> After lastyear's 2-14 debacle, the worst in a recent string of miserable seasons, ownerAl 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 andoffensive line coach Tom Cable, both late of Atlanta, to help overhaul theleague's worst offense. Among the new acquisitions are three quarterbacks,including No. 1 pick JaMarcus Russell. While he and the Raiders worked on acontract, holdover Andrew Walter and newcomers Josh McCown and Daunte Culpepperwere vying for the opening-day starting job. In his first preseason startCulpepper looked mobile, efficient and commanding enough to be the man. "Ifeel like a starter," he said after the game.
Most crucially,there is teamwide confidence, optimism and unity. Unlike last year, offensiveplayers say they have a clear idea of what they're supposed to be doing, andthey're enjoying learning their roles. "Last year there was a really bigdistance between players and the coaching staff," says running back LaMontJordan. "This staff jokes around with us. We're allowed to show ourpersonality. The message is, 'We have work to do, but we're all going to havefun while we're doing it.' People don't realize how big that is and how much wewere missing that around here."
> Given thenew vibe, it's hard to imagine Oakland won't be better than in 2006, when theefforts of one of the league's best defenses were blotted out by a muddledattack 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 fivestarters 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 andput in a zone-blocking scheme similar to those used by Atlanta and Denver. Sofar the O-line has responded well. "We're happy with the changes, and welove [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 thanpeople expected, but we aren't anywhere close to what we are capableof."
With Randy Mossgone to New England, the offense lacks a big-play star, but it does have lotsof players with big things to prove. Jerry Porter, who spent the entire year inShell's doghouse (he had one catch last season, after leading the team with 76in 2005), will be sharing pass-catching duties with Ronald Curry, a situationalreceiver last year who'll be starting regularly for the first time in hissix-year career. The running game, 29th in the league in '06, will featurefree-agent acquisition Dominic Rhodes--though the former Colt must first servea four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy--and arejuvenated Jordan, who took a pay cut to keep his job after a miserable '06season in which he gained just 434 yards on 114 carries before missing the lastmonth and a half with a knee injury. "This year I'd like to do what I wasbrought 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 togive me that opportunity."
Once againOakland's strength will be its defense, which was third in the NFL overall andfirst against the pass thanks in large part to a trio of standouts. One istackle Warren Sapp, the 13th-year vet who earned seven straight Pro Bowl nodswith Tampa Bay between 1997 and 2003. Despite 10¬†sacks last year he wassnubbed for Hawaii--and in response dropped 52 pounds (to 282). Rejoining himon 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‚ÅÑ2 sacksin four years, Burgess has flourished since joining Oakland in 2005, notching aleague-high 16 sacks that year and 11 in '06. "It's just being healthy,man," says Burgess, explaining his surge. "And it's experience. Myfocus is a lot better."
Another playerwho made a compelling if ultimately unrewarded Pro Bowl case last year (afterreceiving a last-minute invite, he couldn't get a flight in time to make it toHonolulu) was cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, whose eight interceptions tied forthird in the league. "The Pro Bowl would be nice recognition," he says,"but it isn't as important as winning."
There will bemore of that in Oakland this year, though not enough to upset the AFC Westpecking order. "We have a promising look," says Jordan. "Nobody isgiving 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."
COACH LANE KIFFIN(0-0 in NFL), first season with Raiders
DAUNTE CULPEPPER"NEW ACQUISITION"
JUSTIN GRIFFITH"NEW ACQUISITION"
CORNELL GREEN"NEW ACQUISITION"
HT 6' 6"
COOPER CARLISLE"NEW ACQUISITION"
HT 6' 5"
HT 6' 4"
HT 6' 7"
HT 6' 5"
ZACH MILLER (R)"NEW ACQUISITION"
SACKS 3 1‚ÅÑ2
(R) Rookie(college statistics)
> 2006 RECORD2-14 NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 29/31/32 DEFENSE 25/1/3
16 at Denver
30 at Miami
14 at San Diego
21 KANSAS CITY
28 at Tennessee
18 at Minnesota
25 at Kansas City
9 at Green Bay
23 at Jacksonville
30 SAN DIEGO
NFL rank T1
Opponents' 2006 winning percentage .539
Games against playoff teams 6
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THE KING 500
> WIDE RECEIVER
With Randy Moss and Jerry Porter in a funk last year,Curry became the Raiders' most productive wideout, leading Oakland with 62catches and 727 yards. As a starter he should see his numbers soar. "When Igot 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 ofit."
An opposing team‚Äôs scout sizes up the raiders
When will the Raiders learn? They should have had JaMarcus Russell signed ondraft day. By having his holdout last so long, now he won‚Äôt be able to be afactor for them till 2008 at the earliest. Stupid.?.?.?. I blame all the movingaround for Robert Gallery‚Äôs failure to establish himself anywhere on theoffensive line. Once they determined he -wasn‚Äôt mobile enough to be a lefttackle, they should have shifted him to guard immediately and kept him therepermanently.?.?.?. I might be the only one left who thinks LaMont Jordan canstill be a great back. He‚Äôs got the tools to be a versatile, FrankGore‚Äìtype—but he has to stay healthy.?.?.?. Nnamdi Asomugha was astraight-line, stiff corner when he came out of Cal, but now he‚Äôs as complete acorner as anyone in the AFC except Champ Bailey.
Burgess is looking for a third straight season of double-digitsacks.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH