What a difference a year makes.
Twelve months ago the Raiders had just begun what would turn out to be their most chaotic and colorful offseason in decades. The owner was feuding with the head coach. The front office was handing out money by the millions in outlandish deals in moves that would later prove to be, in some cases, woefully bad. Fast forward to 2009.
Al Davis and his newest head coach, Tom Cable (minus the interim tag), are the best of pals. They spoke glowingly of one another at the press conference in February to announce Cable getting the full-time job, though rarely does it go any other way when a head coach is hired.
No rumors of a letter being sent from Davis to his head coach to deal with. No not-so-subtle jabs at the owner by a disgruntled and bitter head coach. Nothing but good times and a good vibe.
While I still have my questions about Cable’s ability to turn the Raiders into a viable and perennial playoff contender, the fact that he understands what it takes to work for and under Davis puts him light years ahead of his predecessor, Lane Kiffin.
Kiffin may have a better offensive mind than Cable but he couldn’t grasp the concept of working with Davis and not against him.
It’s a tough job, certainly tougher than 97 percent of the head coaching jobs in all of professional sports, but the parameters of the gig are laid out ahead of time and anyone daring to take it on should know it.
Kiffin didn’t. Cable does. And the peace alone between he and Big Al puts the Raiders in much better position than they were a year ago.
How much does Cable get it? During his press conference, Cable emphatically made the point that the problems that had plagued the franchise in 2008 were long gone.
“The Oakland Raiders are back,” he said, his voice raising. “They’re back. We’re going to win football games and we’re going to be a playoff team. You hear me? I’m not afraid to say that. All that negative aura, it’s done. It’s our time now.” The front office has done a 180 as well.
The Raiders shelled out well over $200 million during free agency in 2008 for a handful of players, several of whom are no longer on the roster. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall, left tackle Kwame Harris and safety Gibril Wilson, three of Oakland’s prized offseason acquisitions, were all let go, acts in themselves that should not be looked at lightly.
Davis, understand, doesn’t like to admit when he’s made a mistake, particularly when it comes to his roster. That’s why guys like Derrick Gibson lasted as long as he did.
For the Raiders to acknowledge their mistakes with Hall and Harris — Wilson’s move was more financially motivated than anything he did on the field — signaled a distinctive shift in philosophy.
Then Davis proved he’s still got the magic, convincing Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and punter Shane Lechler to sign new contracts with the Raiders before either tested the free agency waters.
No two players have meant more to Oakland since 2002 than Asomugha and Lechler, both on the field and off, and even though both talked of potentially playing elsewhere in 2009, in the end they both ended up re-signing with the only NFL team they’ve ever played for.
Huge, simply huge.
None of this matters much right now. There aren’t any wins or losses in the offseason. But compared to last year, when seemingly everything that could go wrong did go wrong on a weekly basis, what’s happened for the Raiders so for this offseason is definitely worth taking note.
Teams often can foretell their future just by what happens in the offseason. When Oakland was winning three straight AFC West titles and playing in two AFC championship games during the early 2000s, the offseasons were marked by hard work and sweat on the field and critical, smart moves made by the front office and a sound job done by the coaching staff.
When they fell apart in 2003, some of the players loafed around in offseason OTAs and minicamps, the front office made some questionable moves and the coaching staff disintegrated from within.
Since then it’s been much of the same.
To continue the good feelings the Raiders have to continue working their way through the free agency waters and find at least one more veteran offensive tackle, a backup center and some help for the defensive line. Then it’s on to the NFL draft.
With the seventh pick Davis won’t get the cream of the crop but he can come darn close. By all accounts, Michael Crabtree from Texas and Jeremy Maclin from Missouri should still be on the board when Oakland goes on the clock. Either one would be a good choice, as would Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji, whose stock continues to soar. It’s quite conceivable, even likely, that Raji will be taken before either Crabtree or Maclin.
On top of all of this is the fact that the Raiders, remember, finished the season with back-to-back wins that were probably the team’s most impressive victories in more than five years. Quarterback JaMarcus Russell played very well down the stretch, doing so, as it turns out, with bone chips floating around in his ankle. Mario Henderson was solid, if not outstanding, as Harris’ replacement at left tackle. The two young wide receivers, Johnnie Lee Higgins and Chaz Schilens, looked as if they could be bigger factors than first thought.
Talking about the draft and being able to do it without worrying about what the owner thinks of the head coach or what the head coach thinks of the owner. Just plain ol’ football chat.
It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?