For the first time in a decade, fans of the Oakland Raiders have a real reason to be excited during the offseason.
While Al Davis is generally beyond reproach within the Raider Nation, there is no denying the damage he did following the team's loss in Super Bowl XXXVII.
Even the most diehard Silver and Black fans can now admit what the rest of the league knew for years: From 2003 until his passing in 2011, Davis' rash decision-making—the bad contracts, the revolving door of players and head coaches, the practice of blindly throwing money at problems—sabotaged the organization.
Reggie McKenzie's biggest challenge when he first took over as general manager in 2012 was to undo this self-defeating business model, and this has been accomplished by building the organizational infrastructure for the team to succeed both now and in the future.
The big story heading into free agency was the over $60 million Oakland had at its disposal. Being that flush with cash, the team had the ability to outbid other teams for any of the big-name, high-priced free agents available.
When the smoke cleared after the initial rush of signings, the Raiders hadn't acquired any of them.
The truth is that doing so would have had a detrimental effect. For a team with as many needs as Oakland had, spending on a few big names would have accomplished very little in the standings. The Raiders were not a team that was a piece or two away from competing for a championship. This was a team that needed a number of players just to get back to respectability.
This offseason, the Raiders chose to take an intelligent, diligent approach, and the results are already beginning to show.
Complete Overhaul on Defense
Oakland spent most of last season being overwhelmed by the opposition. The players were willing, but the ability to consistently compete just wasn't there. There was an obvious dearth of talent throughout the entire roster that couldn't be covered up or ignored.
This was especially evident on the defensive side of the ball.
According to NFL.com, the Raiders allowed over 28 points per game in 2013, ranking 29th in the league. This included giving up a record-tying day to Nick Foles, a record-breaking performance to Jamaal Charles and a career-best for Alex Smith.
At times during the season, the defense couldn't seem to stop anyone, leading Charles Wooden to voice his own criticism of the unit after a particularly bad loss to the Jets:
It's really embarrassing to be a part of it. We were like the Bad News Bears out there...Defensively we went out there and basically peed down our legs.
To address this glaring issue, the Raiders brought in proven defensive NFL talent this offseason, including longtime starters Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Smith and Carlos Rodgers. All four are projected to start in 2014.
And the team aggressively addressed the defense in the draft, using six of its eight selections on defenders. This included the No. 5 overall pick, Khalil Mack, whom Mike Mayock graded as the top overall prospect in the draft. He has the potential to be a franchise player and projects as the centerpiece of the defense.
The Raiders also selected defensive tackle Justin Ellis and cornerback Keith McGill, both of whom are expected to contribute immediately and who both have major upside going forward.
Not only have the Raiders improved defensively for the upcoming season, but they have also brought in talent they can depend for the next few years.
Key Additions Can Solidify Promising Offense
The defense looked especially bad throughout the season, but the offense was not much better.
The Raiders averaged a decent 20.1 points per game in 2013 per NFL.com, but its offense too often was ineffective for large stretches during games. It's inability to stay on the field and put up points only exacerbated the issues the frequently overwhelmed defense already faced.
The story was a familiar one for Oakland: inconsistent quarterback play. The only productive play at quarterback came from undrafted rookie Matt McGloin—and that came only in short bursts. But, when he did perform well, the offense was surprisingly efficient. In games in which McGloin was under center, the team's points per game average rose to almost 24.
This proved that, with some consistency at quarterback, the offense had the talent to be effective.
The Raiders addressed the defense by bringing in proven performers, and they took a similar approach with the offense by trading for veteran Matt Schaub.
The trials and tribulations Schaub suffered through last season are well documented, but his overall body of work and track record of winning are a positive sign for an organization that hasn't had a dependable option at the position since Rich Gannon. Schaub can provide what was most obviously missing for the offense: reliability at quarterback.
Schaub wasn't brought in to save the offense--he was brought in to lead it. As last season proved, the Raiders have talent on offense, and the unit can be dangerous over an entire season with an effective leader under center. Schaub can be that leader.
Even though quarterback was the most glaring need for Oakland on offense, the unit also needed help elsewhere.
Oakland brought in a Pro Bowler Maurice Jones-Drew. The team also added James Jones, an acquisition who is included in Bleacher Report's Alessandro Miglio's list of top 25 moves of this offseason. The Raiders have more talent at running back and wide receiver than they're given credit for, but leadership has been lacking at most positional units. Jones-Drew and Jones have the talent and experience to bring production to their respective positions.
And, while the Raiders spent only two of their eight draft selections on offense, they came away with a potential franchise quarterback in Derek Carr and a third-round gem in offensive lineman Gabe Jackson.
With the additions of Schaub and Carr, Oakland has created an ideal scenario for the quarterback position. The team has a proven starter for the next couple of years and a franchise-caliber quarterback who can be groomed to eventually take over.
New Free Agents Not Just a Collection of NFL "Throwaways"
Oakland's free-agent signings include Super Bowl winners, Pro Bowlers—players with a history of individual and team success. These are new additions who will have an immediate impact, who will give the Raiders a level of credibility and legitimacy that the team hasn't had in a decade.
Still, while the new players have drastically improved the talent level of the team, they are also looked at as little more than short-term solutions.
Jones-Drew acknowledged the criticism: "We're just the throwaways it seems like."
While the talent is there, the players the Raiders brought in are older, and some bring with them a history of underperforming due to injuries.
The reality is that the "too old" label is overblown. Some of the key signees may no longer be in their prime, but they could also have enough left in the tank to be major contributors. Schaub is 32. Tuck is 31. Jones, Woodley and Austin Howard are 30 or younger.
This is a group that can continue to perform at a high level for the next three to five years.
The Raiders also have a collection of veterans with chips on their shoulders. Jones-Drew put it best:
We all know we have something left, whether it was a bad year last year or things didn’t work out from another team, whatever it may be. As a whole, we’re fighting for the same thing: respect.
When asked about the age of the incoming players, including himself, Tuck shared a similar sentiment: "Everybody that says stuff like that, but go and watch the film on all of us and tell us we can’t still play the game. I don’t really care about all that." He added, "To me, age is a number. I’m 31, and I feel like I’m 25."
Few things motivate a professional athlete as much as being told they're no longer the player they used to be. This is a group of veterans with something to prove, and Oakland stands to benefit from this newfound spark.
Planning (not hoping) for Success in 2014 and Beyond
This offseason, the Raiders attacked the team's lack of talent via both free agency and the draft, and they have been managing a critical stage of the team's rebuilding process with flying colors.
Oakland added several proven veterans who are expected to start. This will immediately and drastically improve the team's on-field product.
Along with these acquisitions, the Raiders also made eight selections in this year's draft, and while the results of a draft are never fully known until at least a couple of years down the line, Bleacher Report's Elias Trejo notes that the team's draft projects as one of the best in the entire NFL.
These young rookies combined with the veteran signings create a great balance of experience, talent and depth. The team now finds itself in a situation where it can have success both now and in the future.
Oakland needed help all over the roster: quarterback, O-line, D-line and secondary. Each area has been effectively addressed this offseason, both for the 2014 season and beyond.
This offseason is proof that the team is finally building for prolonged success and is not just hoping to buy success of the immediate-but-fleeting variety.
Despite an embarrassing beginning to free agency, smart decision-making has made this offseason an incredibly successful one for Oakland because of the immediate improvements made to the roster and the foundation it sets for the organization.
The Raiders have successfully navigated through free agency and the draft, and they have emerged as not only a much-improved team but also a much-improved organization from the one we saw last season.
What the team's record will look like this upcoming season is impossible to know, but there is no question that the Oakland Raiders are once again committed to excellence.
After years of futility, 2014 can be the year that the autumn wind finally returns home.