Commentary

Will Jason Campbell lead Raiders back?

Updated: September 8, 2010, 2:48 PM ET
By Roy S. Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Darrelle Revis.
Signed. Sealed. Delivered.

Ben Roethlisberger.
Humbled.

Matt Leinart.
Good luck with that, Texans.

Brett Favre.
Zzzzzz.

You're excused for believing those were the most compelling stories of the NFL's most colorful offseason. Even toss in T.O.'s fretting, Albert Haynesworth's tests (and possible starring role in Return to the Titans) and Ochocinco's tweeting and you're still off base.

[+] EnlargeJason Campbell
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesWill Jason Campbell improve for a fifth consecutive season?

Those may have been the loudest headlines, the moves that kept local sports talk shows buzzing and the names that led "SportsCenter" most nights. But the most intriguing -- and potentially the most impactful -- storyline is still unfolding in Oakland.

Yes, Oakland, capital of Raider Nation.

For years the place hasn't produced compelling football, though the Raiders have been the source of enough horror tales to terrorize Harry Potter until he qualifies for Social Security. So it's easy to overlook this one. But as the 2010 NFL season begins few sagas will be worth following more than the fate of Jason Campbell, the Raiders' new QB.

Oakland isn't the only team with a new man behind center, but no team's need for leadership (and just plain old competence) is as dire. Campell, who was obtained in a trade with Washington in April for a fourth-round pick, may be the team's best QB since, oh, Rich Gannon, who's the last Raiders QB to lead the team to a winning record (11-5 in the 2002 regular season).

Campbell won't make anyone forget Kenny Stabler or Jim Plunkett, but he just might help Raider faithful forget about (or at least heal from) JaMarcus Russell.

Like Gannon, Campbell isn't flashy, just solid. He has 55 touchdown passes with just 38 interceptions since being drafted in the first round in 2005. (His ratio is akin to Gannons' 180 TDs and 104 INTs.)

He's started 52 games and has a career passing rating of 82.3. (Gannon's career rating was 84.7. Russell's, in three abysmal seasons, was 65.2, and the 50.0 he recorded last season was the lowest in 11 NFL seasons.)

Most important to Raiders fans, Campbell is only 28 and on the upswing. He's improved in completion percentage, touchdowns and QB rating in each of his four pro seasons while playing under four different offensive coordinators. "I feel I can be a pretty good quarterback in this league. It's a new beginning," he told the San Jose Mercury News this week. "It would mean the world to me if I could help turn around the Raiders."

Reality check: Campbell's record as a starter is a loathsome 20-32, not exactly Gannonesque (45-29 in six seasons as a Raider). And he's been sacked more times (102) than Samantha Jones (yes, gratuitous "Sex and the City" reference!).

[+] EnlargeJaMarcus Russell
Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesThe play of top pick JaMarcus Russell was a low point for Oakland.

Moreover he was not without his critics in Washington, where he never seemed to be as good as fill-in-the-blank desired quarterback. If there was a quarterback Washington didn't try to obtain while Campbell was there, please raise your hand ... thought so.

Still, Campbell's better than any of Oakland's alternatives. His success is vital for the franchise, which has had only three winning seasons in its last 15. The Raiders' 3-1 preseason record, which included a win over Dallas, has fans practically hyperventilating.

Oakland has been the NFL's laughing stock, the league's version of the Clippers. And that's a shame for a team with such a storied pro football history, one that piqued sports fans across the nation at a time when the league was growing into a true national sport.

Love 'em or not, the Raiders were vital to that growth and are one of the game's defining franchises.
• Iconoclastic owner, Al Davis.
• Legends such as Stabler, Plunkett, Howie Long, Art Shell, Fred Biletnikoff and the late Gene Upshaw. (The busts of 13 Raiders players or coaches sit in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.)
• Frenzied fans who transform every fall Sunday into Halloween in the East Bay.

And the NFL needs them. It needs the Raiders to be good.

Why?

Believe it or not, these are fragile times for the most formidable juggernaut in sports. The recession and its uncertain aftermath have sacked values throughout the league. Last month, Forbes reported that 21 of 32 teams saw their overall value drop in the last year and that the average value of NFL teams declined 2 percent, the first slide since the magazine began tracking franchise values 12 years ago.

(Not surprisingly, the Raiders, valued at just $758 million, were valued higher than only one team, Jacksonville.)

Non-broadcast revenue also declined because of diminishing corporate sponsorships and ticket prices blindsided by market forces.

[+] EnlargeRaiders Fan
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesThis guy could use some friends. Maybe Jason Campbell will help the Raiders win and recapture the attention of fans who have lost interest.

It all means that now, for the first time in a long time, the NFL must be certain is does not lose the typical fan who can't afford a ticket, or maybe even one of the fancy television packages.

And to retain that guy, teams like the Raiders need to be solid not silly. "To attract the casual fan, it helps to have the brand teams do well," says Kevin Sullivan, a Dallas-based strategic communications consultant. "Dynasties, as much as we love to hate them, are good for business."

And not just at the turnstiles. This summer the Licensing Letter, which tracks the industry, predicted that major league baseball will sell slightly more licensed merchandise ($2.75 billion) that the NFL ($2.7 billion).

The Raiders are the original bad boys in black and one of the league's premier "national" teams, along with Dallas, Green Bay and now the New Orleans Saints. Their merchandise was once the top-selling NFL brand. No longer. The most recent Turnkey Team Brand Index ranked the Raiders 90th among 120 North American pro sports franchises.

For that to change, the Raiders need to just win, baby. "[They're] still a national brand," says Sullivan. "But to sell merchandise you have to win. When they win again, you'll start seeing more Raiders gear."

With Campbell, the Raiders finally have a chance to regain at least a portion of their past glory.

And if they do, it'll be one heck of a story.

Roy S. Johnson, a veteran sports journalist and media consultant, is the editor-in-chief of Men's Fitness. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

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Roy S. Johnson

Contributing writer, ESPN.com