Burgess is looking for a third straight season of double-digit sacks.
John Pyle/Icon SMI
at Kansas City
at Green Bay
at San Diego
The King 500
292Ronald Curry, Wide receiver
With Randy Moss and Jerry Porter in a funk last year, Curry became the Raiders' most productive wideout, leading Oakland with 62 catches and 727 yards. As a starter he should see his numbers soar. "When I got here we had Tim Brown and Jerry Rice," says the former college QB. "I could watch and learn. When I got my opportunity, I took advantage of it."
Excellence may be out of the question for now, but an infusion of optimism hints at a commitment to competence, at least
After last year's 2-14 debacle, the worst in a recent string of miserable
seasons, owner Al Davis replaced coach Art Shell with USC offensive coordinator
Lane Kiffin, who at 32 is new to the Raiders, new to the NFL and new to head
coaching. Kiffin brought in 15 assistants, including offensive coordinator Greg
Knapp and offensive line coach Tom Cable, both late of Atlanta, to help overhaul
the league's worst offense. Among the new acquisitions are three quarterbacks,
including No. 1 pick JaMarcus Russell. While he and the Raiders worked on a
contract, holdover Andrew Walter and newcomers Josh McCown and Daunte Culpepper
were vying for the opening-day starting job. In his first preseason start
Culpepper looked mobile, efficient and commanding enough to be the man. "I
feel like a starter," he said after the game.
Most crucially, there is teamwide confidence, optimism and unity. Unlike last
year, offensive players say they have a clear idea of what they're supposed to
be doing, and they're enjoying learning their roles. "Last year there was a
really big distance between players and the coaching staff," says running back
LaMont Jordan. "This staff jokes around with us. We're allowed to show our
personality. The message is, 'We have work to do, but we're all going to have
fun while we're doing it.' People don't realize how big that is and how much we
were missing that around here."
WHERE THEY'RE HEADED
Given the new vibe, it's hard to imagine Oakland won't be better than in
2006, when the efforts of one of the league's best defenses were blotted out by
a muddled attack that produced league worsts in points (168), yards (3,939) and
turnovers (43). How much better will depend a lot on the line, which has three
of five starters back from the group that allowed 72 sacks (surprise! -- a league
worst). Cable has moved all the holdovers but center Jake Grove to a new
position and put in a zone-blocking scheme similar to those used by Atlanta and
Denver. So far the O-line has responded well. "We're happy with the changes, and
we love [Cable] because of what he's been able to teach us," says left tackle
(formerly left guard) Barry Sims. "I think we've been doing better than people
expected, but we aren't anywhere close to what we are capable of."
With Randy Moss gone to New England, the offense lacks a big-play star, but
it does have lots of players with big things to prove. Jerry Porter, who spent
the entire year in Shell's doghouse (he had one catch last season, after leading
the team with 76 in 2005), will be sharing pass-catching duties with Ronald
Curry, a situational receiver last year who'll be starting regularly for the
first time in his six-year career. The running game, 29th in the league in '06,
will feature free-agent acquisition Dominic Rhodes -- though the former Colt must
first serve a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse
policy -- and a rejuvenated Jordan, who took a pay cut to keep his job after a
miserable '06 season in which he gained just 434 yards on 114 carries before
missing the last month and a half with a knee injury. "This year I'd like to do
what I was brought in here to do, and that's be a dominant running back," says
Jordan, who came from the Jets as a free agent in 2005. "Coach Kiff is going to
give me that opportunity."
Once again Oakland's strength will be its defense, which was third in the NFL
overall and first against the pass thanks in large part to a trio of standouts.
One is tackle Warren Sapp, the 13th-year vet who earned seven straight Pro Bowl
nods with Tampa Bay between 1997 and 2003. Despite 10 sacks last year he
was snubbed for Hawaii -- and in response dropped 52 pounds (to 282). Rejoining him
on the line is defensive end Derrick Burgess, who did get a Pro Bowl invite, his
second straight. Plagued by injuries in Philly, where he totaled 8 1/2 sacks in
four years, Burgess has flourished since joining Oakland in 2005, notching a
league-high 16 sacks that year and 11 in '06. "It's just being healthy, man,"
says Burgess, explaining his surge. "And it's experience. My focus is a lot
Another player who made a compelling if ultimately unrewarded Pro Bowl case
last year (after receiving a last-minute invite, he couldn't get a flight in
time to make it to Honolulu) was cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, whose eight
interceptions tied for third in the league. "The Pro Bowl would be nice
recognition," he says, "but it isn't as important as winning."
There will be more of that in Oakland this year, though not enough to upset
the AFC West pecking order. "We have a promising look," says Jordan. "Nobody is
giving us a chance, but if our offense performs we'll win a lot of games,
because we have a hell of a defense and a hell of a coaching staff." -- Kelli