Charles Dickens once said “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” when referring to life in eighteenth century London and Paris. He could just as easily have been referring to the 2009 Oakland Raiders when considering their recent seven-year slump.
On the one hand, encouraged by victories over the play-off bound Philadelphia Eagles and Cincinnati Bengals, a youthful Raiders side can look forward to challenging for AFC West honors next season. Shane Lechler and Nnamdi Asomugha will go to the Pro Bowl this month.
Sebastian Janikowski, Tyvon Branch, Zach Miller, and Richard Seymour cannot have been far away from selection. It was also a breakout year for Michael Bush, Michael Huff, and Bruce Gradkowski.
On the flip side of the coin, JaMarcus Russell, Darren McFadden, and Darrius Heyward-Bey have so far failed to live up to high expectations and with them in key positions on offense, Oakland has slipped to a seventh double-digit-loss season, including embarrassing home losses to the Redskins, Chiefs, Broncos and Jets.
Are the Raiders progressing or continuing to stagnate?
Despite the obvious negatives, it is impossible to ignore the signs of improvement. Oakland is undoubtedly in a stronger position than at the same stage last year, but is it enough for Mr. Davis? Will Oakland opt to undergo another make-over in order to move forward? We will find out in the next few weeks.
The fact of the matter is that Oakland does not need yet another make-over. With just two significant (but manageable) changes, the Raiders have the ability to have a winning season in 2010. These changes are as follows:
1) One man, one job. This may sound simple, but the Oakland Raiders currently have an inexperienced head coach wearing a multitude of hats.
Tom Cable may be an excellent head coach, but he is currently being asked to do too many jobs. He is able to make the big decisions (such as benching JaMarcus Russell and firing DeAngelo Hall), he inspires the players, he is a proud Raider and he has also found a way of working with Mr. Davis.
He just has not fared as well with the other tasks he is currently being asked to perform. So the answer is simple—keep Tom Cable as head coach, hire an experienced GM and employ an offensive coordinator with play-calling ability.
2) Recruit a big nasty nose tackle. The Raiders have an improving defense, but it is being handicapped by not having a run-stuffing hulk playing in the zero position.
A change at NT suddenly makes Seymour, Kelly and Ellis/Shaughnessy into a very useful front four. With Trevor Scott finding real form as a rush linebacker and an ever-improving secondary, there is no reason this could be a dominant defense next season.
In Cable-speak, these two big changes give the Raiders "the best chance of winning.” Of course, these are not the only alterations needed, but the remainder can be classified as “housekeeping” of the type that every NFL team needs to undertake during the offseason. The top 10 house-keeping changes needed are:
1) Re-sign Richard Seymour to a long contract. With his talent, professionalism and experience of winning, Seymour can be the defensive leader for years to come.
2) Re-sign Sebastian Janikowski . Seabass is the highest scorer in franchise history, with the biggest leg in the league. He is coming off his best season so far, so there is no need for the Raiders to look elsewhere.
3) Improve the offensive line. Injuries during 2009 proved that the Raiders lack any strength in depth and if their offense is to be taken seriously, upgrades are needed, particularly at RT.
4) Improve the depth of the secondary. Routt is serviceable as a fourth CB, but Oakland badly needs a reliable third CB, to keep up the pressure when Asomugha or Johnson goes down.
5) Decide what to do with the linebackers. Scott has emerged in the “elephant position,” Howard and Morrison are out of contract and the other ‘backers are more special-teamers than starters. The Raiders look paper thin at linebacker and need more competition for places.
6) Install Michael Bush as the feature back with a game-plan to run first and control the clock.
7) Make the quarterback position an open competition between now and the end of preseason. If Russell does not make it back as the starter, then he gets cut.
8) Find more ways of getting McFadden into the game. He is not an every down back, but is showing signs of life catching the ball.
9) Improve the quality of play of the young WRs. Chaz Schilens is a clear leader of this group, but the Raiders need more from Heyward-Bey, Higgins, and Murphy. The veteran WRs just seem to be taking up space on the roster. It would be prudent to cut them or use them.
10) Alter the mindset for home games. The Raiders lost at the Coliseum to the five teams they played with the worst records – Redskins (4-12), Chiefs (4-12), Broncos (8-8), Jets (9-7) and Ravens (9-7).
By contrast, Oakland fared much better against the three best playoff teams they played at home, registering wins against the Bengals and Eagles and narrowly losing to the Chargers on opening night.
This has got to be a mental problem, with a fear of failure in front of the Black Hole. The Raiders must target winning six of their home games next season and bring the crowds back to Oakland.
The Raiders have it within their grasp to have a winning season next time out. There is no need for regime change or a complete overhaul of the squad. Careful, considered changes are all that are required to turn a “winter of despair” into a “spring of hope.”