For a number of years now, poor draft choices, ridiculous free agent signings, and completely inept play have made the Oakland Raiders the laughingstock of the league. Since their Super Bowl appearance following the 2002 season, they've gone through seven different head coaches, and more starting quarterbacks than can be counted. Suffice it to say, the state of football in Oakland has been utterly abysmal for quite a while.
As Al Davis desperately chased one more ring before his death in 2011, he drove the franchise into the ground. He drafted flops like Tyler Brayton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Rolando McClain, Fabian Washington, arguably Darren McFadden, and notoriously JaMarcus Russell. Davis also handed out mind-boggling money to vastly overvalued free agents like Richard Seymour, Larry Brown, Desmond Howard, Tommy Kelly – players who were decent enough, and had their moments, but whose contracts that financially hamstrung the club and prevented them from acquiring more talent to surround them with.
When he died, Al Davis had left a once proud franchise in ruins, and without the ability to go about rebuilding immediately. The legacy Davis left behind will forever be tarnished – if only a bit – by the ruinous state of his organization.
But now, three years after his death, GM Reggie McKenzie finally has the freedom and ability to begin putting all of the pieces in Oakland back together. Though the offseason got off to a bit of a bumpy start, McKenzie has stayed the course, and has put together one of the best free agent classes in football. Bringing in veteran talent and leadership, McKenzie is borrowing from the storied past of the Raiders by taking in the league's castoffs and blending them with young playmakers to form one cohesive and explosive unit.
For the first time in a long time, there is reason for hope and optimism in Oakland. There is reason to believe that Oakland's devoted yet long suffering fan base will have something to cheer about by season's end. There is no question that the 2014 Raiders are vastly improved over the 2013 version – and that improvement will undoubtedly lead to more wins. New acquisition, DE Lamarr Woodley believes that the Raiders are a playoff team this season. And if the team can play to its potential, he may very well be right.
Let's look at 5 reasons the Oakland Raiders will make the playoffs in 2014...
5 A Vastly Improved Offensive Line
Losing OT Jared Veldheer was a blow to the squad's offensive line. But truth be told, there were more problems than one player – even one of Veldheer's caliber – could fix. Being a free agent, and a highly valued commodity on the market, Veldheer was set for a substantial payday – but contract negotiations never really got off the ground. Perhaps it was the injury that cost Veldheer most of the 2013 season that made McKenzie try to lowball his offer. Perhaps it was a case of Veldheer truly not wanting to play in Oakland any longer. The truth is, we'll never know why McKenzie and Veldheer were never able to agree on a contract that would have kept the dominant tackle in Oakland. All we know is that Veldheer is a Cardinal now and the Raiders are moving forward without him.
To that end, McKenzie botched his first attempt to replace Veldheer by signing Rodger Saffold. But Saffold very quickly failed his physical, had his contract with the Raiders terminated and subsequently re-signed with the St. Louis Rams. And McKenzie was left with nothing but egg on his face.
However, since that false start, McKenzie has rebounded nicely. He's added a group of versatile offensive linemen like Kevin Boothe, Austin Howard, and Donald Penn to a roster that already includes Stefan Wisniewski, Menelik Watson, and Khalif Barnes. Though a rash of injuries played a major part in it all, the offensive line was an absolute liability for the Raiders last season. They couldn't keep their quarterbacks upright and didn't fare much better in terms of run blocking.
Given the new acquisitions and existing linemen, look for the line to be an asset in 2014, which will improve the offense as a whole.
4 An Upgraded and Improved Receiving Corps
The Raiders have one of the younger receiving corps in the NFL. Denarius Moore was the “elder statesman,” of the group and 2013 was just his third season in the league. Andre Holmes and Rod Streater had just two years of service. Though young, it wasn't difficult to see the explosive potential in the group of wideouts. Their problem though, was their maddening inconsistency.
The signing of James Jones, a veteran with loads of experience and savvy, was a very solid addition. James will not only bring a veteran presence to a group of receivers that desperately needs it, he will also bring a steady, reliable target for new QB Matt Schaub – especially down in the red zone where the Raiders have struggled mightily over the last few seasons. With Rod Streater and Andre Holmes emerging toward the last half of 2013 as receivers who can stretch the field, Denarius Moore always being a deep threat who can get behind a defense, and now Jones as a proven, possession target who can move the chains, the Raiders receiving unit looks to be in good shape in 2014. And given the fact that this season's draft is one of the richest and deepest at the wide receiver position in quite some time, look for them to add another playmaker and weapon for Schaub to utilize.
3 Finally Nabbing That “Franchise” Quarterback
One of the biggest problems the Raiders had last season was the sometimes dreadful play of their quarterbacks. Whether Terrelle Pryor or Matt McGloin, Oakland's signal callers made plenty of mistakes over the course of the season. Both have very different skill sets, and both showed flashes of greatness. But those flashes weren't enough to generate many wins – which led McKenzie to the belief that the quarterback situation was one that needed to be addressed this offseason.
Believing that McGloin has more upside, McKenzie traded Terrelle Pryor to the Seattle Seahawks after acquiring veteran passer Matt Schaub. While it's true that Schaub had a horrific 2013 – it takes a special kind of horrible to throw a pick-six in four straight games – there is plenty of reason to believe that he will rebound in 2014. Schaub is a tremendous quarterback who has thrown for more than 4,000 yards in a season multiple times – most recently, in 2012. He's a veteran QB who has had some success in the league, and very likely still has a few good seasons left in him. McKenzie is banking on the idea that Schaub will lead a revival of the Raiders offense.
2 A Defense That Will Be Ferocious
Defense was one of the biggest liabilities for Oakland last season. Had it not been as terrible as it was, the Raiders may well have come away with a few more wins in 2013. The inability to close out games, and not give up big plays, cost Oakland a few games last season as they were constantly gashed for big plays both on the ground and through the air.
McKenzie needed to completely overhaul the defense and he's done just that. Gone are the likes of Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins – cornerbacks who were burned more often than California during wildfire season-- which is addition by subtraction. In their place are veteran corners Carlos Rogers and Tarrell Brown. While it's true that neither are a shutdown corner the caliber of say, Darrelle Revis, both have plenty of experience, and both are more than capable of defending the pass. Plus, with DJ Hayden, Charles Woodson, Usama Young, and Tyvon Branch still on the roster, Oakland's secondary is far more formidable than it was last season.
McKenzie has been roundly criticized for losing DE Lamarr Houston. But using the franchise or transitional tag on Houston would have cost the team more than $10 million dollars-- which would then be the starting point for any sort of contract extension negotiations. McKenzie has been able to deftly maneuver around investing huge sums of cash in just one player by signing several veterans to team-friendly, performance based contracts. He's retooled the entire defensive front by bringing in Justin Tuck, Lamarr Woodley, CJ Wilson, and Antonio Smith – all players with chips on their shoulders and something to prove.
Adding motivated veterans leaders all over a revamped unit has finally put some teeth into this Oakland defense. This will be a defense that knows how to close out games, knows how to win, and knows how to blow people up. This defense isn't going to cost Oakland any games next season, and in fact, might just steal some.
1 A Deft Mix of Veteran Leadership and Youth
Just like in the days of old, Reggie McKenzie has brought in veteran leaders with a blue collar work ethic, a chip on their shoulder, and a nasty streak – to blend with the younger players on the roster. It's a formula that Al Davis rode to a lot of wins and a couple of Super Bowl titles. Those rosters filled with the likes of Jim Plunkett, Lyle Alzado, John Matuszak, Marcus Allen, Howie Long, and Lester Hayes built that Raiders aura and swagger – two things that have been missing for a long time now. Using those veteran castoffs and the youthful energy of high impact rookies, the Raiders became one of the most intimidating and dominant teams in the NFL.
With a blend of veterans and youth, with a renewed sense of purpose, a change of culture – from one of constant losing to one of knowing how to win again – and with an attitude and a nasty streak, trademarks of the old, great Raider teams, Oakland is going to start winning some games. That Raider aura and swagger is coming back to Oakland and those who are taking them lightly might do well to re-think that position.