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Optimism Abound in Oakland With the Start of the New Season

Brian ParkContributor ISeptember 10, 2009

OAKLAND, CA - AUGUST 29:  Nnamdi Asomugha #21 of the Oakland Raiders is introduced against the New Orleans Saints during an NFL preseason game at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on August 29, 2009 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

The 2009 NFL season kicks off tonight in Pittsburgh as the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers host the Tennessee Titans.

NFL fans across the country are breathing a collective sigh of relief as their constant, ever-growing lust for meaningful football is only a few hours from being satiated.

Baseball, which lost its title as "America's Pastime" long ago, does an admirable job in holding over football fans through the summer. College football has its loyal diehards, but despite the pageantry and tradition that go along with it, it still doesn't equate to a Tim McGraw-Black Eyed Peas pregame concert.

And as for the preseason? Well, four games of little or no consequence are just a tease, and football fans are not ones to be baited.

The 2009 NFL season is finally upon us, and like kids on Christmas morning, we are all in eager anticipation for what it has in store for us.

For Raider fans though, the wait is just a little bit longer. Perhaps we were the ones who sideswiped our little brothers on our way to the Christmas tree, and as a punishment, our parents made us wait until after everyone else had opened their presents to finally get to ours.

And after we are forced to endure the Patriots taking it to the Bills in the first game on Monday night, it will finally be our time to rip open that Silver and Black gift wrap and bask in all the glory that is Raider Football.

Suffice to say, the past six seasons have been lumps of coal, and while no one is expecting this year's version of the Raiders to set the world ablaze, the prospects for the 2009-2010 season are improved and filled with legitimate promise.

For one, JaMarcus Russell, the 6'6", 260 lbs. mountain of a quarterback, whose shoulders and back carry the heavy expectations of a starved Raider Nation, is beginning to look a lot like the quarterback Al Davis envisioned when he drafted him first overall in 2007.

Russell made huge strides in the offseason, both on the field and off of it. During the preseason, Russell displayed a calm and controlled poise and was highly efficient in his play (25 of 38 passing for a 66% completion rate and an 11-yard average on completions).

Off the field, Russell did well for himself by keeping quiet and staying out of the headlines. In this day and age, no news can be good news, and in what is a pivotal year in his development, it is encouraging to see that Russell was not fuel for the sports netizens, and instead, did and said all the right things.

What's more, Russell has assumed a more prominent leadership role on the team, going so far as to fly his receivers to his home in Alabama just to work on their timing, and he did this all on his own expense.

Darren McFadden, the centerpiece of the Raiders' three-headed rushing attack, is finally healthy, after having suffered through some bad turf toe in his rookie season. Nobody doubts McFadden's awesome talent, but last season was a letdown because his play was so limited.

Although the Raiders feature the fast and determined Justin Fargas and the powerful Michael Bush, McFadden is the one true dynamic game breaker the team features in their backfield.

In the preseason, fans caught an early glimpse of what a healthy Darren McFadden is capable of as he regularly broke off huge runs and displayed an explosive playmaking ability that has been unseen in the Oakland backfield for some time.

Make no mistake of what a healthy and revitalized McFadden is capable of. Nobody will mistake the Raiders' offensive line for that of the Titans' or the Patriots', but a running back with the skill of a Darren McFadden will certainly make the big uglies up front look a lot better on paper.

The receiving corps, one of the glaring weak spots of last season, looks to be improved and full of unlimited potential. In only two seasons, tight end Zach Miller has established himself as one of the league's better tight ends, providing good blocking and excelling in the passing game. Again, Miller will likely be Russell's favorite target, and rightfully so. Miller led all Raiders in receiving last season and those numbers look to increase with the improved play of Russell.

The arrival of rookie wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey was met with much criticism as he was taken ahead of the more heralded Michael Crabtree. Now, Crabtree has yet to sign with the 49ers, and Heyward-Bey is set to start Monday night's opener against the San Diego Chargers.

Heyward-Bey's preseason play was met with mixed reviews. Slowed by a hamstring injury, Heyward-Bey showed only flashes of his game-breaking speed, but as Raider fans saw in the very first pass attempt of the preseason against Dallas, the very threat of Heyward-Bey's speed is enough for defensive secondaries to think twice about consistently playing in the box.

The one receiver Raider Nation expects to be a consistent presence is second-year man Chaz Schilens.

A former seventh-round draft pick out of San Diego State, Schilens was a pleasant surprise last season, and he was able to carry those good vibes on into the offseason. During spring camp, Schilens was one of the most consistent performers on the team, and his play earned him high praise from the staff.

Although Schilens will be out until Week Two with a broken foot, the team fully expects the 6'4" wideout to reclaim his starting role once he returns to full health. Schilens might not be the same dynamic athlete as a Heyward-Bey or Johnnie Lee Higgins, but he is the team's best pure receiver, and he should be a favorite target of Russell's once he returns.

For all the optimism on offense, the defense is still a glaring concern. Outside of corner back Nnamdi Asomugha and linebackers Kirk Morrison and Thomas Howard, there aren't many sure things on the defense.

True, veteran Greg Ellis was a nice addition and the play of youngsters like Desmond Bryant, Jon Alston and Ricky Brown were very encouraging. However, the Raiders' defense, as a unit, left more questions than they answered during the preseason.

Run defense remains a serious issue as evidenced by the defense's disastrous performance against the Saints in the third game of the preseason. Like last year, the Raiders' defense hasn't shown that it can stop the run, control a drive, or do something as simple and fundamental as making consistent tackles.

While there are many positives to take from this team, the one thing that can potentially derail a promising season is the run defense. Unfortunately, the preseason has come and gone, and defensive coordinator John Marshall is left with less than a week to prepare for the Chargers' duo of LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles.

Obviously, the unit is still a work in progress, and if the Raiders hope to eclipse last year's five win total, defense has to be the major point of emphasis in the staff's preparation and team practice.

Expectations are high, as they always are in Oakland, but the reality of the past six seasons has shaped Raider Nation's optimism into a carefully-guarded one. There are still so many questions that have yet to be answered, and it seems the preseason only prompted more to be asked.

It remains to be seen how good this team can be, but the first three games of the season will prove to be the most pivotal in shaping the 2009-2010 Oakland Raiders. The Raiders face each of their AFC West foes, and the first three games will go a long way in determining how the Raiders will fare the rest of the way.

In a weak AFC West, the Raiders have their best chance to finish in the top half of the division for the first since 2002, and lay the groundwork for the next few years. No one is expecting the Raiders to win the division, but for such a young team that is still growing, a second place finish with more wins than they've had in six seasons would go a long way in developing a winner in Oakland.

The 2009-2010 season might be the most important one in Oakland in a long while. Here's to a successful campaign and a re-commitment to excellence. Just win, baby!

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