When you stop to consider the offseason moves the Raiders have made, it’s evident what the plans are on offense for 2009: Establish the run first and then throw it deep downfield.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
It’s been that way for the Silver and Black since 1963, when a 33-year-old Al Davis took what he learned from then-Chargers head coach Sid Gillman and implemented an aggressive vertical passing attack that revolutionized the way football was played.
Strangers to the Raider Nation are quick to criticize Davis for insisting upon what they perceive to be bygone methods and philosophies.
But it’s easy to kick a man when he’s down.
When the Raiders have had the right players to play their brand of football, those teams have featured some of the most prolific offenses in league history and have featured such stars as Kenny Stabler, Willie Gault, and Tim Brown.
The 2009 version of the Raiders hopes to do much of the same, but while talent abounds on offense, inexperience and inconsistency might prove to be the biggest deterrents to a productive offensive attack.
To address the issue of inconsistency, Davis’ first offseason move was to drop the “interim” title from Tom Cable and make him the Raiders’ official head coach. If the past six years of misfortunes have taught Raider fans anything, it’s that their young talent will never develop properly if there’s a high turnover ratio in the coaching staff.
Cable, who began with the Raiders in 2007 as an offensive line coach, took control of the team immediately after Lane Kiffin’s firing following a Week Four loss to the Chargers. By Week Nine, Cable also assumed offensive play-calling duties, taking over for then-coordinator Greg Knapp.
In 2009, Cable will continue to call the shots on offense, and that’s probably for the best when you consider how well he had the team playing in its final two games of 2008.
The philosophy will be the same, and that should definitely make things easier for third-year quarterback JaMarcus Russell.
Russell, with his rocket arm and great height at 6’6”, is the prototypical Al Davis quarterback, and in theory, the Raiders’ offense is perfectly tailored to his skill set. In practice, however, the early reports haven’t been encouraging.
Despite his strong arm, Russell has struggled with the deep ball during OTAs, particularly in the accuracy department.
Although he hasn’t completely let his quarterback off the hook, Cable insists that Russell’s struggles are partly due to slight changes in offensive scheming, and if that’s the case, you certainly hope the additions of Paul Hackett (quarterback coach) and Ted Tollner (passing game coordinator) will help accelerate Russell’s development and ease his transition.
When or if Russell becomes capable enough in Cable’s system, he will have the pleasure of throwing to a group of wide receivers that has been perfectly adjusted to his needs.
Darrius Heyward-Bey, despite any debate over his selection, is the type of deep threat wide receiver that can excel in such an offense as the Raiders'. Heyward-Bey possesses an incredible combination of size (6’2” and 210 lbs.) and speed (4.3/40) that the Raiders hope to immediately utilize in their attack.
Needless to say, Heyward-Bey will not lead the Raiders in receptions or receiving yards. The advantage of having a receiver like Heyward-Bey is in the sheer threat of a home run pass.
A legitimate deep threat wide receiver has the ability to draw defenders in the secondary away from the action, opening up opportunities for the offense to gain major yards.
Some definite benefactors of Heyward-Bey’s skill might be Johnnie Lee Higgins and Chaz Schilens. Higgins, who has established himself as one of the league’s premier return men, is a big play waiting to happen at wide receiver, and Schilens, who impressed last season as a rookie, is a polished receiver who is a great target at 6’4”.
Ideally, the Raiders envision an offense where Heyward-Bey is able to draw defenders away, opening up huge holes for slot receivers like Higgins and Schilens.
The possibilities are enough to make a Raider fan salivate.
In one-on-one coverage, Higgins is the type of athlete with enough shake in his step to turn a modest gain into a big play. In that same regard, while Schilens might not have the agility of Higgins, he’s a sure-handed receiver who should be a favorite target of Russell’s in third down situations.
One player who is poised to have a big year for the Raiders is tight end Zach Miller. In 2008, Miller led the team in receptions and receiving yards, and if you ask anyone who knows a lick about football, a young quarterback’s best friend is often his tight end.
Unless he makes huge strides in his development this summer, Russell’s favorite target should remain Miller. Cable and company understand that the success of their offense will be predicated on Russell’s ability to handle pressure, and as such, they will put him in situations where he will always have an out—namely, Miller.
One of the hallmarks of Cable’s offenses when he was coordinator at UCLA was his ability to run a variety of plays in a single formation. With this in mind, it is likely we will see Miller on the field for the majority of plays because of his versatility as a skilled receiver and as an adept blocker.
In this way, Russell will often have the benefit of having his tight end as a security blanket.
The Raiders will always be a team predicated on the run. Cable’s offensive approach will be to run the ball, wear down opposing defenses, and control the clock.
With that said, if the running game is as good as advertised and the offensive line provides enough protection against the pass rush, the passing game will significantly improve from last season, and 2009 will usher in the return of the long ball in Oakland.
After all, a wise man once said, “You can run for yards, but you can pass for miles.”