Raiders look to reverse 2003 slide
The Raiders are hoping to reverse their first to worst slide from last season.
Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.
The Raiders suffered an epic fall from grace in 2003, one that saw Oakland go from defending AFC champion to tied with the Chargers, Cardinals and Giants for the worst record in the NFL.
A lot of the chaos and confusion centered around former head coach Bill Callahan, who feuded with players while consistently making changes to an offense that had led the entire league in scoring in '02. Callahan, not surprisingly, was let go in the offseason and replaced by Norv Turner, whose only other head-coaching experience came during a seven-year stint with the Washington Redskins. Callahan wasn't the only person to part ways with the Raiders. Longtime senior assistant Bruce Allen left to join Tampa Bay, as did RB Charlie Garner and WR Tim Brown, who was released early in training camp when it became clear he was no longer in Oakland's offensive plans.
Veterans Rod Woodson, Bill Romanowski and Barret Robbins were all released; Trace Armstrong and Lincoln Kennedy retired. Meanwhile, Oakland signed free agents Ted Washington, Warren Sapp and Ray Buchanan, who were all brought aboard to help first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan implement his 3-4 defense.
Quarterbacks: Rich Gannon dropped from league MVP to mere mortal status last season, when he threw six TD passes and four interceptions before sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury that forced him to the sideline for the final nine games. Though Gannon looks fully healed from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, the Raiders weren't about to take any chances and signed free agent Kerry Collins to a three-year contract in the offseason. Since then, Oakland has had a mini-QB controversy brewing, though Turner and Collins both have repeatedly said the starting job is Gannon's. Third-stringer Marques Tuiasosopo, who also suffered a season-ending injury last year, will be the No. 3. Grade: B-plus.
Running backs: Tyrone Wheatley nearly disappeared from the radar the last three seasons but has emerged as Oakland's go-to back under Turner. Wheatley, who had his only 1,000-yard season in the NFL in 2000, gives Turner the power back he wants. Though he won't win many sprints, Wheatley is ideal for what the Raiders are trying to do and will give Oakland a physical presence in the backfield that was missing when Garner was the lead back. With Garner in Tampa Bay, second-year player Justin Fargas becomes the quickest runner in the Raiders' backfield and will offer a nice complement to Wheatley's power running. Amos Zereoue was signed in the offseason to add depth. Short-yardage specialist Zack Crockett, who has 15 rushing touchdowns in the last two seasons, will start at fullback, while Chris Hetherington and converted RB J.R. Redmond will back him up. Grade: B.
Receivers: The somewhat surprising decision to release Brown shocked some veteran observers but not those close to the Raiders. Brown's production had fallen off dramatically in recent years, and Oakland has stocked its shelves with young, speedy replacements. Injury-prone Jerry Porter heads the list and has Pro Bowl potential, though he has yet to prove he can be a consistent, every-down threat. Jerry Rice turns 42 in October but is still productive and should benefit from the added influx of youth around him. Ronald Curry and Doug Gabriel progressed well enough during the Raiders' offseason workouts and the start of training camp that the team saw fit to cut ties with Brown after a 16-year relationship. Oakland also added rookies Carlos Francis and Johnnie Morant in the draft, but none of the receivers outside of Porter and Rice has much experience. The Raiders also have a logjam at tight end with veteran Roland Williams, youngsters Teyo Johnson and Doug Jolley and rookie Courtney Anderson. Because Turner favors the run, Williams becomes an immediate starter because he is the only legitimate blocker of the bunch. Grade: B-minus.
Offensive linemen: In '03, the Raiders went through offensive linemen like a flu clinic goes through tissues. Only one starter (OLT Barry Sims) played in all 16 games, and the team had three different starting centers. Injuries ravaged Oakland's front five and also exposed the team's serious lack of depth on the line. Sims and OLG Frank Middleton are the lone remaining mainstays from last year, though Sims is eventually expected to lose his starting job to first-round draft pick Robert Gallery. At presstime, Sims continued to hold on to the starting OLT spot, with Gallery possibly being considered for one of the starting OG jobs. Another rookie, C Jake Grove, is also pushing for a starting job now that Robbins is no longer part of the picture. Newly acquired ORG Ron Stone missed more than two weeks of training camp with a hamstring injury but is expected to be in the starting lineup on opening day. ORT Langston Walker has the biggest shoes to fill as the replacement for Kennedy, a three-time Pro Bowler and respected leader. Brad Badger, Mo Collins and Adam Treu will provide the team with depth up front. Grade: C-plus.
Defensive linemen: The additions of Washington and Sapp should significantly improve Oakland's run defense, which ranked a league-worst 32nd overall last season. The duo will also make it easier for Ryan to implement his 3-4 defense and will lend immediate credibility and leadership to a defense that was lacking in both. DE Tyler Brayton should benefit from the added beef in the middle, though he is still a work in progress, while John Parrella and Bobby Hamilton will help a pass rush that was virtually non-existent in '03. Grade: B-plus.
Linebackers: The Raiders essentially cleaned house with their linebackers, saving only two players -- Napoleon Harris and Travian Smith -- who had any extensive playing time. Harris injured his knee early in training camp but is expected to be back in time for the opener. He'll team with veteran Danny Clark to form the inside tandem while Smith, who ended '03 on injured reserve, and DeLawrence Grant, who also injured his knee in camp, will help the pass rush from the outside. Both Smith and Grant can also shift down and play end in the 4-3, which is what the Raiders will do from time to time. Grade: C.
Defensive backs: This could be a pretty decent unit, which would be a big step up from the squad that took the field a year ago. Unhappy over being slapped with the franchise-player label, Charles Woodson skipped all of the team's offseason workouts and minicamps in his effort to become the highest-paid corner in the league. Rod Woodson's release left a void at safety, but the team signed the former Falcon Buchanan to help ease the pain. Buchanan has already made a strong impact on CB Phillip Buchanon, everyone's favorite whipping boy last year. Buchanon has been Oakland's most consistent defender in training camp and appears more disciplined in coverage than he was the last two years. Derrick Gibson is still a question mark at strong safety, though the Raiders might be tempted to move rookie Stuart Schweigert down in the box if Gibson continues to struggle. Grade: C-plus.
Special teams: Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler are two of the best kickers in the league and will give new special-teams coach Joe Avezzano a leg up on the competition. Janikowski has great leg strength and is coming off his best season as a pro. Lechler currently holds the NFL record for career punting average, and how he got left off the Pro Bowl roster last year is anybody's guess. With Buchanon returning punts to go with WRs Gabriel and Francis returning kickoffs, the Raiders are stacked. Oakland's coverage teams were a problem last year, an issue that needs to be corrected. Grade: A-minus.
Material from Pro Football Weekly.
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