pass-catcher.
After two years of frustrating drops, Heyward-Bey grabbed 64 balls, more than doubling his previous season high. He'll need to continue to develop his skills as a possession receiver. While the Raiders don't lack in burners to run the nine route, what they sorely miss is that guy that could settle into the zone and pick up eight when you desperately need to move the chains (see Brown, Tim).
It's possible one of the rookies, Streater or Criner could be that guy. With both standing 6'3", they've got the size to go over the middle and play with the big boys, but finding a rookie willing to take the punishment is a rare thing indeed.
Just two years ago, it appeared the Raiders were ready to add to the franchise legacy of talented tight ends with Zach Miller. But Miller made for the North where he disappeared with career lows in catches (25), yards (233) and touchdowns (zero!). The one year Kevin Boss era proved to be too expensive for GM Reggie McKenzie's taste and so the Silver and Black enter the season with an unlikely trio of Brandon Myers, Richard Gordon and David Ausberry.
None of them are likely to be mistaken for Jimmy Graham any time soon. Still, Myers has been one of the most talked-about players in camp this year, showing improved in-line blocking and better-than-average hands. He's not going to blow down the seam past the safety, but the hope is he can contribute in the running game and come up with a big catch every once in a while.
The most interesting one of the bunch is bulked-up, converted wide receiver David Ausberry. A contributor at USC, he continues to try to make the transition to the tight end position. As you might expect, blocking remains a bit of a mystery, but Ausberry can fly. In two-tight end sets, he can flex wide and match up well against linebackers. He'll see the field more now that Boss is gone and is a sure bet to dramatically improve on last year's totals of two catches for 14 yards.
Raider fans look back longingly at Kennedy, Sims, Badger, Robbins and Middleton. Since that group of road graders blocked their way to a Super Bowl appearance, it's been a rough journey.
Robert Gallery's failed attempt to be a 10-year left tackle is long forgotten, but there is reason to hope again. Perhaps the best free-agent acquisition this year (along with linebacker Philip Wheeler) was Mike Brisiel from the Texans. "Little Wiz" Stefen Wisniewski anchors the middle and is joined by 6'8" Jared Veldheer, veteran Cooper Carlisle and Khalif Barnes in the starting unit.
Perhaps equally encouraging, the team has some depth here with newcomers Tony Bergstrom and Joe Barksdale already pushing for playing time. This group will be asked to execute the zone blocking system favored by Coach Knapp and will try to provide as much protection for Carson Palmer, who will never be mistaken for Cam Newton.
Most observers say it takes two seasons for a unit like this to gel. The Raiders will have to hope they can significantly shorten their learning curve if they want to compete in the wild, wild West now.
It's clear that, when healthy, the Raiders have the firepower to put points on the board. With a defensive-minded head coach, no one's exactly sure what this year's offense will look like. In Greg Knapp's last go-around as the Raiders O-coordinator, he was saddled with the 275-pound burden of JaMarcus Russell, so his performance should be taken with a large grain of salt (but please, no purple drank!).
The road to the AFC West title will be best navigated with an explosive—and healthy, if they can help it—offense!