Ask Raiders fans what has been missing from their team since the 2002 season. Some will tell you, "We need a leader at QB again!" Others will testify that the O-line has yet to be solidified. Almost all Raider fans will agree on one need, though.
In 2002, the Raiders (led by the No. 1 offense in the NFL) reached the Super Bowl under Bill Callahan. But they had something else that recent teams have lacked. The 2002 Raiders had a fearless defensive leader in Rod Woodson. Woodson mostly played CB in his career before joining the Raiders and switching to free safety.
A recurring theme in successful Raider teams of old, one could make the argument that the key to Oakland's past success was a leader at safety. In Superbowl XI, the safety was Jack "The Assassin" Tatum. Tatum is perhaps best known for his crushing hit that left Patriots WR Darryl Stingley paralyzed from the chest down.
Just ask Raiders second round draft choice Mike Mitchell out of Ohio. Mitchell, who made headlines as one of the biggest surprises in the draft, idolizes Jack Tatum and models his own style of play after the Assassin.
Mitchell will join last year's fourth round draft choice, Tyvon Branch, in attempting to resurrect the violence in Oakland's secondary. Branch had his rookie campaign cut short due to injury, but impressed in limited time. So much so, that head coach Tom Cable wanted another hitter just like him.
When talking about the Mike Mitchell selection, Cable said, "He has that Ronnie Lott, that Jack Tatum mentality. He literally knocks people out."
Cable had better hope.
In 2001, the Raiders attempted to bring in a hard-hitting safety by selecting Derrick Gibson with the 28th overall pick. The Raiders' coach in 2002? Jon Gruden. I'm sure I don't have to remind everyone how that turned out.
They tried again in the 2006 draft by picking Texas star Michael Huff with the seventh overall choice. They even passed on NT Haloti Ngata and QB Matt Leinart to get Huff. Huff has been virtually invisible in his short duration in Oakland, making minimal plays and falling out of the starting lineup. Art Shell was the coach that picked Huff, and he was a one-year wonder.
The Raiders are a very talented team on defense. Their D-line, while shaky at times, promises to improve with Derrick Burgess in a contract year and third round choice Matt Shaugnessy at DE. The linebacking corps already has defensive captain Kirk Morrison and speedy Thomas Howard. The Oakland secondary is led by Nnamdi Asomugha and Chris Johnson.
They just need leadership at safety.
Production isn't enough. Gibril Wilson (the $36 million man that the Raiders splurged on in free agency) was released after just one year. Wilson had 129 tackles in that one year.
So look for the Raiders to count on plenty of bone-jarring hits from their new safety tandem in 2009. If Branch and Mitchell aren't able to produce, we could be looking at another "bottom five" rush defense and yet another long year in the Bay.