For the first time in seven years, Raider Nation is cautiously optimistic.
Many things have transpired in the last few months to raise the hopes of the fans. This is much more than the wishful thinking that has occupied Raider fans for the last few years. There is a sense of order in the Raider Universe that stands in stark contrast to the chaos and dysfunction that has mired the Nation previously.
In Part I, we will look at the New World Order as it pertains to Coaching. Part II will look at Personnel.
Defensive Coordinator John Marshall
The most significant coaching change is often the least cited change in the Nation. At the end of the 2008 season, long time defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was fired from the Raiders. The significance of this change cannot be understated.
A key to the Raiders demise in the last seven years can be found in the run defense. In 2002, the Raiders were ranked third in run defense. In 2003, they were ranked dead last. Rob Ryan was brought in to improve the defense and failed miserably.
A look at prior years indicates some fluctuation in Raiders defense rankings from year to year. But the Raiders, for the most part, always stayed within the top 15 teams for run defense, despite personnel and coaching changes.
Under Ryan, the highest run defense ranking achieved was 22nd. Twice, in a five year period, the Raiders were ranked next to last.
It's important to note that the poor run defense occurred no matter who was playing.
As fans in 2010 lament the absence of a big bruising defensive tackle, it should be noted that Ryan's first year saw the acquisition of both seven-time Pro Bowler Warren Sapp and four-time Pro Bowler Ted Washington. While Washington was a little long in the tooth at 36 years old, Sapp was a youthful 32 when he came to the Raiders.
2004 saw the last vestiges of a 3-4 defense played in Oakland. Its lack of success led to a conversion in 2005 to the familiar 4-3 and the addition of Derrick Burgess. Despite recording 12 more sacks than the previous year, the team still faltered in stopping the run.
2006 saw the most productive defense for the Raiders in the last seven years. Recording 34 sacks and 18 interceptions (Asomugha had eight that year), it seemed that the Raiders had finally turned the corner.
However, a check of the rankings for run defense (25th) indicated that the Raiders had not really improved in the most critical area. The decline continued through 2008 and Rob Ryan was fired.
In 2009, John Marshall was brought in to begin the rebuilding of the Raiders defensive unit. Unlike Ryan's arrival, there weren't the big ticket player acquisitions in the initial season. The 2009 season saw little improvement on the surface but what emerged was a road map for success. Key deficiencies in personnel were identified and are being addressed in the off-season.
With a season of evaluation, the team is in a much better position to unveil its defensive needs. This was reflected in the trades and draft picks this year. With the exception of first round pick Rolando McClain, there are no high profile players— just players hungry for a chance to compete. Instead of relying on 10 to 12 year veterans, the defense is moving in a direction that emphasizes youth.
While many people have defended Ryan with accusations of interference by owner Al Davis, it should be noted that Ryan himself has disputed this claim. Indeed, Marshall's increased use of blitzes (long-rumored to be disdained by Davis) supports this notion. The rumored transitions in defense including a possible inclusion of a 3-4 hybrid suggest that the impediments to Ryan's success were Ryan himself.
Offensive Coordinator Hue Jackson
The next significant coaching change came with the introduction of Hue Jackson as offensive coordinator. The offensive coordinator position has lacked the consistency of the defensive coordinator. The Raiders have had four offensive coordinators in the last seven years.
In 2008, head coach Tom Cable took over play-calling duties with the dismissal of Gregg Knapp and struggled considerably in one and a half years.
In 2004 and 2005, the Raiders had limited success with the offense but were hampered considerably by a defense that could not stop opposing teams. Offense-minded coach Norv Turner and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye were responsible for bolstering the offense.
Ironically, in the defense's only good year (2006), the team suffered under its most anemic offensive production in the history of the franchise. Subsequent offensive play-callers have been unable to duplicate the limited success of 2004-2005.
Jackson's selection solidified the play-calling game and offered the Raiders a chance to be more productive on that side of the ball. Early indications are that Jackson is a fiery coach who consistently harasses both offensive and defensive players in order to elicit better play.
In an interview, one player pointed out that while the defense dominated the offense in practice, Jackson is changing that. Given the previously discussed deficiencies in defense, it would appear that Jackson will not only help the offense, but improve defensive play as well.
Little attention has been paid to what type of offense Hue Jackson will bring to the Raiders. Initial reports suggest that he favors the run and uses the pass to balance the offense. Jackson is working closely with the much-maligned offensive line in an effort to bring protection to the offensive game plan.
Head Coach Tom Cable
By his sixth game in 2010, Coach Cable will become the longest tenured coach in the Raider's franchise in the last seven years. Not bad for a man who was rumored to be fired three times during his tenure in Oakland.
Cable has emerged as a no-nonsense coach who has become a player favorite. The biggest criticism he has drawn in his tenure has been his play-calling. People neglect to mention the fact that he didn't ask for the job, it was thrust upon him.
Having emerged from the shadows of offensive coordinator responsibilities, Cable seems ready to take charge. Midway through a disastrous 2009 season, Cable took the unprecedented step of benching quarterback JaMarcus Russell in favor of Bruce Gradkowski. Cable did not permit Russell to start again for the rest of the season.
Cable is credited by many as providing some influence in the decisions regarding the drafts and trades in 2010. The degree to which this influence exists is debatable. Nonetheless, the absence of animosity between coach and owner has benefited the Raider team and fans tremendously.
We have come a long way from the "dumbest team in America" remark by former coach Bill Callahan.
Cable will get to coach this year and this is great for the Raiders and Raider Nation. It should be noted that should Cable falter, there are signs that Hue Jackson could replace him. Given Jackson's popularity with players, this would offer a smooth transition.
Rather than risking a significant setback on the road to recovery, the Raiders are positioned to continue the rebuilding with little disruption. Again, I admire Coach Cable and I'm sure he will be successful—but I'm happy for the insurance as well.