By Tim Peterson
NFL correspondent application
The question all Raider fans should be asking is when? When will the mystic of the Silver and Black return? When will the Raiders return to their winning ways? With back-to-back victories over Houston and Tampa Bay to end last season, Oakland could be on its way up.
But here are the hard questions facing Tom Cable’s Raiders, as they hope to avoid a seventh consecutive losing season. Can the defense finnally hunker down and stop the run? In 2008, they weren't very good at this task, ranking 31st
in rushing yards allowed. But the biggest question is under center.
Will JaMarcus Russell ever live up to his draft status?
Russell showed signs of development last season. Over the last six games of the season, Russell carried a 92.3 quarterback rating and led the Raiders to 3-3 record. If he can continue to learn and develop, Oakland will win games. That’s why a record of 7-9 or 8-8 wouldn’t be out of the question for 2009.
Considering they play in the weak AFC West, Cable’s crew could exceed expectations, maybe even challenge for a playoff spot. However, in order for that to come to fruition, Oakland’s run defense will have to make big strides. With the addition of defensive line coach Dwaine Board, and the emergence of Trevor Scott, the front line of the Raiders could make a big push towards stopping the run. In 2002, Board took the Seahawks last place rush defense and turned it into a quick, run stuffing bunch that would eventually reach the Super Bowl. Can he and defensive coordinator John Marshall do the same in Oakland? Only time will tell.
Oakland’s starting defensive front four consists of Tommy Kelly, Gerard Warren, Jay Richardson and Derrick Burgess. This group did little to impress in 2008, and trade rumors continue to swirl around 2-time Pro-Bowler Derrick Burgess. Cable addressed the situation at mini-camp and he told the Oakland Tribune that he expects Burgess to be a Raider when the season begins. However, if the Raiders could get a third round pick or better,for Burgess, they should jump on it. The star defensive end has been injury prone and is unhappy with his contract situation in Oakland. Waiting in the wings is a group of young defensive linemen, led by second year pro Trevor Scott. Rookie Matt Shaughnessy and a veteran Terdell Sands should be good situational defenders, but it’s Scott that has everyone’s attention.
The sleeper pick out of Buffalo has a motor, and may have shown Al Davis that he's a viable replacement for Burgess. The undersized pass rusher was able to register 24 tackles and 5 sacks in his rookie year.
Obstacles facing the team are many. But all eyes are squarely fixed on JaMarcus Russell. According to mini-camp reports, JaMarcus was inconsistent. He missed on a variety throws and didn’t look sharp. Couple that with Jeff Garcia publicly declaring he's not out of the running as the Raiders starter, and Oakland could have a big distraction on their hands. Not of the Lane Kiffin magnitude, but a distraction none-the-less. If Russell plays poorly and is yanked in favor of Garcia, that’s not good for the long term success of the Raiders either.
The team shockingly drafted Maryland’s Darius Heyward-Bey with the
seventh overall pick. By all accounts Heyward-Bey has blazing speed but can he catch? He had three consecutive drops in one mini-camp session. Whether he has the hands or not, Oakland still needs him to stretch the field and open things up for tight end Zach Miller.
But the player that may have the biggest impact, is the former Aztec wide-out, Chaz Schilens. At mini-camp the second year pro stepped in for Javon Walker and made every catch except one. At 6-foot-4, Schilens is a big target and faster than Michael Crabtree. If the Raiders can get better production from this position, it will help Darren McFadden and the running attack immensely.
The Raiders didn’t utilize their three headed monster of Fargas, McFadden and Bush very well last season, even though they combined for well over a 1,000 yards rushing. It wouldn't be shocking to see Cable change things up. Going with a rushing attack of McFadden and Bush, over the hard charging Fargas seems like a natural move. This should make the Raiders offense more dynamic and give the defense a break. For the Raiders in 2009, the question remains, when will they put it all together? When will they win? If they start the season fast, maybe by stringing together wins over the Chargers, Chiefs and Broncos, they'll prove they're on the right track. But restoring the the Raider mystic? That will only be satisfied by winning another Lombardi trophy.