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4 Oakland Raiders
Kelli Anderson
September 03, 2007
Excellence may be out of the question for now, but an infusion of optimism hints at a commitment to competence, at least
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September 03, 2007

4 Oakland Raiders

Excellence may be out of the question for now, but an infusion of optimism hints at a commitment to competence, at least

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WHAT'S NEW

> 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 81?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 better."

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."

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP

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