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The Raiders have always viewed the world through contrarian-tinted glasses, so it should come as no surprise that they believe they'll be better this year despite losing an All-Pro cornerback, a Pro Bowl tight end, their most consistent offensive lineman and a coach who guided them to their first nonlosing season in eight years. Their response to the free-agent departures of cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (Eagles), tight end Zach Miller (Seahawks) and guard Robert Gallery (Seahawks), and the firing of Tom Cable? A shrug of the shoulders.
"The NFL is a business and there's always turnover with different guys in and out, so teams have to build a new identity every year," says defensive tackle Richard Seymour. "We have a new coaching staff and everyone is getting acclimated to one another, but I feel like we have some really good pieces. We're trying to build this thing the right way."
Seymour is referring to a philosophy built around running the football, stopping the run and getting to the passer. The Raiders excelled in those areas last year within their division, where they won all six of their games to get to an 8--8 finish. It was their first nonlosing mark since 2002 and easily surpassed their previous high for wins in a season during that stretch; they finished 5--11 on three occasions.
They will employ the same blueprint under Hue Jackson, who becomes the team's sixth head coach in the last nine seasons. Jackson, the team's offensive coordinator last year—a position he also held in Washington and Atlanta—was elevated, in part, because owner Al Davis felt the team underachieved. How could a team go undefeated in the division, the owner wondered, yet win only two games outside it? And how could the Raiders limit divisional foes to an average of 85.3 yards and half a touchdown per game on the ground but be gouged for an average of 162.6 yards and a little more than a touchdown a game against the rest of the league? Playing from behind so often against nondivisional foes accounts for some of that discrepancy, but not all of it. Far from it.
"First of all," Seymour says, "we don't like anybody in our division, so I think we need to take that approach with everybody else. It is a weird stat. It's ridiculous, really. It's like we smashed up and beat up everybody in the division, but outside of it we didn't approach it with the same mind-set. Now we're trying to take that next step as a team, because we know the pitfalls and what could happen if we don't."
Oakland claims not to be losing sleep over the aforementioned departures, but its protests aside, it is a steep drop from Asomugha to his replacements, Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson. And while the Raiders survived the loss of Gallery (hamstring) for four games last year, his replacement's pedigree aside (uncle Steve was an eight-time Pro Bowler with the franchise and is now the offensive line coach), Stefen Wisniewski is still a rookie. Former Giant Kevin Boss, an adequate blocker and sure-handed receiver (110 catches over the last three seasons), should ably step in for Miller.
The rest of the roster remains largely intact. "The core group of guys has been here for more than a year now, and that gives us an opportunity to have a better season and an opportunity to make the playoffs," says quarterback Jason Campbell. "Even with a coaching change, we're not learning new terminology. All we're doing is trying to continue to learn the things from last season and keep adding things to the pie."
The biggest piece of that pie is the running game, led by Darren McFadden, who had a breakout season in his third year with 1,157 yards and seven touchdowns. In his first two seasons, he had 856 yards and five scores rushing combined. McFadden's continued development will be a boon for Campbell, who begins his first full season as the Raiders' starter. Campbell has been reunited with new coordinator Al Saunders, under whom he broke into the league in 2006, with Washington.
"I expect a splurge," Campbell says of his production. "I've been knocking at that door of getting to the next level but haven't been able to get there. Hopefully this is that year. I've got an opportunity to be with an offensive coordinator that I've been with before, and I'm in my second year of running coach Jackson's system—not only me, but the other guys as well. There's stability."
Lose four key guys and gain stability. Only in Oakland.