Work in Sports
Silver & Black may prove darkhorse of AFC contenders
The Oakland Raiders, who won an OT thriller against rival Kansas City in Week 17 last season to finish 8-8, open training camp at Napa Valley Marriott in Napa, Calif., on July 21. Here are a few questions from Sports Illustrated's Dr. Z, followed by CNNSI.com's perspective on some of the issues facing the Raiders this season. SI's season preview will post Aug. 23.
Dr. Z wants to know:
1.) How can the Raiders look like the greatest team in the NFL one week (45-0 against Tampa Bay in Week 15) and stiffs the next (23-20 loss to San Diego when they were fighting for a playoff spot)?
2.) When your eight losses come by a total of 34 points, isn't drafting the best kicker and punter in college football the most logical thing you can do?
3.) Has there ever been a guy who had Oakland Raider written all over him more than top draft Sebastian Janikowski, the Polish kicker who has already flirted with deportation because of brushes with the law?
4.) Does anyone agree with me that Barry Sims, who moved into the right guard spot late last season, is a budding superstar? (I know, this might not be crucial to the team's success but I just want to get it on record before this sleeper is discovered.)
5.) What are the prospects for the new safety tandem of Anthony Dorsett and Je'Rod Cherry, both of whom are young, energetic and untested?
6.) If Darrell Russell was the best defensive tackle in football, as the Raiders claimed, why did they lift him in the goal-line defense?
The Raiders can make the playoffs if ... Sebastian Janikowski avoids getting deported or getting sent to prison. The kicking game was the Raiders' undoing last season, as Oakland lost four games by a field goal or less. All eight of the Raiders' losses were by a touchdown or less, making acquiring a dependable kicker their highest off-season priority. Janikowski certainly fits that bill, but he has yet to prove that he can stay out of trouble long enough to solidify Oakland's placekicking situation.
Pivotal games: Sept. 10 at Indianapolis; October 8 at San Francisco. The Raiders have a good shot to make a significant move in 2000, as their 8-8 team from last season is matched up against the fourth-easiest schedule this season. The second game of the season at Indianapolis is a stern test that will gauge the Raiders' offseason improvement. A trip across the Bay to face the 49ers in Week 6 kicks off Oakland's toughest stretch of the season, with five of seven on the road between Weeks 6 through 12.
On the hot seat: Speedy wide receiver James Jett caught only two touchdowns in 1999, after grabbing 22 during the previous three years. He caught fewer than 40 passes for the first time since 1995, and his yards-per-catch average dropped to 14.2, a low total for a player with sprinter's speed whose job is to stretch the field. Jett's starting spot may be threatened by athletic rookie Jerry Porter from West Virginia. The Raiders spent their second-round pick on the speedster in the hopes that he would push Jett, and perhaps move into Jett's second receiver role opposite Tim Brown with a good camp.
Up-and-comers: Oakland lost its third-leading tackler in the off-season when veteran Richard Harvey was released for salary-cap purposes. The Raiders' defensive staff made that move knowing that they had two young linebackers ready to fill the void. Sam Sword and Eric Barton combined for 36 tackles and four sacks in their eight combined starts, but both should have much more impressive numbers as likely starters this season. The larger Sword and the speedier Barton provide and excellent complement to rock-solid middle linebacker Greg Biekert, giving the Raiders an excellent trio of every-down linebackers on their baby-faced defense.