Did you like that play on words?
(This is a comprehensive review of the state of the Oakland Raiders and AFC West).
The ballyhoo from the sports media has continued to iterate through parts of the program that tells them that everything Al Davis does is wrong.
That program has been weakening ever since Al Davis had the sports version of a "Road to Damascus" moment and didn't botch his draft day moves in the eyes of not only Raider fans, but also NFL fans at large.
Some think that Mr. Davis didn't make the moves that have been almost universally lauded. However, the choice of receiver Jacoby Ford and his 4.28 speed would indicate that The Great and Powerful Al is still the one behind the curtain.
(Please ignore the contradiction between applying The Road to Damascus and The Wizard of Oz to the same person).
With that said, the Raiders still have much work to do in order to continue any progress made in 2009 and into the 2010 season.
We saw moments of brilliance in 2009, and conversely, more moments of utter idiocy.
Top Picks often become Straw Men
We still hear the chirping of lazy fans that want to badger the Raiders for the top picks of Darren McFadden (2008) and Darrius Heyward-Bey (2009). Much of that amounts to nothing more than psychological warfare, whether those critics know it or not.
In that, those critics merely get under the skin of pro-athletes, because the maxim has always been that pro athletes should be immune to the lashes of criticism.
The fact, however, is that pro athletes are still human. They can get stuck in ruts like anyone else, because they'd rather wallow in self-pity than to have a vision for what needs to be done in order to succeed.
With all the money those athletes make, they can wallow in self-pity, but in style and comfort.
The fans can whine and cry all day that the player isn't manning-up, or they can take the higher ground and seek answers rather than blog their flames and wallow in self-pity, themselves, that some schmo has taken the team for a ride with his draft day snake-oil.
In other words, does the maelstorm of fan criticism make the fans any better?
Blood from Turnips
The expectation of top ten picks like Darren McFadden and Darrius Heyward-Bey is that they are impact players who makes others better.
Darren McFadden can still become a productive running back in the National Football League however, once other parts of the offense are in order, such as the quarterback and offensive line.
Between Jason Campbell and Bruce Gradkowski, the Raiders depth at quarterback looks fine (on paper). Well, if McFadden needs a better line and consistency at quarterback in order to produce, then so be it.
In my mind, there is no heat on Heyward-Bey aside from his contract. I don't get overly concerned with squeezing blood from turnips. If a big contract player is being outplayed, then so be it.
Play the productive players rather than worry about the PR of a bad contract, because fans don't care about bad contracts when the team wins.
The Raiders currently have three budding pass catchers in Chaz Schilens, Louis Murphy, and Zach Miller (TE). That means, Heyward-Bey doesn't have to shoulder the bulk of catches. If all that Heyward-Bey does is catch a few deep passes, then so be it.
The Bottom Lines
My concern is still with the offensive and defensive lines.
The offensive line affects all of the aforementioned positions. The Raiders added two raw talents from the draft in Bruce Campbell from Maryland and Jared Veldheer from Hillsdale.
The chances are, however, it is unlikely that both will start in 2010. I have read that Campbell could play guard as a rookie in 2010, which seems like a sound thing to do for Campbell.
The question, however, is: which side would Campbell play?
Would Campbell start or be a backup? if Campbell starts, would he push Robert Gallery over to the right side, or would Campbell replace Cooper Carlisle on the right side? Whatever the situation is, I don't foresee the Raiders parting ways with Gallery in any situation.
Before the draft I had said that I thought that the right side of the offensive line was the true problem, even if Mario Henderson was getting beat on the left side, because Henderson saw more attention due to the fact that Cornell Green and Cooper Carlisle couldn't occupy anyone on the right side, while on the left side Gallery had been hurt for much of the season.
We can sit here and say that Henderson should be replaced because the Raiders can't count on him as an anchor, or we can ask: What can Oakland do to optimize the current talent?
Campbell, though, makes the most sense as a right tackle as a rookie, even if that would require him to learn new footwork and other skills needed for the right side. His size and strength, however, would make him an ideal run blocker that could open things up for the running backs (McFadden and Michael Bush).
Being able to run the ball would then make things easier for the quarterback, since the defense would have to respect the running game.
Meanwhile, Jared Veldheer could make the transition from tackle to guard. Starting two rookies on the offensive line is not ideal, but I would say that the right side of the offensive line is the best place for rookie linemen to be thrown into the fire.
As for the defensive line:
On one hand, options are good to have. On the other hand, when a team has too many options, it can be difficult to coordinate.
The Raiders added defensive lineman Lamarr Houston from Texas, who can play either inside or at end but, because I think that defensive end Matt Shaughnessy could easily start at end, it seems that the team should have the best talent on the field at the same time.
Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly, Houston and Shaughnessy would be the best talent for the line, in my opinion. Alternatively, Seymour could also play inside as a three-technique tackle, which would allow Houston and Shaughnessy to play the ends.
LDE Houston, NT Kelly, DT Seymour, RDE Shaughnessy and DE Quentin Groves as a situational rusher, would be a good line.
As a change of pace, linebacker Trevor Scott could rotate with Groves as a situational rusher in order to cause confusion and matchup problems. Forcing the opponent to prepare for two pass rushers would be a great psychological advantage.
Fortunately, with Trevor Scott at linebacker, the Raiders still have Thomas Howard to sub in, in the event that they use Scott as a down lineman.
The strongside linebacker will be Kamerion Wimbley, the inside linebacker will be rookie Rolando McClain and the primary weakside linebacker will be Scott.
Thomas Howard can sub for either Wimbley or Scott in passing situations. Howard's best production has been in pass coverage, so it makes sense to use Howard in passing situations. In passing situations, I would use Howard regardless, either as a sub for Wimbley or Scott. When Scott plays as a lineman, Howard would sub for Scott.
When Groves plays the line, then Howard could sub for either Scott or Wimbley, depending of course on the location of the opponent's best receiver, or where the additional coverage is needed.
The Raiders could also use Scott and Groves at the same time in passing situations, but I would hesitate from taking Houston out of the bull rush.
That decision usually depends on the quality of the opponent's offensive-line. Against a weaker line, I would use two speed rushers. The majority of time however, I would stick with Houston as a bull rusher in order to occupy the bigger linemen.
You may think that this all sounds too complicated, but fortunately, one of McClain's strengths is knowing the playbook inside and out and making sure that everyone is in position. Being out of position has caused problems for the Raiders defense in recent years, despite the players being physically talented.
The Raiders would be best to work with rookies as starters rather than delay the inevitable. The Raiders, however, are moving in the right direction and should not be deterred by disingenuous critics that change their tones as frequently as the weather.
The Raiders look like a team that can win seven or eight games, just based on what I see on paper. Nevertheless, in recent years, we have routinely seen teams bubble up and "overachieve" after being in the NFL cellar.
In the AFC West, I of course do not think highly of the San Diego Chargers, while the people (other than Chiefs fans) that see the Kansas City Chiefs as a dark horse must be sniffing glue, and the Broncos look to be in transition.
The Chargers are poor against the run and will face a slew of run-oriented teams in 2010, so I see a team that could be a disappointment. The Raiders roughed up the Bolts on opening night in 2009. I could see the same thing happening to the Chargers in 2010.
In 2009, the few losses by the Chargers were all against smash mouth teams: Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and even Denver when the Broncos started hot. Moreover, the Chargers bowed out in one game of the postseason against the New York Jets.
Perhaps, my cynicism of the 'Patriots Project' in Kansas City is unwarranted, but the way I see it is that the Chiefs have pass-oriented coaches, Todd Haley and Charlie Weis, when the most productive offensive players are both running backs, Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones.
I also think that Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel are both over-rated and benefited from Bill Belichick.
Firstly, the Charlie Weis prospect Brady Quinn has been a flop in the NFL, while Jimmy Clausen was treated as a toxic prospect in the draft. Moreover, Kansas City's quarterback Matt Cassell is a protege of Josh McDaniels, not Charlie Weis.
It seems to me that NFL insiders see the same thing that I see, or at least think it.
After trading tight end Tony Gonzalez, I also see that receiver Dwayne Bowe all but disappeared in the offense of Todd Haley, whom was hired after his confrontation with receiver Anquan Boldin in Arizona.
Meanwhile, the only good season that Cleveland had with head coach Romeo Crennel was in 2007 (10-6), a season in which the offense was the strength and the defense was the goat—yet Crennel is supposedly a defensive guru.
I also see a defense that lacks anything to be confident in up front. The third overall pick in 2009, Tyson Jackson did next to nothing as a rookie, while Ron Edwards in the middle is a retread, and the fifth overall pick in 2008, Glenn Dorsey, has disappointed.
In 2009, the Chiefs ranked 31st overall in run defense. Crennel couldn't fix the Browns defense, and probably won't fix the Chiefs run defense, especially when Kansas City did not add any prospects to the front seven by draft or free agency.
The Broncos need little explanation. They are developing a new starting quarterback and wideout, while left tackle Ryan Clady suffered what could be a costly knee injury. The defense looks about the same, even with the additions of nose tackle Jamal Williams and linebacker Akin Ayodele.
I think I have a realistic view of the Raiders chances in 2010. The Raiders should avoid delaying the inevitable, because real growth for a team usually takes more than a year. But if the Raiders overachieve in 2010, great! The plan, however, should be long-term goals, rather than short-term solutions that can hinder the progress of the younger players.
I would say that eight wins in 2010 is a realistic goal, and that would set up the Raiders for success in 2011. The Raiders could be a dark horse in 2010 and "overachieve" but I think that the realistic goal is simply to be a competitive team that doesn't lose because of mistakes.