They finished 2010 with an 8-8 record, and already it’s forgotten. New head coach Hue Jackson has interjected a high-volume dose of energy into camp. Practices are fast-paced and loud. There’s plenty of hitting, though not all out. The veterans have commented that Jackson’s camp is faster, longer and more fun than that of last year under Tom Cable, now the line coach in Seattle.
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. This is a team that ranked sixth in the league in points (25.6) over 2010 and had no real threat at wide receiver. So far, Chaz Schilens looks in peak form—good news since he’s coming off two injury-plagued years. Jacoby Ford, last year’s surprise, is slotted to be the other wideout. He has an injured left hand that will keep him out of some preseason games and practices, but no one is worried.
Perhaps the biggest news is that Darrius Heyward-Bey, the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft, has shown signs of improvement. Practices had him running crosses and stops, not just the sprints up the sideline. His hands appear improved as well. Is that enough to unseat backup Louis Murphy or camp rookie star Denarius Moore?
The biggest issue is the loss of tight end Zach Miller, who signed with Seattle—in his place, Kevin Boss by way of the New York Giants. The coaches seem to think there is no real drop in performance, and that counts for the team’s confidence.
Yet that element of the team plays second fiddle to the defense. Ten of 11 starters return, including the interior tackles of Richard Seymour and Tommie Kelly. Rolando McClain has stated he’s ready to improve on his strong rookie season, and the secondary seems not to miss Nnamdi Asomugha, who is replaced by Chris Johnson. Safety Tyvon Branch anchors the squad.
Add in the strong special team performers of Sebastian Janikowksi and Shane Lechler, a schedule that features the NFC North, apparent weak division foes Denver and Kansas City and the fact that the team swept the AFC West last year, and you can see why quiet confidence abounds in Raider Land.
In that vein, here is insight into five Raiders who, taken together, give some insight into why so many who follow this team have bright, bright hopes for 2011.
He’s weighing 245 pounds, about 20 pounds less than 2010. And Hue Jackson swoons at the sight of Bush evading tackles. He’d be No. 1 in most places, but here he’s a part of perhaps the best running back duo with Darren McFadden. McFadden averaged 5.1 per carry, Bush 4.2, with the latter outscoring the former 8-7 in rushing TDs. He spent the offseason getting stronger and quicker, and learning to hit a draw.
That's right. Bush took up golf.
“Got real good, too. Better than most in two months,” he said.
Did his two-a-day offseason workouts help his game?
“Didn’t let it. Got to take care of business first. I worked out twice a day, and since I got to camp I haven’t played. It’s part of the dedication. It’s a mentality. You gotta do the work.”
When he was drafted out of tiny Hillsdale College in 2009, not many knew what to expect. Now it’s becoming clear. He’s firmly established at left tackle. His quickness and intelligence belies his large frame (6’8”, 315 pounds). And he’s got it down. So much for a tough transition. Now it's just a matter before we transition into calling him Pro Bowler Jared Veldheer.
“Everyone assumes the speed is the difference,” Veldheer said. “But the playbook is a lot different than in college. There’s a lot more stuff that falls to your responsibility.”
Going up against defensive ends who comprise some the best athletes in the game requires diligence and preparation, both on and off the field. But it still comes down to being smart and adjusting quickly, and that ability is something that starts before the ball is snapped.
“The line makes a lot of different calls before the snap, depending on how the defense is aligned. And with those calls you can get a lot of motion. And the defense moves around with the motion. So you have a split second to make your new call right before the snap. It’s not just memorizing the play, but being able to apply it in a split second.
It’s all about making sure you know it all so everyone’s on the same page.”
It’s one thing to be able to block, quite another to talk.
“It’s a massive difference between college and the pros,” he added. “I don’t know if it’s a difference between making or breaking it, but it is a huge thing.”
It was a simple question: Compare the front seven of the Raiders to those he played with on those championship Patriot teams.
“You’re talking about the Patriots,” Seymour said. "Are you serious? I’m with the Raiders, man.”
Just a simple question. Compare.
“There ain’t no comparison. We’re working. No comparison. The Patriots were several years ago. Three years ago. Move forward.”
Well, is it a stronger front line here but better linebackers there?
“I don’t think so (linebackers),” he continued. “If you look at what we did last year upfront we compare to anyone in the league.”
So where does this defense, which finished 20th in the league, have to improve?
“We just have to be more consistent. We can match up and play with any team as long as we’re consistent. There are times we have mental lapses. A guy may not have his gap here. That one breakdown. We might have 30 plays that would be very good, and maybe four plays that are bad. But that’s all it takes is four bad plays and the offense can score a lot of points.”
What are three things this defense needs to work on?
“We’re trying to work on it now. I don’t think I know. We haven’t played since January.
Can it lead in the league in sacks?
“Anything is possible.”
Yards per carry?
“You want to say it? You can say it. We’re capable of anything. Of good plays. Of bad plays. We’re all trying to work our best foot forward. We’re optimistic. But in terms of what we’re going to do, we’re still writing the story.”
He started nine games in 2010, totaled 41 catches and two TDs—nice work for an unheralded second-year player out of Florida. In that perspective, what is the biggest difference between Gainesville and the pros?
“The length of the season is the biggest difference,” Murphy said. “You really have to take care of yourself. You have to eat right. In college, I was a McDonald's and Burger King guy. Now it’s turkey, beef and chicken. I cook myself. Had to learn to cook."
“As far as fan base, college is college. Pros are pros,” he continued. “In college, we play in front of 90,000 to 100,000 fans. Here it’s 50,000, 60,000. Day after the game in Gainesville, that’s the difference. You can linger. In college, you might not have a good opponent coming up. One week you play Georgia, and then the next week it’s Vanderbilt or Eastern Carolina. In this league, every game counts. Can’t get too high, can’t get too low. And on Monday you have to make sure you’re getting ready for the next week. You have to come to play every week.”
The former Redskin is firmly planted as the team’s No. 1 quarterback. Trent Edwards and Kyle Boller provide plenty of backup experience. This is definitely one of the deep QB contingents in the game. What surprises Campbell about this year’s team?
“How fast we’ve picked up the offense,” he said. “We’re really moving forward. But then, it’s the same offense as last year.” Hue Jackson was the offensive coordinator under Cable in 2010.
Campbell started 12 games, and the Raiders went 7-5. He’s a leader, and he’s expected to lift the offense a little higher than last year’s, when it doubled its scoring from 2009. And what does Campbell like about this team?
”It’s young. I like playing with young guys,” he said.
Campbell is 29 years old. He’s in his sixth season, and all that does is add more promise to a team that appears on the rise.