Raiders Surprisingly Calm Amid AFC West Storm

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Raiders Surprisingly Calm Amid AFC West Storm
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

As training camp approaches, the Oakland Raiders find themselves in an unfamiliar position. Not only are they now Oakland’s best sports team, but they also enter the 2009 season with fewer distractions than any team in the AFC West.

Divisional rival Kansas City completely overhauled their franchise, bringing in the holy trinity of NFL rebuilding: a new GM, a new coach, and a new quarterback.

The Chiefs also traded Tony Gonzalez, need to find a replacement for Larry Johnson (he’s turning 30!), may deal Pro Bowler Brian Waters, and changed their defense from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4, a transition that takes more than one season.

Things aren’t much better in the Mile High City. For months now, the Broncos have starred in Oakland’s favorite reality show, voting off a new member of the team each week.

First, head coach and Raider nemesis Mike Shanahan (20-6 career record vs. Oakland) was let go. Then new coach Josh McDaniels traded Jay Cutler to Chicago, handing his team over to the legendary Kyle Orton.

Star wide receiver Brandon Marshall has also requested a trade and may follow Shanahan and Cutler out the door. And not to be outdone by the Chiefs, Denver is also converting to a 3-4 defense.

If you’re keeping track at home, that makes two AFC West teams with new coaches, quarterbacks, and defensive schemes, which also figures to make for two long seasons. That McDaniels and Chiefs GM Scott Pioli were both rolled off New England's "genius-in-waiting" assembly line makes this even more enjoyable for Raiders fans.

In San Diego, things aren’t nearly as bleak. The three-time defending AFC West champs are the division’s undisputed kings, averaging 11 wins per year over their reign. But cracks in their foundation are beginning to show, starting with their franchise player.

Injuries and age are catching up with LaDainian Tomlinson, and he took a pay cut in the offseason to avoid being let go. He’ll split carries this season with Darren Sproles, a small back who’s never carried a significant load for an entire season.

Splitting carries between these two worked last season when Tomlinson was hurt and couldn’t shoulder the weight alone. But now that LT is healthy again, playing time in the backfield may be an issue all season.

The Raiders just hope that Tomlinson isn’t on the field when the Chargers visit Oakland, where he seems to run for 425 yards, score eight touchdowns, win two gold medals, and save three babies every time he visits.

At best, Tomlinson’s status in San Diego is now year-to-year, which puts him in elite company: Sproles, Philip Rivers, Vincent Jackson, Marcus McNeill, and Shawne Merriman will all be free agents after the 2009 season. Tomlinson and Merriman’s injury histories also figure to test the Chargers' much-heralded depth, as will the team’s penchant for ending up in San Diego jails.

By comparison, Oakland’s offseason has been downright serene.

The Raiders finished their season without a permanent head coach, but in Tom Cable they seem to have finally found a leader who’s neither a short-term stopgap nor looking ahead to his next job.

The Raiders avoided their usual signings of big-name veterans and Super Bowl winners and instead extended the contract of Nnamdi Asomugha, ending his attempts to break Charles Woodson's record for most consecutive franchise tags. Not only did the Raiders re-sign Asomugha, they also made him the highest-paid player in the NFL, a rarity in a quarterbacks' league.

Even the departure of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan qualified as tranquil, given the amount of attention his job status received in recent years.

So what gives? Have the Raiders been infiltrated by invading hippies from Berkeley? Is a drum circle in the offing? How have the Raiders suddenly become the picture of calm?

The answer lies at the top. Al Davis and the front office laid low this spring, which trickled down to the players and coaches. For the first time in years, it’s been a quiet offseason in Oakland, and now there’s nothing distracting the Raiders from playing football.

This isn’t to say that 2009 will be Oakland's magic year, or that the Raiders are ready to make a leap similar to Arizona last season. Winning the division remains a long shot, but a playoff spot isn’t out of reach.

The 2009 season hasn’t yet begun, but in the AFC West, the Raiders are already ahead of the curve. For a team that won five games a year ago, that’s a pretty good place to start.

The Oakland Sports Examiner, new columns every Tuesday and Thursday: http://www.examiner.com/x-12984-Oakland-Sports-Examiner

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