The Oakland Raiders are a team that has finally begun the long road back to relevancy within the NFL landscape. Recent years have not been too kind to the franchise, but the end of the 2012 season showed glimmers of what the future may bring.
So how exactly do the Raiders ensure that all the current signs of hope and optimism are not quickly washed away like they have been in the past?
There is no unilateral blueprint that every team can follow towards success. Each path is unique, and the Raiders need to learn from mistakes they have made in the past. The team must have a sense of patience that has been glaringly omitted over the past decade. The pieces are already in place to start winning games, but certain steps must be taken.
Let's break down six steps Oakland needs to take to become a contender once again.
Darren McFadden is one of the most naturally talented players in the NFL. His combination of size, skill and speed is almost unparalleled, and he is a truly dynamic running back when healthy.
The problem is that he is almost never healthy.
Every run by McFadden has to be watched with nervous anticipation for what may happen. He is the epitome of injury prone and has missed 13 games over the last two seasons. In fact, McFadden has never put together an entire 16-game regular season.
Oakland wants to be able to trust "Run DMC" as the star of the franchise and someone that can compete with Adrian Peterson for rushing titles, but those hopes have gone unfulfilled to this point.
If McFadden impresses this season then it gives Oakland reason to look at inking him to a new deal, but if he struggles then the team must be willing to let him walk in free agency. Six seasons is more than enough time to establish himself as a star.
The coaching carousel in Oakland is something that has continuously spun for far too long. It seems that just as a head coach begins to find his footing with the franchise, establish his own culture and truly turn things around, he is fired.
The team has not had a single head coach last more than four seasons since Art Shell's first run from 1989-1994. That kind of constant turnover is never going to allow any franchise to win consistently or woo big-name free agents into the fold.
Oakland seems to have a competent core of coaches currently employed and it is important that they are given a real chance to turn the ship in the right direction. Dennis Allen is a brilliant defensive mind, and the work he and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver did near the end of 2012 was truly remarkable.
It is clear that the Raiders players respond to this coaching staff and are willing to play for them. What would it say if Oakland fired the staff after this season? What exactly is good enough for the Raiders front office?
This is not to say Allen's job is currently in any danger, but the Raiders' track record suggests that every coach is always on the hot seat. Allow Allen to breathe, gain some control over his team and locker room and see what results follow.
Oakland has had a known issue with finding a franchise quarterback. Not since the times of Rich Gannon has the franchise had a real Pro Bowl presence at the position and the offense has never been able to really develop an identity.
Players like Jason Campbell, Bruce Gradkowski and Carson Palmer have come and gone, but none have been able to establish themselves as the long-term answer to the Raiders passing woes. Is Matt Flynn the right guy for the franchise moving forward?
The only fair answer is that we don't know yet, but he must be given a fair chance to find out. Flynn was a highly sought after free agent just last offseason, but losing the starting position in Seattle to Russell Wilson dropped his stock just a bit.
The Raiders have now brought him in and the offensive game plan will have to play to his strengths. He is not a strong-armed quarterback like Oakland has traditionally employed. Flynn is an accurate passer who excels at play-action attacks. Adjusting the offense to allow him to succeed will be a huge step forward for the franchise.
Did something feel different about this year's draft class from the Raiders? Maybe it was the fact that Oakland finally committed itself to filling holes and finding value with each and every draft pick that was made.
We all remember the head-scratching decisions and borderline insulting picks that had been made over the years. Guys with freakish athleticism, amazing speed and little to no interest from other NFL teams. Let's not get into naming names, but the point is that Oakland rarely came off well from those types of selections.
Well, the Raiders seem to finally be learning from their mistakes because this year the team addressed needs at cornerback,offensive tackle and linebacker within the first three rounds. All three of those players (D.J. Hayden, Sio Moore and Menelik Watson) are expected to compete for starting positions and contribute sooner rather than later.
This is almost too obvious of a point to make, but with the Raiders it is worth saying: Keep using the draft as a tool to find clear talent and address glaring weaknesses. 2013's draft was a rousing success and will hopefully be the blueprint for drafting that Oakland can follow in the future.
2010 feels like far too long ago for this Oakland Raiders franchise.
Remember 2010? It was the season in which the Raiders won every single divisional matchup on their schedule. That's right, the San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos all fell twice to the Raiders.
It would be understandable if you forgot about that divisional prowess because Oakland has won just four games total against those teams in the last two seasons. There is perhaps no better way for the Raiders to return to relevancy than to beat the teams in the AFC West.
Some of the NFL's most storied rivalries come from this division and the Raiders are a big part of that. It would be hard for the Raiders not to find relevancy if they are beating Peyton Manning, running over the Chiefs and consistently having bitter battles with the Chargers.
Oakland is a franchise that was built on defensive intensity and that must be re-established first and foremost against the teams that are seen twice every season.
Speaking of defensive intensity, the Raiders began to show quite a bit of it towards the end of last season.
It took awhile for the grand vision of Dennis Allen and Jason Tarver to showcase itself, but Oakland was a much more focused and competitive team starting with a Week 13 defeat at the hands of the Cleveland Browns.
There was even a 15-0 shutout of the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 15. Yes, the Chiefs offense would've had trouble scoring against a team of CFL washouts last season, but it was great to see Oakland's defense flying around the field, making smart decisions in coverage and getting to the quarterback.
There has been turnover on the defense this offseason, but an identity and a tone has been put in place. Those are underrated assets that cannot be overlooked. The impact of contributors like Phillip Wheeler, Michael Huff and Rolando McClain will be missed, but there are playmakers ready to step up in this unit.
Guys like Tyvon Branch, Lamarr Houston and rookie D.J. Hayden are ready to continue the progress that began last season. This defense cannot afford to lose that intensity in a season where it must face such offensive juggernauts as the Broncos, Washington Redskins, New York Giants and Houston Texans.