There’s nowhere to go but up for the 2007 Oakland Raiders.
That is, unless they don’t win any games.
The Raiders 2-14 2006 season was awful, but the team had enough bright spots and made enough changes to hint at the possibility of a turnaround.
If the defense plays like it did a year ago, and if QB Andrew Walter never sees the field again, the Raiders should be able to avoid the AFC West cellar.
Walter can't be blamed for all the Raiders’ problems in 2006, but he does make a great poster child. His typical performance was an accurate metaphor for the season: staring glassy-eyed into the pass rush, not really feeling the pressure, crumbling like a sack of potatoes...and while fumbling the ball away.
Apathetic. Uncoordinated. Depressing.
For the quarterback situation to improve in 2007, the starter must simply be competent. The Raiders placed much of their hope in number-one pick JaMarcus Russell—but Russell is still not in camp, and probably won't make an impact this season.
One reason Oakland is in no hurry to sign Russell is the acquisition of Daunte Culpepper. Great with the Vikings and terrible with the Dolphins, Culpepper has a lot to prove in 2007—and he's in a great position to do so.
It has been said that players need two years to overcome serious knee injuries; if so, Culpepper could return to his Viking form this season. Josh McCown might start at quarterback, but you can bet that Culpepper will see time before long.
The offensive line didn’t care who was under center last year; everyone got equally anemic protection. The big fellas allowed a league-high 72 sacks and run-blocked just as poorly.
In the offseason, the Raiders signed Cooper Carlisle, Jeremy Newberry, and Cornell Green to compete along the line. Any new faces would be an improvement over the flops from last year.
The skill positions, for their part, are rather unimpressive.
RB LaMont Jordan played in only nine games last season—and when he was playing, he was hardly playing well. He averaged less than four yards a carry and had only two touchdowns.
The Raiders signed RB Dominic Rhodes in the offseason in hopes of giving the team a 1-2 punch in the backfield. They got the contrasting styles part right, but it remains to be seen how effective either option will be.
Ironically enough, Oakland’s number-one receiver in 2007 had just one catch last year. Jerry Porter will have every chance to make a difference this season after spending much of 2006 in coach Art Shell's doghouse. Reclamation project Mike Williams will get a chance to show the promise many thought he had at USC.
The Raiders D was a bright spot in 2006, ranking third in the league, keeping the team in games it had no business being in, and even pulling out a victory over the Steelers almost entirely by itself.
The pass defense was the league’s best, partly because teams had no need to pass against the Raiders and partly because of Nnamdi Asomugha and Co. Asomugha showed that he can be one of the league’s best cornerbacks, and his secondary mates—along with the pass rush of Derrick Burgess—helped keep offenses in check.
It will be interesting to see how the unit holds up when teams are forced to throw this season.
The man in charge of resurrecting the Raiders is first-time head coach Lane Kiffin. The former USC offensive coordinator wasn't Oakland’s first choice, but he was one of the few candidates who would actually take the job.
Kiffin is young (31 years old) and bright (USC’s offense never skips a beat), but he has little experience. It’s almost as if the Raiders meant to hire Kiffin’s old man Monte, the defensive coordinator in Tampa Bay, and wound up with his kid.
No one expects the Raiders to pull off a Saints-like turnaround. They play in the much tougher AFC, they have Denver and San Diego in their own division, and they still aren’t very good. What can be expected out of this team—especially with a stout D—is an improvement over last year’s dismal record.
Just don’t embarrass, baby.
Projected finish: 6-10, 3rd AFC West
Keep your eyes on: RB Michael Bush—Rookie runner is better than Raiders’ starters, but nobody knows it.
Take your eyes off: OL Robert Gallery—Veteran lineman is worse than Raiders’ backups, but nobody knows it.