Postcard from camp: Raiders
Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson keeps things lively at Raiders camp
Jason Campbell has upgraded the passing game and is mentoring young WRs
Free agent defensive tackle John Henderson has been a pleasant surprise
SI.com dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Jim Trotter had to say about Raiders camp in Napa, Calif.. For an archive of all camp postcards, click here.
The Raiders spend summer in Napa, Calif., on fields just behind the Marriott hotel. Normally the climate is relatively mild -- mid-70s or so -- but on Tuesday the temperature climbed to 103. Quarterback Jason Campbell, who spent the previous four seasons with Washington, joked that complaining teammates were spoiled. The good news for the players was that they practiced in shells (helmets, shoulder pads and shorts) instead of full gear. The bad news: The heat was expected to return Wednesday. In fact, a heat warning was issued through Wednesday night. Some players took the long view and said the weather was a blessing, because Oakland opens the season in Nashville, Tenn., where the average temperature is 83 in September. "We're going to need to be in this kind of environment a little bit," says coach Tom Cable. "This was good for it. I really am excited how we handled it today as a football team."
1. It would be an overstatement to say there's a swagger about the Raiders, but there is an air of quiet confidence that should not be confused with the false bravado of recent years, when the players seemed to talk the talk in hopes that they might eventually believe it. This year, the Raiders believe they're going to be good, that their streak of seven straight years with 11 or more losses will finally end.
New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, in particular, keeps the energy level high with his constant barking. Despite the heat Tuesday, he kept reminding players to jog to where they wanted to go. Walking was not an option. His ability to keep his foot on the backside of players is making them accountable, even defenders whom he'll call out when they fail to compete at the level they should. He's not above talking trash to them, letting them know that one of his players got the better of a showdown. It's entertaining stuff not only for onlookers, but also the players themselves.
2. QB Jason Campbell, acquired in an April trade from Washington, has upgraded the passing game. But the Raiders still are lagging in that area because they haven't been able to consistently get everyone on the field at the same time. Chaz Schilens, the projected No. 1, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery this week and is out indefinitely. Previously, he was limited in camp after missing eight games last season because of a broken bone in his foot.
Darrius Heyward-Bey, the seventh pick of the 2009 draft, missed four practices last week because of "fatigue." Coincidentally, the layoff came after a noticeable dropoff in performance. DHB had only nine catches in 11 starts last season, but showed improvement early in camp. Then he hit a wall. On Tuesday, after sitting out the practices, he looked fresh and made a couple of nice catches in his first day back.
Meantime, Campbell says it hurts not having all of his receivers healthy. "We have an opportunity to be a real special unit together, but with one guy here and a couple of guys out and a couple of others coming back, sometimes it gets tough to get a comfort level," he says. "You've got to be in practice to build that comfort level. Sometimes they're not there for various reasons, like injuries. It's more important to get healthy."
3. Speaking of injuries: Running back Darren McFadden returned to practice Tuesday after missing two weeks with a hamstring injury. He looked like someone well-rested, showing a burst that had teammates ooohing and ahhhing during one team drill.
This is a key year for McFadden, the fourth pick of the 2008 draft. He was slowed by injuries in each of his first seasons, missing seven games and being limited in nearly a dozen others. He spent the summer training at the Michael Johnson Performance center in Texas and looks physically bigger in his upper body. To date, however, his injuries have been lower body (toe, knee and hamstring).
The Raiders released running back Justin Fargas in hopes of creating more opportunities for McFadden and Michael Bush, who is considered stronger between the tackles and better-built to be an every-down back. McFadden has surpassed 14 carries just twice in 25 career games, in part because of health issues.
The team's top two picks, middle linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive end Lamarr Houston, have definitely caught the eye of the team's top defender: cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
"He's a rookie so he's not perfect," Asomugha says of McClain, "but to me he looks really good. He's a smart linebacker, physical guy. You can tell that he has been taught well. There are those guys that you see and they have that innate, football IQ. You can tell he comes from good teaching. He does some things every now and then that a fifth-year player doesn't even read or doesn't know. He's good in coverage, too. And Lamarr Houston is a quick guy. Oh, my goodness. [He's been] very impressive."
Both are running with the starting defense.
The Raiders have had a busy offseason. The comings include new starters at QB (Jason Campbell, acquired in a trade with Washington), middle linebacker (Rolando McClain, the 8th pick of the draft), outside linebacker (Kamerion Wimbley; trade, Cleveland), defensive end (Lamarr Houston, second-round pick) and a potential run-stuffing defensive tackle (John Henderson, free agent). Not to be overlooked is the hiring of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.
The goings include their 2009 opening-day starting QB (JaMarcus Russell), primary running back (Justin Fargas), most experienced wide receiver (Javon Walker) and leading tackler (Kirk Morrison).
Campbell working after practice with second-year wideout Louis Murphy -- not just working, but demanding that certain routes be run certain ways, then explaining why. Teammates say that Campbell stays behind every day to work on his game.
"It's important to him to be good," says coach Tom Cable. "I think he came here thirsting for a fresh start, a chance to start over and make a new name for himself, if you will. I love the fact that he comes out every day and wants to be good and tries to do exactly what he's coached to do and tries to push the envelope to be what you want him to be."
You could count on one hand (no hands?) the number of times that Russell stayed behind to work with receivers. Thus far Campbell, who is the son of a coach, has been everything that Russell was not. Which is exactly what the coaches and players wanted.
1. Oakland tied for last in the league with 17 offensive touchdowns and scored just 197 points overall, tying for second-fewest in the league. But Cable says he believes those struggles will vanish this year.
"Offensively, I think we're finding an identity that we can score points and we can attack you,, that we have some toughness about us," he says.
Oakland has scored 49 points in exhibition wins at Dallas and Chicago. That they did it with playmakers such as McFadden and Schilens on the sideline is even more reason for optimism.
2. Tackle John Henderson was signed to help shore up a run defense that has not ranked higher than 22nd the past seven seasons. But Cable says Henderson's veteran leadership has been an unexpected boon. Henderson currently is running with the second team, but the club has packages to take advantage of his specific abilities.
3. Another smart offseason move was the hiring of Greg Biekert as an assistant linebackers coach. Biekert was a tough, heady linebacker with the Raiders from 1993 to 2001, and his presence should help with the development of McClain.
4. The Raiders are one of the last teams to break camp, which is a concern to Asomugha.
"We've been in camp for a while, and I just don't want us to get fatigued by that," he says. "I also don't want us to get off track. We've won our first two preseason games, but in 2006 I was on a team that went 4-1 in the preseason and we won two games in the regular season. We just have to stay the course, and I believe with the types of guys that we have that we will do that."
5. The Raiders didn't make changes on their offensive line because, according to Cable, he knows the players' strengths and weaknesses and believes they will be put in positions to succeed this year. The line took a lot of heat last season, but some of that was due to Russell, the former No. 1 pick who blew protection calls and sometimes held the ball to the surprise of the line when he was supposed to release it on a three-step drop. Campbell doesn't figure to make those same mistakes. He knows that trust is an important factor to an offense's success, and that when he tells the line the ball will be out in three steps, it will. The Raiders also believe that Campbell's ability to complete passes that Russell did not will create running lanes and keep defenses off-balance.