Postcard from camp: Raiders
This is a critical year for quarterback and former No. 1 pick JaMarcus Russell
The Raiders believe improved defensive coaching will help against the run
Tom Cable is talking playoffs, but this Raiders team will be lucky to win eight
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Jim Trotter had to say about the Raiders' camp in Napa Valley.
Setting the scene
This could be the league's quietest camp opening. Instead of the normal thud that comes from large men running violently into each other after nearly five months of "non-contact" work, the Raiders have kicked off things at Redwood Middle School in Napa with four consecutive days of ... walkthroughs?
Coach Tom Cable, who saw the interim label removed from his job title in January, believes teams play faster and crisper when everyone knows what they're doing. So he's using the first eight practices (two per day) as "learning intensive" review sessions.
The Raiders won't go full speed or don full pads until Monday, when the Napa Valley will finally come alive with the sounds of contact.
"It's going to be crazy," said middle linebacker Kirk Morrison. "Guys are going to be chomping at the bit to hit something."
1. This is a critical year for quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Russell, whose work ethic and leadership skills were challenged by Cable in the offseason, is entering his third season and needs to prove he can be the player management envisioned when it drafted him No. 1 overall in 2007.
Russell struggled much of his first one-and-a-half seasons but flashed glimpses of promise last December when he threw two touchdown passes in each of his final three games after tossing only five in his previous 11 combined. He also completed more than 50 percent of his passes in each of those games after finishing beneath that mark in six of his previous 11 outings.
Since then, the team has brought in Paul Hackett as quarterbacks coach and hired Ted Tollner as passing game coordinator. Both are respected coaches, but their teachings won't mean anything if Russell isn't willing to put in the time to master their lessons.
If Russell falters early, there will be pressure to turn to veteran Jeff Garcia. Garcia has been with the team only a handful of months but he already has earned the respect of teammates because of his work ethic and professionalism. He's a first-to-arrive, last-to-leave guy.
Cable has made it clear Russell is the starter, but there's no denying Garcia's shadow threatens to engulf the massive Russell. The question is: What will Russell do about it?
2. If the Raiders are going to end six consecutive seasons of 11 losses or more, they're going to have to stop the run. The defense has ranked no higher than 22nd in that area since 2002 and finished 31st out of 32 teams the past two seasons after allowing an average of 159.7 yards a game in 2008 and 145.9 a game in 2007. Despite that, the Raiders failed to bring in significant reinforcements in the offseason.
Cable says the struggles were more about coaching than personnel, and he's counting on new coordinator John Marshall to do what predecessor Rob Ryan did not. The players contend the biggest difference between the two is Marshall demands more focus when it comes to gap responsibility and making sure players are in the right places at all times.
It'll be interesting to see if Marshall, who was the Seahawks' coordinator the past three seasons, has more autonomy than Ryan, whose game plans and play calls were said to be heavily influenced by owner Al Davis. The Raiders are sticking with their base 4-3 scheme and, again, will rely on the bump-and-run pass coverage that Davis prefers.
3. Defensive end Derrick Burgess is holding out for more money. He's due to make $2 million this season in the final year of the five-year deal he signed in 2005, but is making a tremendous gamble -- Oakland's ownership is not known for caving to players' demands. Arguably no owner holds grudges better than Davis (ask Jerry Porter and Marcus Allen). This doesn't figure to end well for Burgess, who can be fined daily.
Interestingly, there's no panic among players because they're accustomed to not having him around after he skipped the offseason workouts and held himself out of a mandatory minicamp because of a hamstring injury (wink, wink). Burgess had 27 sacks combined in 2005 and '06, but managed just eight and three-and-a-half the past two seasons. The good news: The signing of former Dallas end Greg Ellis, who has had eight or more sacks in five of the last six seasons, softens Burgess' possible absence.
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