Raiders camp report: New faces, ideas may lead to new, better results

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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If Aaron Curry can't suit up, Miles Burris is a safe bet to take over at weakside linebacker. (US Presswire)  
If Aaron Curry can't suit up, Miles Burris is a safe bet to take over at weakside linebacker. (US Presswire)  

NAPA, Calif. -- There are changes galore with this year's Oakland Raiders, including a new head coach, new GM and new offensive and defensive philosophies.

Now, the question: Will there be a change in the team's fortunes, too? The Raiders were 8-8 the past two years and haven't had a winning season since 2002.

All I know is that we're in uncharted territory, with Oakland embarking on its first complete season without founder Al Davis. Davis was a proponent of the vertical passing game, but that's gone now that Greg Knapp is back for a second turn as the team's offensive coordinator. Instead of the bombs-away approach, Knapp will run his version of the West Coast offense, emphasizing zone-blocking by his offensive linemen and throws on the run by his quarterbacks.

Hey, it worked for Houston when Knapp was there. It could work here, provided that Carson Palmer, a dropback passer as a pro, adapts to a scheme that requires him to throw more on rollouts.

"He actually did a lot of this at USC," said Knapp. "I have a little bit of a different philosophy in that I want to change the launch point for a quarterback so it's not the same spot. But, more importantly, it complements our zone-run game. And that's what really fits in well.

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"The guy I just left and whom I coached three years in Atlanta and two years in Houston was Matt Schaub. Now, if you want to ask, 'Athletically, are they the same type?' Yep. You betcha. Carson will be just fine in it. Maybe we don't want to tell people he is so they think, OK, well, he's going to be in the same spot all the time."

As I mentioned, the Raiders have been stuck in neutral the past two seasons and want to move forward. Most think that won't happen, but it could, depending on a few variables: 1) Running back Darren McFadden's health; 2) Palmer's ability to adapt to a new offense and 3) a defense that leaked way too much last season.

Palmer doesn't seem too concerned about what he'll be asked to do. As Knapp said, he's been there before, and he succeeded. So logic says he can succeed again.

"I've always done 'nakeds' and bootlegs," said Palmer, "but a lot of this stuff isn't always on the run. A lot of it is not just necessarily right behind the center, five yards deep. Some of it is outside the tackle. Some of it is wide play-action where you're pulling up behind the guard. There are so many different launch points, so not everything is getting out and running to get around the corner.

"I love it, and I keep saying: You don't have to run 4.25 to run this offense. You've seen Matt Schaub do it for years, as well as guys before him."

But it's not Schaub we're concerned with; it's Palmer, and let's see what happens. I have no doubt he can adjust. I just want to see it -- just as I want to see how the Raiders' defense adapts to a new scheme that employs multiple fronts, blitzes and a variety of coverages.

Let's face it, it can't be much worse than what we witnessed last season when the Raiders ranked 22nd in scoring defense and allowed 34 or more points in three of their last five starts.

"I always say the offense knows where the ball is going, the snap count, et cetera," said defensive lineman Richard Seymour. "So, anytime you can throw them off in terms of throwing different blitzes at them, overloading to one side or using multiple fronts, they're going to have to prepare for it. And that helps us."

Team Objectives

 Cut down on penalties and restore discipline. The Raiders have been among the leaders in this department for years and last year retained their crown as the most penalized team by drawing 163 fouls for 1,358 yards. If those numbers seem high, it's only because they are. Both were league records. Incoming coach Dennis Allen has vowed to drop that number, and he made progress in Game 1 of the preseason when the Raiders were penalized five times for 37 yards. "It was a start," said Allen. "The good news was that there was only one pre-snap procedure penalty. That's a step in a positive direction, but we've got to continue to put one foot in front of the other and keep getting better." But most people interpret discipline as cutting down on penalties, period. It's not. There's also the matter of guys making proper reads, lining up in the right spots and taking designed paths to the quarterback. "We keep preaching the same message: Don't veer off from where you are," Allen said, "and don't let up from where you are. I really don't spend a lot of time talking about penalties. I spend a lot more time talking about discipline and doing things right and doing them exactly right every time. If you do those things, the penalties will take care of themselves."

 Keep Darren McFadden healthy. The guy's a terrific running back, but he's also an accident waiting to happen. In four seasons with Oakland he hasn't made it through more than 13 games. Moreover, he missed all but seven a year ago with a sprained foot. When he's in the lineup the Raiders are more dangerous, more explosive and more versatile, but McFadden's made only 32 starts in four years. That must change for Oakland to do something other than finish .500. "He's special," Seymour said. "There are only a few like him in the league." Precisely.

 Reduce turnovers, particularly interceptions. The Raiders were minus-4 in the takeaway/turnover department, and that's because Palmer threw way too many interceptions in 10 games. In fact, he had more (16) than he did touchdown passes (13). Blame it on his offseason. He didn't have one, joining the team after spending the first part of the season on the couch. Only there's something that needs to be addressed here, and that's Palmer's accuracy -- or inaccuracy -- the past four seasons. He has nearly as many interceptions (53) as he does touchdown passes (63) and a completion percentage of 60.7 -- far below his career best of 67.8 (2005). You'd like to believe his accuracy improves in a West Coast offense, but stay tuned.

Camp Battles

Tight end: With the departure of Kevin Boss, there's plenty of competition here. Brandon Myers, who has never caught more than 16 passes in a season, is the favorite and was the early frontrunner. One problem: He has an injured shoulder that kept him out of the Raiders' first two preseason games. That means there's an opening for someone, and Richard Gordon or David Ausberry could be that someone. Gordon is the best blocker of the three here and is the choice if Myers can't make it, but don't count out Ausberry. A converted wide receiver, he could play a role as a pass receiver.

Projected winner: Myers, but only if he's healthy. He's the most complete of the three and the most experienced. If he's sidelined, make it Gordon.

Backup running back: It's Taiwan Jones or Mike Goodson, and it could be both. They must replace backup Michael Bush, who left for Chicago, and they're important because they're the ones who step in if and when Darren McFadden is hurt again. Jones is a blur -- perhaps the fastest guy on the club -- but, like McFadden, he seems prone to injury. He missed the last six games last year with a hamstring issue and sat out the first two preseason games with a strained hamstring. Goodson, acquired from Carolina, looked good until suffering a neck injury last week. He's back, and hopes are high that he returns to the form that in 2010 had him averaging 4.4 yards a carry and making 40 catches in a limited role.

Projected winner: Jones, but only if he can shake his hamstring problems. If not, it's Goodson.

Weakside linebacker: This position is supposed to belong to Aaron Curry, only Curry has a mysterious knee injury that could be career-threatening. At least, that's what some people think. He's on the Physically Unable to Perform list, and no one is certain when or if he returns. Curry underwent stem cell treatments after suffering an offseason injury, but, apparently, it hasn't worked. So he's nowhere to be seen in camp. In the meantime, rookie Miles Burris -- a fourth-round draft pick from San Diego State -- takes over, and while he takes all first-team snaps and coaches rave about him, he's still a rookie. The Raiders are thin here, with rookie Chad Kilgore a longshot, but it really comes down to Curry's health. If he's not ready to go, the job belongs to Burris.

Projected winner: Burris. It doesn't appear likely that Curry heals anytime soon, and Burris has been getting a lot of work -- so much, in fact, that it's hard to imagine him not opening the season as a starter.

Somebody to Watch

McFadden. He's the key to the Raiders' offensive success. Over the past two years he averaged nearly 5.3 yards a carry and scored 15 times in 20 games. That's the good news. The bad: He missed 12 games. It's always something with McFadden, and the Raiders must find a way to keep him in the lineup. Yes, he's that good. He's explosive. He's elusive. And he's key to Oakland's chances. That's why backups Taiwan Jones and Mike Goodson are so important. Offensive coordinator Greg Knapp would like them to share the load so that McFadden doesn't absorb an abnormal number of hits and lasts more than 13 games -- the most he's played in any of his four seasons. "I'm playing the percentages," said Knapp, "that we're due a break -- no pun intended -- and won't have any health issues."

Injury Roundup

  Backup QB Matt Leinart suffered an injury to the index finger of his right (non-throwing) hand in Friday's loss to Arizona when he was hit by third-string DT Ricky Lumpkin. Leinart, who took two stitches, later said he should be OK.

  WR Jacoby Ford left the first quarter of Friday's game with a sprained foot and was later spotted on crutches. His status is not known.

  Mike Goodson left Friday's game with what coach Dennis Allen called "weakness in his shoulder."

  WR Darrius Heyward-Bey suffered a sprained shoulder Friday.

  Aaron Curry is seeking treatment for his knee injury, but nobody knows when or if he'll return to the team.

  Jones continues to be bothered by a hamstring strain that has kept him sidelined the first two preseason games.

  Myers is out with a shoulder injury he suffered last week, and there's no timetable for his return.

  WR Denarius Moore, one of Carson Palmer's favorite targets, suffered what appeared to be a severe hamstring injury the last day of minicamp. He was supposed to have recovered, but he re-injured it in training camp and remains sidelined.

  P Shane Lechler underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee prior to training camp and hasn't resumed punting. Nevertheless, there's no concern, with the Raiders confident he'll join the lineup for at least one preseason game. To reduce the pressure on his knee, Lechler showed up at camp 20 pounds lighter.

The Last Word

The Raiders made a raft of changes in the offseason, and most see them as the fourth-best team in the AFC West -- especially after that 3-0 loss to Dallas in Game One of the preseason.

But they're called exhibition games for a reason: They don't count. So no matter how much they flounder this summer, nothing matters until they take on San Diego in the Sept. 10 opener. The Raiders believe they have the weapons to make a move this year, but they're going to need a better season out of Palmer, an entire season out of McFadden and something, anything, better from their defense.

"I don't think the Raiders have lost their mystique," said Seymour, "in terms of being the Raiders. But we haven't put it all together.

"Anytime you think about the Raiders, you still think tough and nasty and physical -- and undisciplined can fall into that. But we're definitely going to rectify that. We can't control what happened in the past, but moving forward I feel good about where we're going. I think it's an exciting time to be a Raider."

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