The Oakland Raiders will be trickling in to the Napa Valley Mariott at periodic intervals today. You see, it is the first day of training camp, and there are meetings to be had.
One can almost picture Raider players checking into their rooms, having DNA and fingerprint samples taken, being blindfolded, then whisked to an iron-clad elevator with no buttons, at which point they descend an indiscernible distance downward to meet Al Davis and the coaching staff at the owner's "private" facility somewhere near the Earth's core.
At this meeting, there are things that will be discussed. There are some genuine concerns that the players, the coaching staff, and the fans have going into the season.
Every year at this time, for the last six years, me and other members of the Raider Nation brim with optimism. Every year, without fail, that optimism is quashed within the first 30 minutes of the season starting.
Well, we're optimistic again. This time, we think we have good reason to be. We have a lot of good, young talent in place, some new coaches that are well respected and have distinguished careers, and a head coach that is bringing the right attitude back to the team.
But we cannot lie to ourselves, Nation: we've said these same things before, only to be bitterly disappointed much more quickly than any of us could bear. Now, I'm more optimistic this season than I have been in some time, but we've still got some legitimate concerns going into training camp. Here are some of them.
Is JaMarcus ready to work?
This is a big, big concern, as most people feel that it is Russell's work ethic and study of the game, and not his prodigious physical attributes, that are the key to his success.
Since he entered the league, JaMarcus and his work ethic have been scrutinized quite closely. This particular offseason, it has reached Erin Andrew’s hotel video status.
He was derided for partying too hard when pictures of him having a good time surfaced on the internet. He was demonized in the press for missing a couple of OTA sessions. Because rich 23-year-olds shouldn’t party. Because OTA’s are mandatory.
His weight—although not mentioned at length like it was last offseason—was still a topic of discussion, despite the fact that the team stated they were happy with his conditioning. In short, at every turn he was questioned, criticized, and picked apart for his perceived lack of effort.
However, when it came time to report the fact that he had arranged a private workout for tight ends and wide receivers and flew the participants to Alabama on his own dime, it got very little mileage in the media.
A lot has been made of Jeff Garcia and him being brought in to both challenge and mentor Russell. Lately, Garcia has been spouting some pretty poisonous rhetoric, and although I was initially put off by his constant yammering and undermining Russell’s skills, I realize now that it is a good thing.
I don’t see JaMarcus fading quietly into the background here. Stepping up and running his own camp was a great first step to becoming a leader, and the coaching staff have indicated that he’s in better shape than last season, he’s absorbing more, and he’s working harder.
Bottom line: it seems that although he doesn’t, and may never, have a Manning-esque fanaticism when it comes to preparation, he’s got a better understanding of what’s expected and needed of him and he’s tailoring his preparation accordingly. He’s ready to work and do what needs to be done. I feel good about what he’s done thus far, and better about what he’s going to do in the future.
Tom Cable’s New Attitude
To a man the Raiders have stated that the environment feels different under Tom Cable. Gone are the days of me-first players, players that disparage the team or the franchise, players that don't want be in Oakland, players that just want to collect a paycheck, players that you don't want on your team.
Or so we're led to believe.
But once again, we've had this feeling before. Granted, Callahan didn't really give any of us the warm fuzzies, and certainly not after the Super Bowl debacle. Norv was embraced, but at arm's length, as we were all too aware of his greatness as a coordinator and failings as a head man.
When Art Shell came back to town, the overwhelming feeling I remember is "good, an old school Raider to come in, kick ass, take names and get this thing back to where we need it."
When Shell made an example of Jerry Porter and showed everyone on the team who was the boss, we could almost taste the culture shift. We were mired in the dregs, and the team didn't seem to care anymore. Shell would fix that.
Only he didn't. His coaching methods and ideas were so outdated that he lost the team far before he lost the season. The Tom Walsh experiment was horrendous. The culture of losing, and expecting to lose, became even more deeply ingrained, and the team hit a new low with a 2-14 record.
Then, Lane Kiffin. Kiffin said a lot of the right things, but his constant disparaging of his players and coaching staff in the media began to wear on a lot of people in the organization. The situation is fresh, so I'm not going to waste time on him. Just think DeAngelo Hall, Gibril Wilson, Rob Ryan, etc.
Suffice it to say that when he left this team, it was the most fractured I've seen it in my time as a fan. Sure, during the LA-back-to-Oakland transition there were some tough times. But never had the team given up on themselves like they had been.
His negative comments, lies to the team, the way Al reacted, and numerous other little factors during the Kiffin regime broke a hell of a lot more than they fixed. Tennessee can have him; he's a great recruiter to be sure, because he talks all kinds of sh*t. But remember you reap what you sow.
Now, Tom Cable has come in, restructured contracts, dropped some dead weight, and told his players they will unequivocally be held accountable for their actions on and off the field. Nnamdi, Kirk Morrison, and other veterans who have seen the worst times have all praised Cable for bringing the team together with a common goal in mind.
A great sign that the culture is changing for the better is the fact that numerous players restructured their contracts for lower pay so that they could stay in Oakland.
Cable didn't do it alone. He's brought in highly respected veteran coaches like John Marshall, Paul Hackett, Ted Tollner, Mike Haluchak, and others to not only instill a new attitude, but ensure it stays in place.
The biggest concern is the first sign of adversity. Will this team rally around each other, and fight for what they want? Or will they fold like Superman on laundry day?
That is the biggest question regarding the culture change in Oakland, and we can only speculate until we see the team in tough times. The performance of the team under fire at the end of last season is very encouraging, and they just seemed more together than ever. I have a good feeling about the culture change.
Rookies Running Routes
At this point, despite my best efforts, I am unable to find updated injury status for either Darrius Heyward-Bey or Mike Mitchell, so it's still not certain if their hamstrings are an issue or not.
DHB had yet to sign when I began writing this article, but that's not to say he hasn't and isn't at training camp.
Mitchell apparently signed yesterday and should be in camp with no issues.
The concern is whether the two young men are healthy and ready to go. Neither of the injuries were reported to be serious, but if they miss any snaps in training camp, then it's serious.
What I mean is that they may end up being fine physically, but any missed time on the field during training camp is magnified. This is the time to learn not only the NFL game, but your specific role in your team's specific scheme. It may be completely different terminology and completely different physical execution than you're used to seeing.
It is imperative that these kids get as much out of training camp as they possibly can. I hear a lot of people saying that it's especially important to have DHB make it, as he's raw and needs work.
I would say it's more important to the team for Mitchell to be up to speed, due to our lack of experience and depth at safety. I know our receivers aren't exactly setting the world on fire, but we've got some potential gems in there, and I think Walker is primed to have a bounce-back season.
If there are any lingering hamstring issues for either player, then it becomes a concern. These are two guys that rely on their exceptional speed as much as anything else. If they're hamstrung, they can't go flat out, and therefore can't be the players we want and expect them to be.
Will the Offensive Line be Offensive?
We've done some shuffling on the line this season, but that's a good thing considering our line play for most of the decade has been mediocre at best. Since Robbins, Stinchcomb, and Kennedy, we've really been struggling.
Gone is Jake Grove, he of great strength and potential but also of glass. The guy couldn't stay on the field. I liked Jake and hope he succeeds in Miami, but not too much.
We've replaced Grove with Samson Satele, a full-season starter for the 'Fins last season. Essentially we traded our centers via free-agency. Weird.
Satele brings more speed and athleticism to the position, which is a perfect fit for the zone-blocking scheme. There are concerns over whether he's strong enough to handle an elite Nose Tackle, but those same concerns were voiced about Grove as well. For the scheme we run, Satele is an upgrade and a better fit.
We also signed Khalif Barnes, a perennial starter in Jacksonville who struggled last season both on and off the field. Barnes was admittedly a little out of shape last season, and didn't work very hard.
He was brought in to challenge for the left tackle position, which was manned very effectively by Mario Henderson toward the end of last season. When Henderson finally got a chance to play every down, he played extremely well.
Barnes is a bit better of a run-blocker, but the left tackle spot makes their bread by protecting the blind side of the quarterback. Henderson showed at the end of last season he had the makings of an excellent pass protector.
Robert Gallery and Cooper Carlisle have been our two best and most consistent lineman over the last couple of years, and they're both back to man their respective left and right guard positions. Carlisle is getting a little older and has lost some speed, but is still a great run-blocker. His pass protection needs some work, though.
Gallery has gone from first round bust at tackle to excellent, if not Pro-Bowl caliber, at left guard. Blessed with incredible speed for his size, Gallery is a great drive blocker who helps bust big runs by getting to the second level and beyond.
Our depth is better than it has been in years, with guys like Paul McQuistan, Marcus Johnson and Erik Pears behind our starters. All have seen time on an NFL field, and all have played very well and picked up the offense very well thus far.
The best case scenario is Henderson beats Barnes out for left tackle, and Barnes is moved and quickly adapts to right tackle. Satele is fully recovered from knee problems (all indications say he is) and Carlisle has enough in the tank to play one more solid season. The offensive line should show great improvement this season.
The last few seasons, the Raiders have seen their season end almost as soon as it began. Beginning opening day 2003, the Raiders have lost six straight opening day games.
In fact, they've lost those six games by a margin of 178-98, or an average of 22.2-12.2.
This is probably my biggest personal concern, because it effects almost everything else. The team is more optimistic now under Cable, and with some of the veteran signings, they're excited to finally build on something positive after the way last season ended.
If they come out and lay an egg against San Diego, not only will it be a crushing defeat because it's the hated dolts and it'll be 12 straight losses against them, but it'll go a long way to destroying any good will and optimism built up throughout the offseason.
I'm not saying a loss to San Diego means the season is over. What I am saying is that if we come out and get blown out, there will be an overwhelming sense of "here we go again" for both the team and the Nation.
With our first three games against divisional opponents, it's imperative to get off to a quick start to give ourselves a chance to compete. It's worth noting that the last time we won an opening day/night game was 2002, the year we won the division and went to the Super Bowl.
If the Raiders can avoid the pratfalls of negative thinking, respond well to adversity, and stay the course with this rebuilding effort, then things may not take off as quickly as we'd like, but they'll take off steadily and keep rising.
If we panic at the first sign of trouble and cannibalize ourselves like we have for most of this decade, then all is lost.