Tom Cable takes the Oakland Raiders into week 10 as the division leader for the first time since 2001. What a difference a year—and a quarterback—and a great draft can make.
Carried on the shoulders of break out performances by Darren McFadden, Jacoby Ford, a greatly improved defense and a great rookie class, the Raiders are much improved to say the least.
This recent improvement has lifted Raider Nation from the brink of desertion, and the players from becoming even more irrelevant than they already were.
In all, a great first half of the 2010 season.
In this slide show, I'll attempt to point out where the most dramatic improvements have taken place, the depth at each position, as well as the areas in which the team still has some work to do. I'll also be discussing the coaching staff.
Stay with me, because there's a lot to cover. Let's get to it...
Jason Campbell may not be the greatest QB in history, but he's getting it done.
Any quarterback would have been an improvement over "that other guy" Oakland had the last few years, but the addition of Jason Campbell has been a double edged sword.
On one hand, Campbell is a hard worker that prepares well. His teammates see that and it rubs off on the entire offense.
On the other hand, he appears to be playing things too safe. He constantly checks the ball down rather than taking a chance down field.
The one thing that would improve Campbell's game more than any other is confidence to "just sling it." It worked in the second half of the Chiefs game last week—it can work in the future.
Campbell could take a page from the "Gradkowski playbook" on this. Sometimes, the best play is to just heave it up field and give your receivers a chance to make a play.
I would tell Campbell to, "trust what you see, give your teammates a chance to come up with the play and show some fire on the field."
With Bruce Gradkowski breathing down his neck, Campbell needs to continue improving in order to keep his job.
With Gradkowski and former first round pick Kyle Boller, the depth at quarterback is pretty solid.
Darren McFadden struggled with injury early in his career, but that appears to be behind him now. He is running with purpose, power and poise.
In a word, McFadden has been "spectacular."
D-Mac has improved every aspect of his game. From vision to find holes, power to break tackles, willingness to initiate the contact and finish runs, to his blitz recognition and pick-up.
All I would tell McFadden at this point is, "Just keep doing what you're doing."
McFadden has to give a lot of the credit for his resurgence to new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. Jackson has brought back a lot of the power running schemes he was so comfortable with in college.
The depth at running back is better than it has been in since the Raiders employed Charlie Garner, Tyrone Wheatley and Zack Crockett.
Michael Bush, Michael Bennett and Rock Cartwright make for a very solid back up crew.
Many in Raider Nation, (this writer included) had reservations about Marcel Reece being the starting fullback.
Personally, I still don't like his blocking skills (or lack thereof), but if he can continue to be the offensive threat he was in the Denver and Seattle games, I can live with it.
The problem I see with a more "play-making," rather than blocking fullback, is that it is too easy to stop. The Chiefs proved that last week as Reece had only 12 yards on three touches.
The Chiefs saw what Reece did to the Broncos and Seahawks and did a great job keeping him covered and limiting his impact.
At the moment, there are no other fullbacks on the Raiders' active roster. Manese Tonga is the only other true fullback on the team, and he's on the practice squad.
If, God forbid, Reece goes down with injury, the Raiders don't have anyone else to take his place. For that reason, I hope the coaching staff isn't relying on the fullback position to be critical to the offensive success.
Zach Miller should be healthy by the time the team travels to Pittsburgh.
There is no doubt that Zach Miller is one of the top five tight ends in the NFL right now.
Miller possesses great hands, great football IQ, decent blocking skills and one of the biggest hearts in all of football. All attributes coaches look for in an NFL player.
Brandon Myers filled in well in Miller's stead last week against the Chiefs. Myers isn't a big time play-maker, but he is a great blocker, has good hands and is a smart player.
Unfortunately, those two players, as good as they are, are the only tight ends the Raiders have. Most teams keep three tight ends, why didn't the Raiders?
We'll never know.
Don't get me wrong, I like the fact that offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has adjusted to this deficiency, but I'm not sure how long it will last.
One injury to either Miller or Myers greatly limits the number of packages the Raiders can run in goal-line and short-yardage situations.
The team cannot count on offensive tackle Khalif Barnes to get open and make catches. Bringing in another real tight end would give the Raiders more options and make them more effective in the redzone.
Obviously, the hero of the moment in Oakland is Jacoby Ford. Last week against the Chiefs, Ford showed Raider Nation that he was more than merely a pick to satisfy Al Davis' desire for the fastest player in the draft.
He proved he can be a big time player, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Ford still has a lot to learn.
The Raiders have a lot of talented, young receivers on the roster.
Chaz Schilens and Louis Murphy should be back from injury soon, Darius Heyward-Bey is improving seemingly by the hour, Nick Miller makes plays every time he's given the chance, and Johnie Lee Higgins is looking more and more consistent.
All that said, there is a lot of work to be done with this squad.
None of the receivers have shown the ability to get separation regularly, there are still far too many drops and the chemistry with the quarterbacks is still growing.
It's my opinion, (and has been since mid-season 2007) that wide receiver coach Sanjay Lal is letting the team down. With the talent the Raiders have, they should be getting open more often, making fewer drops and scoring a lot more.
Getting a better position coach for this talented group will do more to improve their production than anything else.
Since being moved to left tackle, Jared Veldheer has improved the Raiders line play.
Now that rookie Jared Veldheer has taken over at left tackle for Mario Henderson, the Raiders' pass blocking as a whole has been improved.
Long time veteran Langston Walker does a good job in the running game, but still has flaws in his pass protection.
With the emergence of Veldheer, the depth at tackle is improved, but not fantastic. However, at this point of the season you have to go with the guys you have.
Khalif Barnes is doing a good job at back up and in situational duty and Mario Henderson is finally where he belongs—on the second string.
It's too late in the season to find any quality tackles, so the team should start scouting tackles for the next draft.
Robert Gallery has been injury prone in his NFL career.
Offensive guard is a position of some concern for the Raiders. Robert Gallery is injury prone, Cooper Carlisle is barely good enough to be a back up and Bruce Campbell isn't ready.
Back up Daniel Loper is just about the only guard that has shown any consistency. Unfortunately, he's consistently average.
When he plays, Gallery is one of the best. The problem is, he doesn't play every game due to one injury or another.
Carlisle has done absolutely nothing to instill confidence in his teammates, the fans or anyone else—except the coaching staff.
Some questions will go unanswered, I guess.
The depth at guard is decent. Loper is solid and Campbell has a very high ceiling. However, they are not the answer right now.
With no first round pick in 2011, the scouting staff will have their work cut out for them finding a starter-quality guard in the draft next season.
I would hope Al Davis, Tom Cable, Hue Jackson and the rest of the coaching staff recognizes this problem and takes steps to fill this need either by free agency or the draft.
Samson Satele has shown moments of greatness, as well as moments of ineptitude.
Center is another position the Raiders need to address.
Samson Satele has been great at times, but more often looks completely outmatched.
For a time, Veldheer took his job from him. Satele only got it back because Veldheer had to replace the under performing Mario Henderson at left tackle.
As of now, Satele is the only true center on the roster. Veldheer is still listed with "T/C" next to his name. That means if Satele is injured, Veldheer would move back to center and Mario Henderson would take over at left tackle.
Wait. The same Henderson that couldn't get the job done? Yup! That Henderson.
Am I the only one that sees a problem with this?
The staff brought in former Raider Jake Grove for a work out, but as yet, have not signed him.
Why not? What are you waiting for?
The team needs to sign a true center now. If not Grove, some one else.
Hue Jackson is building something very good in Oakland.
Offensive coordinator: Hue Jackson—The new offense is starting to show signs of life in recent weeks. I was worried after the first few games that it would be "more of the same."
However, with the explosions against Denver and Seattle, combined with the great second half against Kansas City, I'm feeling the hope build again.
Let's hope it continues.
QB Coach: Paul Hackett—A nice job so far. Campbell is getting more and more comfortable with the new offense. I would like to see some more work done on the velocity and accuracy of his passes.
RB Coach: Kelly Skipper—A great job so far. The breakouts of Darren McFadden and Marcel Reece are one thing, but all the backs are stepping up when asked to do so. Michael Bush's 104 yard performance against San Diego proves it.
TE Coach: Adam Henry—A decent job so far. Miller needs to improve his blocking and Myers needs to improve his zone recognition. Other than that, just keep it up.
O-Line Coach: Jim Michalczik—A fair job so far. The run blocking is great, but if this offense is going to succeed, the quarterback needs to be protected. At the moment, the pass blocking is better, but still suspect.
WR Coach: Sanjay Lal—Not a good job so far. The wide receivers have been almost non-existent. They're dropping passes, showing some break-downs in fundamentals and simply not gaining separation or getting open. That is not a talent issue, that's a coaching issue.
Passing game coordinator: Ted Tolner—I'm not sure what a passing game coordinator is responsible for, but it could use some work. The Raiders are ranked 22nd in passing. I'd say that could use some improvement.
The bottom line is, the Raiders have shown a lot of improvement on offense this season. The 2nd ranked rushing attack and 4th ranked scoring offense in the league can attest to that.
The depth of this team really came through last week against the Chiefs.
Speaking only of the offense, Chaz Schilens, Louis Murphy and Zach Miller were all out with injury. It didn't matter, Jacoby Ford, Johnie Lee Higgins and Brandon Myers did what they're paid to do—step in and pick up the slack.
That said, there is still some work to do.
The offensive line needs to pass block better, the redzone efficiency needs to improve and the whole offense needs to show some more consistency.
A bad start like last week will almost certainly result in a loss against a better team.
As for depth, offensive guard, center, tight end and fullback seem to be the positions in most need of improved depth.
That's it for the offense, now on to the defense.
Since moving to defensive tackle, Richard Seymour has had a profound effect on the Raiders run defense. Seymour is fourth on the team in tackles with 39 and second in sacks with 4.5.
However, this is just the beginning of Seymour's impact. The leadership he provides is invaluable.
Seymour doesn't accept poor effort or quitting from his teammates. This, more than anything, accounts for the improvement of the Raiders defensive line.
Tommy Kelly is finally living up to the enormous contract he was given a few years ago. Now that he has the help he needs inside, Kelly's play has stepped up dramatically. Kelly is fifth on the team in tackles with 33 and is tied for the lead in sacks with five.
Desmond Bryant is doing a great job at giving Kelly and Seymour breaks. He's solid against the run and provides a great push up the middle against the pass.
John Henderson is a beast against the run and opens things up for the linebackers and defensive ends to make plays.
Once Henderson comes back from injury, the Raiders' defensive line depth will be as good as it has been in years.
Matt Shaughnessy has done nothing but get better and better since he came to the Raiders in the third round of the 2009 draft. Along with Kelly, Shaughnessy leads the team in sacks with five.
Rookie Lamarr Houston has done a great job setting the edge against the run, but still makes some rookie mistakes. He tends to fall for play action and bootlegs. Reading screens and bootlegs better will come with time.
Trevor Scott has played defensive end and outside linebacker. He's done a nice job at both, but I feel the team needs to decide on a position for him. Learning two positions can take away a player's ability to master either.
The depth at defensive end is pretty good, because Kamerion Wimbley along with Scott and Seymour can play there if needed, but getting another true defensive end for next season would be great for the long-term success of the team.
Kamerion Wimbley has been a nice addition to the Raiders.
The acquisitions of Kamerion Wimbley and Quentin Groves have improved the Raiders run defense in a big way. However, there might be a drop off in coverage.
Trevor Scott plays the run well too, but coverage is an area in which he struggles.
Sam Williams appears to be the same player he always has been—great on special teams, but average in the regular defense.
Thomas Howard is the best coverage linebacker the Raiders have, but he struggles against the run. Both Williams and Howard need to work on their play recognition and open field tackling skills.
Personally, I'd like to see Scott and Wimbley start at outside linebacker, with Howard and Groves coming in on obvious passing downs.
With the recent free agent signing of Bruce Davis, the Raiders have plenty of players to play outside linebacker, I'm just not sure the quality of talent on the second string is good enough to carry the team if need be.
Rolando McClain has been better at middle linebacker than Kirk Morrison was, but I wouldn't say he's been great. I honestly expected more than 42 tackles and just a half of a sack after nine games.
McClain is doing a nice job overall, but he needs to be more aggressive when shedding blocks and getting up field on running plays.
He's young—he'll get better as he gets more comfortable.
Ricky Brown stepped up an played pretty well against the Chiefs after McClain left the game with injury. In my estimation, this is the best role for Brown. He's been injury prone and limiting his time will prevent a lot of the nagging injuries he's suffered in the past.
Once rookie Travis Goethal returns from injury, he and Brown will make the depth at middle linebacker very good.
Nnamdi Asomugha's injury could prove difficult to return from.
Unless you're a New York Jets fan, you know that Nnamdi Asomugha is the best cover corner in the NFL. However, the dreaded high ankle sprain suffered against the Chiefs could keep him out of service for a while.
Chris Johnson hasn't shown much consistency. One play he's got blanket coverage, the next he gets beaten badly. Johnson also makes some avoidable mistakes and gives up the occasional big penalty.
Stanford Routt is having a resurgent season. He still makes some mistakes and gets called for interference, but for the most part, he's been doing a nice job.
Jeremy Ware still looks like a rookie from time to time, but sometimes, he looks like a seasoned pro. Ware has made some big plays for the Raiders in recent weeks. Assuming his maturation continues, Ware can be a very good player.
Walter McFadden has been hampered by injury. When he played, he looked pretty good for a rookie. Unfortunately, his injury problem is giving Ware the opportunity to take his job and Ware is taking advantage.
Once all the injuries are behind them, the Raiders cornerbacks will be a very deep crew.
Michael Huff still struggles to make open field tackles, but his coverage skills are impeccable. He is second on the team in tackles with 58.
Huff has also shown a previously unknown quality—the ability to blitz very well. This has led to two sacks and several tackles for loss in crucial situations.
Tyvon Branch leads the team in tackles, but still has a lot to learn about coverage. He and Huff are beginning to play together and complement one another.
Mike Mitchell is one of those guys the fans just love. He is great at covering opposing tight ends and can bring the hammer to running backs in run support. The more playing time he gets, the more plays he makes.
If Mitchell continues to grow at his current pace, Huff may find himself playing cornerback.
Stevie Brown is a great special teams player. He is always around the ball and rarely misses tackles he should make. If given enough time to grow, Brown can be a more than solid starter in the future.
With these four players, the depth at safety is very strong this year.
John Marshall has the Raider defense playing much better lately.
Defensive Coordinator: John Marshall—A good job so far. Things started out pretty rough as the Raiders gave up big plays in both the rushing, and passing games. The lack of aggression that caused those big plays is gone. The Raiders are blitzing more—and winning more.
Defensive line coach: Mike Waufle—Good job so far. Moving Richard Seymour inside, along with the continued development of Tommy Kelly and Desmond Bryant have been great for the Raiders' front four. I expected more from Lamarr Houston, but that's more about the rookie learning curve, than coaching. Add the great play from Matt Shaughnessy, and Waufle has done a nice job.
Linebacker coach: Mike Haluchak—A decent job so far. Having a rookie at the center of everything is a tough challenge, but Haluchak has the linebackers playing pretty well. I still worry about their coverage skills, and their inability to get off blocks. However, this squad is improving by the week.
Defensive backs coach: Lionel Washington—A great job so far. When you are coaching the best cover cornerback in the league, you better get it done and Washington has been. Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson are improved over last year, and the two rookies are learning and improving each week.
Assistant defensive coach: Greg Biekert—A solid job so far. I don't know if it's coincidence, but the defense, especially the linebackers, started playing better when Biekert was hired. I feel like he brings back that "Raider mentality" that had been missing.
Squad development: Willie Brown—I'm not exactly sure what his job description is, but he's Willie Freaking Brown. I'd pay him to play cribbage with the office staff, just to have him and his greatness rub off on the players by osmosis!
That's all for the defense, now on to the head coach...
Tom Cable has heard it all. From not being smart enough and having the wrong disposition, to generally not being deserving of a head coaching job and being Al Davis' "yes man."
Whatever. All Cable has managed to do is to get this team to play better than they have since 2002.
I have defended him from my fellow Raider fans and yelled at the "experts" on TV that said he couldn't do it.
Who's laughing now?
I can't quite put my finger on how Cable has done it, but it seems to boil down to two words—"Teamwork" and "Accountability."
Cable has the Raiders buying in and playing for him. More importantly—he has them playing for each other.
Teamwork is what separates champions from mere participants.
The biggest knock on Cable was that the offensive line, (his specialty) hasn't been performing. That was true, but that squad has drastically improved over the last few weeks. They still have work to do, but we can see the improvement.
The bottom line is that scheme, play design and positional coaching is not Cable's job. Organizing and motivating are.
No one can question that Cable has this team better organized and more motivated than they have been in the last eight and a half years.
Nice job coach.
I, for one, am on the "Cable-Wagon."
Do I think the Raiders are going to add to this collection in 2010? Not likely, but I beleive they are on the right track to increase their jewelry in the not-so-distant future.
There are a lot of positives to point to. The improved offense, the wealth of young talent and much more.
Of course, there is still some work to do. The depth all along the offensive line, defensive end, fullback and tight end could be improved.
The run defense is greatly improved over the last few weeks, but there is still a lot of room for improvement. A lot of that improvement will happen as Rolando McClain and Lamarr Houston mature, and Kamerion Wimbley and Quentin Groves get more comfortable in John Marshall's scheme.
All in all, it's time for Raider Nation to count their blessings, but not to get their hopes up too high. This team is giving their fans a reason to celebrate, but getting cocky wouldn't be wise at this point.
Ultimately, coach Cable and the Raiders are playing well enough to warrant selling out the the Coliseum, so get out there and support this team!
I'm sure all of you have your own opinions about what I've covered in this article, and I look forward to hearing them in the comments.
Please check out this great Raider article by a great friend of mine on RaiderBeat.com:
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