Given the way the 2008 season ended, the Oakland Raiders entered this offseason with something they haven’t had in a while: momentum.
True, a two-game win streak might not seem like much when the team’s overall record finished at 5-11, but when you’re an organization that’s won only 23 games since 2003, you’ll take whatever positives you can get.
This is in no way meant to be an apology for a tumultuous 2008 campaign, but for the Raiders to have finished on such a high note there's reason to believe that 2009 just might be the year the Raiders take that first step in the right direction.
However, the important thing to remember about such an optimistic outlook is that it should be at best curbed, if not guarded.
After all, these are still the Oakland Raiders.
As such, they’ll open the 2009 season with yet another new head coach, Tom Cable, and a slew of questions that desperately need to be answered before the season-opener Sept. 14 against San Diego.
Most of the questions on offense center around a passing game that finished near last in most major statistical categories.
At the center of it all is third-year quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Russell struggled to find any consistency last year, and if the Raiders want to feature a more balanced offensive attack, he must become the quarterback the Raiders believed him to be when he was selected first overall in 2007.
Should Russell fail to improve, don’t be surprised if Cable is quick to play veteran Jeff Garcia, who was signed this offseason as Russell’s backup (even though the past few years have shown that Garcia never believes he’s anyone’s backup).
The second most glaring issue, among a laundry list of issues, is Oakland’s defensive front seven and their inability to stop the run. The Raiders ranked 31st in run defense the past two seasons, although they dramatically improved their sack total last year.
Cable doesn’t expect there to be much change in schemes, but in bringing in the tough, no-nonsense Marshall, he hopes his defense will become more fundamentally sound and perform better as a unit.
The 2009 schedule doesn’t look promising for the Raiders.
Save for divisional rivals Denver and Kansas City, there aren’t any real cupcakes the Raiders will face. While it might be a stretch to say teams like the Texans, Bengals, or the Redskins are forces to be reckoned with, they certainly are in a better situation than the Raiders.
The season opens on Monday night against last year’s division champs, the San Diego Chargers.
Make no mistake, despite winning the conference with an 8-8 record, the Chargers could have finished with a couple more wins under their belts had it not been for a few bad breaks (see Ed Hochuli).
With a healthy Shawne Merriman and LaDainian Tomlinson looking like he’s ready to go, the Raiders will be hard-pressed to come up with a win in this one despite their best efforts.
The next two-game stretch of games might play into Oakland’s favor. The Raiders travel to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs in Week Two, followed up by the Broncos in Oakland.
Kansas City finished last in the division in 2008, and while they’ve made some key additions, they’ll be breaking in a new coach, a new quarterback, and a new scheme.
The same goes for the Broncos who would’ve been contenders had they held onto Jay Cutler, but with Kyle Orton in charge of a new offense, look for Denver to take a step back.
It’s almost crazy to say it, but the Raiders’ Week Four matchup in Houston might go a long way in gauging this team. Even though the Raiders bested the Texans in Week 16 last season, Houston finished the year at 8-8, and had some impressive victories to show for it.
The Texans might battle some inconsistencies throughout the season, especially in a tough AFC South, but head coach Gary Kubiak will have his team ready to compete.
Unfortunately for the Raiders, this game is in Texas and Houston will come out on top in this one.
The Raiders will be hard-pressed to come out with any wins in the following two weeks. On Oct. 11, they’ll be in East Rutherford, N.J., to play the Giants, and Eli Manning and company will be too much for the young Raiders.
Week Six, the Raiders will host the Eagles, but again, the disparity in experienced talent will manifest itself in a third consecutive loss for the Raiders.
Week Seven, the Raiders host the New York Jets, and will welcome rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez. While last season’s rookie quarterbacks (Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco) were phenomenal in their first years, don’t expect much of the same from Sanchez.
The Raiders will put a stop to the bleeding with a nice win over the Jets.
Week Eight will be another tough matchup against the Chargers, and unfortunately for the Raiders, this time it will be in San Diego. The Raiders head into the bye week with a loss, and a record of 3-5.
Out of the bye, the Raiders will host Kansas City, and while the Chiefs should be improved by this time in the season, expect the Raiders to come out with a win and sweep their rivals.
Much like the three-game stretch of games from Weeks Four through Six, expect the same from Weeks 11-13.
Although the Bengals struggled in 2008, former Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer returns, and early reports are that he’s as healthy as ever.
The Week 14 matchup against the Redskins could be a pivotal one for the Raiders. The Redskins, coming off an 8-8 season, are much like the Cowboys in that they’re talented on both sides of the ball. However, should the Raiders progress like they should, they just might have a chance to come up with a surprise win at home.
On Dec. 20, the team travels to Denver to take on the Broncos. You certainly expect the Broncos to be much improved at this point in the season, but while this is an away game for the Raiders, the team should be riding high off their Week 14 win.
In Week 16, the Raiders travel to Cleveland to take on the Browns, and will face a familiar face in Rob Ryan. If Brady Quinn is still starting and hasn’t been taken over by Derek Anderson, this game will depend largely on how much Quinn has progressed at quarterback.
What’s worse for the Raiders though, is the fact that they’ll be facing Ryan’s defense, and if history has told Raider fans anything about their offenses going up against former coaches, things don’t bode well for the Silver and Black.
Barring a spectacular sophomore slump for quarterback Joe Flacco, the Ravens and their annually dominant defense should defeat the Raiders, and you only hope that at this point in the season, the young Raiders have improved enough so that they can, at the very least, make it a competitive game.
Even if they should lose to the Redskins in Week 14, the Raiders should be able to manage one win from either the Texans or the Browns. Should the season come to pass as detailed, the Raiders would finish second in the division at 4-2 with an overall record of 6-10.
While that’s hardly good enough for a playoff birth, it would be a modest step in the right direction for a young Raider team.
While Al Davis and Raider Nation might clamor for better results, the fact of the matter is, this team lacks discipline on defense, and is still too young at too many critical spots on offense.
Since losing Super Bowl XXXVII in 2002, the Raiders have done nothing but fallen short of their yearly expectations, regardless of how low those expectations might have been.
To ask more of such a young team would be impractical.
Given the state of affairs in Raider Nation since 2002, simply meeting expectations should suffice as a "commitment to excellence."