After a rough decade, back-to-back .500 seasons made it look like the Oakland Raiders may have been heading toward a resurgence. But the death of Al Davis and the firing of Hue Jackson – who was the team’s fifth head coach in nine years – have Oakland heading in yet another new direction as the offseason gets underway.
Add in a new general manager, another new coach, big salary cap issues and a dearth of draft picks brought on by the Carson Palmer trade and other moves, and it spells an interesting offseason in Oakland.
Zoneblitz: With the passing of Al Davis, 2012 represents a totally new era in Oakland. What do you think of the hires of head coach Dennis Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie?
Levi Damien: The new era has started off well simply because McKenzie said there would be wholesale changes in the organization and as we are seeing, he was not exaggerating. Dennis Allen was a target as a head coach by many teams in the NFL so despite his relative youth (39), his hire was not a reach.
Most of the rest of the coaches were not the team’s first choice. They were getting denied by other teams for interviews, especially for defensive coordinator. But in the end, the only coach in whom they showed interest that I did like was Greg Manusky and he left without a contract and was hired in Indianapolis. The two coaches I wanted to see the team bring back were the line coaches. But it is clear they are changing the scheme on both lines so it made sense to go with different guys there. Overall, they made some great hires, brought back some successful coaches, and made the best of the situation in hiring other coaches.
Zoneblitz: The Raiders have changed head coaches several times in recent years. Was moving on from Hue Jackson the right move?
Damien: It had to happen. McKenzie wanted to start fresh with a head coach of his choice. Jackson also had been given too much power and he let it go to his head. This started when he was hired as offensive coordinator and he knew he was the head coach in waiting. There is a reason why he now can’t even find a job as an offensive coordinator, despite his success in that role two seasons ago in Oakland.
No head coach wants to be undermined by him, just as McKenzie and Mark Davis were afraid of. Additionally, under Hue, this team showed some of the worst discipline in many years. McClain had his incident in which he allegedly put a gun to a man’s head and fired the weapon by his ear and yet four days later, he was suited up at middle linebacker for the Raiders. With those kinds of messages being sent, it’s no wonder the team set a new record for penalties and penalty yards this season.
Zoneblitz: After a half season, what do you think of the Carson Palmer trade?
Damien: I never liked the trade itself. I caught a lot of flak from readers for my opinion on that. Every time Palmer would have a good game, they would check back in with me “How bout now?”
But not liking what the team gave up for him is different than whether I like Palmer as a player for the Raiders. I like the acquisition. The Raiders didn’t have any choice. They had to get a quarterback to replace Jason Campbell and there was no one else out there. The trade deadline was two days after the injury. The combination of those factors had Mike Brown of the Bengals sitting pretty to get Hue Jackson and the Raiders to bet the house on Palmer. But that is done. Palmer is the Raiders franchise quarterback and he proved last season (after his first two games) that his arm strength and accuracy is back. And Carson Palmer at his best is a Pro Bowl talent.
Zoneblitz: The trade takes away some high draft picks the next couple years. Does the team have the draft picks and cap space available to address the team’s shortcomings this offseason?
Damien: They will have the cap space. McKenzie is cutting a lot of fat to make sure of that. They have already cut Stanford Routt and his bloated contract. There will be more cuts as well as restructured deals. Al Davis spent money seemingly at will and yet he always managed to get under the cap. McKenzie will be accomplishing it the traditional way.
As far as the draft, no, they don’t have enough picks this season to address all the needs. They currently have two picks in the draft—round five and six. But they have a few decent compensatory picks coming for free agents they lost last year. That said, during McKenzie’s time with the Packers, they were known for finding great value in the lower rounds and undrafted free agency. Much of that had to do with McKenzie and his eye for talent. I expect there will be at least a couple good players in the bunch this year. But as low round steals and UDFA finds usually go, they will take some time to develop.
Zoneblitz: Michael Bush is a free agent and Darren McFadden is coming off an injury. Will either or both be back in 2012 and what do you expect to see with the run game next season?
Damien: McFadden will be back for sure. The team will probably look at the possibility of trading him but in the end will not receive a first round offer and therefore will keep him. The Michael Bush situation is tricky. Ultimately the team would like to re-sign him long term. But he may balk at that idea for more money and a starting job elsewhere.
So the other option is the franchise tag. The issue they run into there is having a situation where the backup is making more than the starter. Although, if you look at last season, Bush became the starter over McFadden. I go both ways on it. It is hard to fathom the team going with McFadden alone with his injury problems and yet, again, McKenzie’s Packers were known for finding great backs in the low rounds of the draft and off the free agent scrap heap.
Zoneblitz: The defense gave up the second most points in the AFC in 2011. Where does that unit need to get better?
Damien: They already took the most important step—fire the defensive coordinator. He was the main issue with the unit. As evidenced by the promise they were beginning to show late in the 2010 season. The housecleaning that is going on right now also sends the message that no job is safe.
Something else Hue Jackson did wrong was send a message to guys like Rolando McClain that his starting job was safe. And I don’t mean with his actions. Jackson literally stood at the podium and said McClain’s was the starter in camp. Even if a coach knows who will be the starter, you don’t say it to the world like that. Especially with an unproven player fresh off his rookie season. We saw the results.
Zoneblitz: With the coaches that Dennis Allen has brought in have you been able to get a sense for the type of play you’ll see in Oakland going forward?
Damien: Offensive coordinator, Greg Knapp, has been here before. He was the offensive coordinator in Oakland in 04-05. He will run the zone blocking scheme that failed miserably in Oakland back then. The reason it failed was for lack of proper personnel. The linemen in place now are considerably better suited for the scheme. Al Saunders returns to the team as a senior offensive assistant. He will bring some continuity to the success the offense had last season so there shouldn’t be a great learning curve for Palmer.
As for the defense, it can only get better. Simply because it was so bad last season. The Raiders will be switching to a 3-4 base hybrid scheme which means some shuffling of players. But Jason Tarver, the new DC, is an extremely smart guy and a great motivator. The switch in scheme will be good for the linebackers but not as good for the line. So there will likely be a transition period. Some rebuilding is in order but it is high time for that.
Zoneblitz: With three teams at 8-8 and the fourth at 7-9, it would appear the Raiders are as able as any team to compete in the AFC West. But how far is this team from making a push deep into the postseason?
Damien: I am not ready to say how far away they are. There are still a great many moves that will be happening in the next few months that will change to direction of this team. It will be another tough year for the Raiders though. There are a lot of changes coming and with great changes comes growing pains. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say they will hover around .500 which as you said may just be good enough to compete in the AFC West.
Zoneblitz: What would you like to see the Raiders to in free agency and the draft?
Damien: Cornerback, Linebacker, Nose Tackle. Those are the most immediate needs.
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