There is a distinct air of optimism surrounding the Oakland Raiders this offseason, and with good reason.
The team improved the coaching ranks, preserving continuity by bringing back Tom Cable and finally hiring an honest to goodness offensive coordinator in Hue Jackson.
They made some smart trades, improving positions of weakness for little in return, such as Jason Campbell for a conditional fourth round pick and SAM LB Kamerion Wimbley for a third rounder. Those two deals in particular are already looking like steals.
The marriage of Campbell's football IQ and Jackson's offensive creativity has produced playcalling that looks like an NFL offense in all facets, even if there is still some rust to knock off.
The Raiders also did some intelligent drafting, emphasizing production and leadership with need players like Rolando McClain, Lamarr Houston, and Jared Veldheer in the early rounds, and waiting to grab players with great measurables like Jacoby Ford and Bruce Campbell until the appropriate time.
The acquisition of Jason Campbell and the hiring of Jackson aside, the Raiders major offseason moves were tailored toward one obvious goal: improve the run defense.
With very, very good reason.
In the seven seasons spanning 2003-2009—or as many Raider fans call them, the lost years—the Raiders have finished 30th or worse in run defense a whopping four times. Their average rank against the run in that time span is 28th, and they have allowed more yards and more touchdowns on the ground than any other team.
It's no coincidence that the Raiders have double-digit losses in each of those seasons, a dubious and ongoing NFL record that the team and fans would like to forget and are looking to quell this season.
The Raiders have lost the season opener in every one of those years, and once again the run defense has proven the culprit, surrendering an average of 109 yards on the ground and roughly 4.5 yards per carry. Each year this has been the beginning of a trend that in great measure snowballed throughout the season as losses mounted.
A fast start is key, and the 2010 season opener will be a test of the improved run defense in spades.
The Raiders open on the road in Tennessee, against a Titans team that emphasizes running the ball with the most dynamic back in the NFL, reigning 2,000 yard rushing champion and NFL yards-from-scrimmage record holder Chris Johnson.
Titans Coach Jeff Fisher has made no secret of the fact that he will ride Johnson's legs as much as he can, and Johnson has certainly made no secret of the fact that he wants to improve his record-breaking numbers from last season.
Raider teams of recent vintage have been able to stop the run the majority of the time, but always give up one, two, or even three huge plays per game that inflate the numbers and ultimately cost the team the game. The team ranks 20th overall in yards per carry during the lost years; it's the big plays that have destroyed them.
This is a scary prospect, because Johnson is the type of back that has proven to be the Raiders most dangerous type of foe: explosive, elusive, and a threat to score every time he touches the ball.
Johnson has the added bonus of being the rare slight of frame speed back that actually runs as well between the tackles as he does to the outside, giving him versatility to boot.
The look and feel of this Raider defense is much different through two preseason games and training camp thus far. They show ability to beat the man in front of them, to clog running lanes, to maintain discipline, and to play off of each other by staying in position and forcing runners to tacklers.
There is more team speed, size, and strength, and defensive coordinator John Marshall and line coach Mike Waufle have this team getting off the snap with burst and intensity, and flying to the ball for gang tackles. There are finally good defensive fundamentals and a team concept in place.
In short, they do not look to be the same Raiders lost in the trenches.
However, the old albatross reared it's head in the Chicago game, as rookie MLB Rolando McClain got excited and over-pursued Matt Forte, who then juked safety Michael Huff out of his shoes in the open field on route to an 89-yard touchdown run.
I don't expect that to happen to McClain again with his football IQ and work ethic.
Against the Titans, it is imperative that the Raiders play smart, disciplined football against Johnson, who's speed and cutback ability make one think of a bigger, less smooth Barry Sanders—only because nobody is a smooth as Barry Sanders.
Forget the big stick, and just make the tackle. Johnson is also tough to bring down.
It's a great way to open the season, because of the barometer it will provide as to the Raiders' improvement in stopping the run.
Although it won't be disastrous if Johnson has a great game, because he's just that guy and the Titans will feed him all day like a depressed Oprah, it would be a huge confidence boost if they can hold him in check; say, under 100 yards with under 4.5 yards per carry, and perhaps a gold tooth or two lost.
If Johnson goes off and the Raiders lose, even though it's Chris Johnson it'll be difficult for the old familiar feelings to remain at bay. There's just been too much pain, too much same old same old.
Had things gone differently with the Louis Murphy touchdown in last season's opener, I truly believe the team would've won more games than they did. That reversal and the subsequent loss to the Chargers was heartbreaking, and the team never recovered.
The opening game has set the tone for the season over the last seven years. Unfortunately, that tone has proven to be a dull drone that builds in your head all season until you want to tear your ears off.
There is a new band in Oakland this season, though, and they're better musicians.
It's important that this season begin with a soft, soothing tone that eases the pain of years past and builds to a heightened crescendo as glory is returned to the Silver & Black.
And it all starts with Chris Johnson.