Friday, August 31, 2007

Sign Now—or Sayonara

JaMarcus Russell, it’s time to report to duty. The jig is up. Your bluff has been called. Sign now—or sayonara. My patience is exhausted.

I’ve heard all of the arguments from both sides. I’ve sifted through the wild rumors and speculation. I don’t claim to know every detail about the negotiations, but at least I don’t cloak my ignorance by consulting “unnamed (ie: uninformed) sources” and fabricating news, as we’ve seen in more than a few media outlets.

The most sensible report I’ve read lately comes from the Los Angeles Times:

“The negotiations between the Raiders and No. 1 pick JaMarcus Russell have been sporadic, with the sticking point being how much unrecoverable bonus money the Raiders are willing to commit to the former Louisiana State star. The team has offered a deal that includes $31 million in bonuses—almost $5 million more than last year's No. 1 pick Mario Williams received. The haggling is over the so-called skill-and-injury clause that protects guaranteed money under any scenario that leads to a player's release, such as injury, death, or simply poor performance. If the Raiders and Russell were unable to come to terms, he could ultimately sit out the season and re-enter the 2008 draft to be selected by another team. That's an unlikely scenario but not impossible.”

I’ve been surprised at how relatively docile the Raider Nation has been regarding this situation, myself included. Only now am I starting to foam at the mouth. It must have something to do with the calming effect of Daunte Culpepper’s arrival last month. Otherwise, I’d probably be needing a rabies shot right about now.

I’m serious about this: Sign now or good riddance.

Some will point out that I was a pre-draft agitator promoting our selection of Russell. Some will point out that I’ve been bleating for years now about our need to groom a franchise quarterback.

Fair enough. But I stand by those takes. I still think we need to groom a franchise quarterback, and I still think Russell is—or was—the right man for the job, if not for him staging such a prolonged holdout, which none of us could have foreseen.

I’m disgusted that it’s come to this. How is it that the Chargers and Broncos have managed to groom their young franchise quarterbacks while fielding playoff-caliber teams? Meanwhile, we were riding Aaron Brooks to our fourth-straight losing season and mistaking Andrew Walter for Matt Leinart.

We are very lucky that the football gods took pity on us and dispatched Daunte Culpepper to Napa Valley. I believe that Josh McCown is a solid addition, too, but he alone could not compensate for the absence of Russell. Culpepper, however, just might, at least for a year or three.

On that note, if Russell doesn’t sign between now and the start of the season, I think the Raiders should shut down the negotiations, save a ton of money, and redistribute the savings to solid free agents, future draft picks and gameday treats for fans.

Playing for the Oakland Raiders, in front of the Raider Nation, is an honor, one that will make JaMarcus Russell a very wealthy young man (and the highest-paid pick ever) if he takes our deal.

If that’s not enough for him, that’s enough for me to say stay out of our house. I’ve got a team to root for, and you’re not on it.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Hi, My Name Is Daunte...

“Hi, my name is Daunte Culpepper, and I’m looking for work.”

Funny how fate works, eh? At the very moment our presumed quarterback of the future stages a greedy holdout, a guardian angel walks into camp.

After our first preseason game, in which Culpepper fumbled his way through the third slot, I said: “If Culpepper remains healthy, he’s our guy, period.”

After our second preseason game, in which Culpepper showed some moxie in the second slot, I said the same thing.

After this third preseason game, there’s simply no doubt.

Culpepper’s mobility, improvisation, precision throwing and overall command put a big smile on Lane Kiffin’s face tonight—and mine, too.

This is going to get very interesting, very fast. I’m feeling more bullish by the moment.

Out of the woods, baby, and into the Autumn Wind we go.

P.S. That Higgins kid looks pretty sharp, doesn’t he?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Out of The Woods

My take on the 49ers game is essentially the same as my take after the Cardinals game: (1) the outcome, in terms of the final score, is immaterial; (2) the good news resides more in what we are attempting as opposed to how we are executing; and (3) Daunte Culpepper is our guy at quarterback.

Regarding point number one, here’s all you need to know: The Raiders were 4-1 and the Colts were 1-3 at the conclusion of last year’s preseason.

As for how we’re executing—well, they must be dipping that pigskin in bacon grease, because we have a bunch of guys who can neither grab it nor hold it.

However, I attribute much of this to the fact that they are trying to re-learn normal football after last year’s experiment in absurdity. They are like children orphaned in the woods and raised by wolves for a year. You can’t teach them English overnight, because they still want to bark.

If you think I’m kidding, I’m not. On offense, we’ve got a bunch of guys who’ve been jerked around with three coaches and systems in three seasons, coupled with two new quarterbacks each on their third stop in three seasons, coupled with another quarterback who was a human piñata last year—all throwing to a guy who wore street clothes for most of the 2006 season.

If that ain’t coming out of the woods, I don’t know what is.

So I don’t mind if the execution is a bit rough right now, because it will get better. What’s important is that our players have been reintroduced to civilization by Kiffin, Knapp, Cable and crew. I still wouldn’t let them near the china cabinet, but at least they’ve stopped chasing cats and chewing on bones.

Exhibit A of our assimilation back into society: Our offensive line, which played relatively stoutly on Saturday night.

So I’m not worried. I think that our offense will steadily improve in the coming weeks, that the mistakes will lessen and that the resurrection will begin in earnest.

As for Daunte Culpepper, I still think he’s the key to everything, even though no one is saying it. I think he’s the team’s trump card in the Russell negotiations, and I think he will be the starter on September 9.

We are damned lucky that Culpepper fell in our lap, that’s for sure. Even if he isn’t our starter at the beginning of the season, he adds a level of depth, ability and injury insurance that, considering the ongoing Russell debacle, is both comforting and vital.

I've said it before, but this time I mean it: The Return to Glory starts now.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Late Postgame Take

After the first exhibition game on Saturday night, I was feeling a bit underwhelmed. Nothing really jumped out at me. I felt guilty for not being more excited. I just think I was expecting more—of what, exactly, I wasn't sure.

Thankfully, I was cheered by several commentators here at Raider Take, who seemed genuinely enthused by what they saw.

That’s when I realized that I was looking at things the wrong way. I realized that our offense is essentially trying to re-learn normal football after last year’s prolonged exercise in insanity. Adapting to a new system under a new coach after a demoralizing season is no overnight endeavor.

From this enlightened perspective, I saw that instead of focusing on how we executed on Saturday, I should be focusing more on what we attempted—which is to run a logical modern offense.

I now have a new take on what I witnessed, and here are some of the things that are lifting my spirits: the diversity and clarity of the playcalling; the much-improved pace of the offensive unit; the spirited running of Adimchinobe Echemandu; the enhanced depth at the running back position; the looming presence of a hopefully reborn Mike Williams; obvious improvement at the tight end position; Jerry Porter in a uniform instead of street clothes, and hustling his ass off, too; the upward mobility of our offensive line in terms of cohesion and protection; and the return of an aggressive and opportunistic defense, especially in the secondary.

Meanwhile, I must say that assessing our quarterback situation based on Saturday’s performances is a dicey proposition. It’s not just how they perform, it’s whom they’re facing. For example, the second team of the Arizona Cardinals is not exactly the best measuring stick for Andrew Walter.

That said, I have to say that Josh McCown looked unimpressive, which doesn’t bode well for him. In fact, I expect our QB depth chart to be completely inverted in the coming weeks. If Culpepper remains healthy, he’s our guy, period.

Anyhow, why should I expect leaps and bounds on August 11 when a lot of baby steps could take us to the next level by September 9? After the first few preseason games last year, I had no clue as to how abysmal our team really was—and I’m starting to suspect that the opposite could be true right now.

I really can’t sum it up better than Roberto of Raider Raza, who wrote me with the following take:

"The bar has been left so low from last year that I was very impressed with the game management, ability to call plays and execute them before the clock hit 0, the overall team cohesiveness, their blocking. All these fundamentals were absent last year.

Last year we couldn't call a play before the clock wound down nor could we adjust to a blitz. The playcalling was imaginative. It was refreshing to see screens, rollouts, short drops, long drops. I am positive that the worst is behind us and confident that we are on the right track. It was only a preseason game, but we looked like we were well coached and on the verge of turning around many of the shortcomings from last year. This year the energy feels better.

I'm feeling pretty minty fresh."

Me too, brother.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

News You Can't Use

Can’t a guy get any sleep around here? Will the sports media just stop printing asinine, immature and/or biased Raiders stories long enough for me to get some rest and relaxation? Is that too much to ask?


The latest crime against logic comes from the San Francisco Chronicle (surprise!). It’s so egregious that I almost can’t believe it. According to this article's headline, “Adimchinobe Echemandu’s arrival has resulted in coaches’ exits.”

Here’s the relevant excerpt: “Coach Lane Kiffin says running back Adimchinobe Echemandu might be ‘the surprise player’ of the Raiders' training camp. That's good news for the former Cal star, but in terms of job security, it might not be the best development for Kiffin…The Browns drafted Echemandu in 2004. He rushed eight times - the only eight carries of his pro career. Cleveland coach Butch Davis resigned that year after a 3-8 start. Let go in 2005, he joined the Vikings. Coach Mike Tice was fired at the end of the season.”

For a moment I thought I was reading The Onion or some other satiric vehicle. I kept waiting for the punch line. It never came. I mean, come on, if you're that desperate when it comes to finding a story angle, maybe you shouldn't be in the newspaper business in the first place.

Here we have this great training camp story, a young kid struggling to stay in the NFL who suddenly blossoms before our very eyes, possibly earning a key spot on the roster. So how does the Chronicle reward his efforts? By suggesting that he’s a coach killer!

How classy. Guess Adimchinobe won’t be sending that article home to mom.

Now, what’s more likely, this heretofore unknown kid with a grand career total of eight rushes to his name somehow having any remote influence on front-office decisions—or this kid’s talent lying unnoticed while he’s had the bad luck to land on teams whose incompetent coaches have earned their exits in a league that has turned the head coaching position into a turnstile?

And that, Raiders fans, is news you can’t use.


Monday, August 06, 2007

2007 Oakland Raiders Manifesto

I recently hiked deep into the desert with nothing but a twelve pack of Old Milwaukee, a ream of recycled paper and a manual typewriter. The result is my 2007 Oakland Raiders Manifesto, which I now humbly present to you.

Please be patient, this is going to be long and, at times, incoherent, as is the nature of a manifesto.

Anyhow, after finishing my beer near dawn amid the Mojave wilderness, I lit the cardboard box on fire and melted the aluminum cans, pouring the liquid metal into the hollow carcass of a cactus, so that I might create a totem to my work and existence, much like the great Ozymandias. On my long walk back to civilization, I defended myself against scorpions and reptilian predators, as well as my own personal demons. There was a moment when I thought I wouldn’t make it, as the fiery desert sun was broiling me into a state of extreme dehydration. It was then that I beheld the most glorious sight—an oasis of running water and fresh fruits hanging low to the ground from the long branches of tropical flora. I stumbled forward. I partook in the running water and fresh fruits. I was rejuvenated and reborn, and I then found my way home.

It was only later that I realized my experience was a supernatural metaphor for the 2007 Oakland Raiders. The aluminum cactus was, in fact, the Lombardi trophies of seasons past. The scorpions and reptilian predators were the Raider Haters, sneaky and persistent in their attacks. My own personal demons were Art Shell and Tom Walsh, darker sides of my soul that should have remained suppressed. And the oasis was the upcoming 2007 season, a refuge of refreshing new hope.

And I, friends, was Al Davis. At least until I sobered up...

Anyhow, I’m sure you get my drift. This year is going to be different. Take it from me, the guy who assured you 12 months ago that Art Shell would return the team to glory.

Sure, I was wrong last year. I thought that Art Shell, and even Tom Walsh, deserved a fair shake. I don’t ever turn on anyone on my team before the season has started. Everyone on my team deserves the benefit of the doubt. It’s just like family.

But if you look back at my takes last season, as well as my follow-up comments, I got fed up pretty quickly with the coaching staff, even as several readers tried to convince me that the coaching wasn’t apocalyptic, and that the players were just as bad and equally at fault. The players may have been bad, but they weren’t nearly as bad as the coaches.

Just three games into last season, here’s what I said after Walsh & Company started milking the clock while down double digits late in the game: "Let’s return to the reality at hand, and this incomprehensible bit of business about still learning how to get to the line in time, and the related concept of coaching. There’s been a lot of discussion about our playcalling and our execution, and where one begins and the other ends. But something that has been overlooked in this discussion is this concept of coaching. Not coaching in the playcalling sense of the word, but in the teaching sense of the word. You can say all you want about professionals being expected to execute like professionals. But at the end of the day, the players are students and the coaches are teachers. Otherwise, why have unit and position coaches in the first place?”

It was all downhill from there. And we know how it ended…

In my postseason thesis published last January, which was entitled “Pride: The Autopsy of A Lost Season,” I made the following observation: “We hired an insider who hadn’t prowled a sideline in six years, and who hadn’t been a head coach since 1994. We hired an offensive coordinator who had been away from the NFL for more than a decade, and who had been away from the game of football for seven years. We hired a pair of offensive line coaches who, despite once being great players, had marginal coaching experience. We hired a quarterbacks coach with no NFL experience, and very little experience as a quarterbacks coach at any level.

Meanwhile, we made no significant personnel moves on offense. Please don’t say that this was a rebuilding year. Around whom did we allegedly rebuild on offense? Aaron Brooks? Who else? Silence.

Our offensive unit didn’t field itself. Our executives—Al Davis, Mike Lombardi and Art Shell—fielded it. Our executives passed on potential franchise quarterbacks such as Matt Leinart and Jay Cutler in the draft. Our executives passed on a running back like Maurice Jones-Drew in the second round, and did not shore up the running back position via free agency or trading (despite LaMont Jordan’s shortcomings and Justin Fargas’s proneness to injury). Our executives built a receiving corps around two players, Randy Moss and Jerry Porter, with serious character flaws. Our executives put our tight ends position in the hands of two major underachievers. Our executives did not aggressively pursue a free agent lineman such as Larry Allen. They simply signed Aaron Brooks and drafted Paul McQuistan in the third round and Kevin Boothe in the sixth round, and left it at that. Thus, we now find ourselves with huge question marks at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end and offensive line—a totality of uncertainty that is simply stunning.”

The uncertainty was, indeed, stunning—and yet just seven months later, it has been largely erased. From top to bottom, forward and backward, our offensive coaching staff has been upgraded. We drafted our presumed franchise quarterback. We drafted a promising running back and picked up another solid runner via free agency. We ran Courtney Anderson out of town and replaced him with a young stud at tight end. We picked up Jeremy Newberry and others to shore up our line with some veteran savvy. We signed a fullback (what a concept—a fullback!) in Justin Griffith. We removed the cancer known as Randy Moss and applied some apparently successful chemotherapy to Jerry Porter.

In other words, every single point I made in January has been addressed. Why shouldn’t I expect significant improvement?

Yet just yesterday on ESPN Radio, I heard Sean Salisbury declare, “I don’t think the Raiders have improved at all” on offense. Let’s see: Better head coach, better offensive coordinator and better line coach. More talent at quarterback, running back, tight end and even offensive line (receiver position might be a wash with Moss's departure and the additions of Taylor and Williams).

Yet ESPN’s Sean Salisbury says nothing’s changed. Willful ignorance is a special talent of the Raider Haters.

Yet other haters are suddenly hedging their bets. In its 2007 NFL Guide, Athlon Sports states: “There isn’t any reason to think the Raiders can’t win as many as seven or eight games with a few lucky bounces.”

ESPN’s John Clayton (who really isn’t an avowed Hater, he’s a bit too mature for that), recently wrote (thanks for the link, Freaking Pope): "First-year coach Lane Kiffin brings a new vigor to Raider practices. Assistants run up and down the field to encourage or teach young players. Offensive line drills have more intensity as coaches try to bring out more aggressiveness in the blocking schemes. Still, the treat of camp is the strong arm of JaMarcus Russell. Watching him throw is a thrill in itself."

Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs’ team web site recently ran an article (thanks to Colin for the link) that began: “It’s time for the AFC West to start worrying about the Oakland Raiders again.”

Heck, even our friend at Sports Illustrated, who likes to send early valentines to Daniel Snyder every July with his annual NFL owners rankings, upgraded Al Davis five slots this year—after a 2-14 season! Imagine that, Al Davis’s stock rises after the worst season in his tenure with the team. That's a textbook example of a Hater hedging his bets. He knows something's up in Oakland.

Speaking of betting, when Mr. Davis was recently asked about the possibility of gambling at the officiating levels of the NFL (per the NBA’s recent troubles), he said he wasn’t worried about gambling, he was worried about bias. So much for his alleged senility. His answer was not only quick, it was on the mark.

ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd, a Raider Hater but no dummy, highlighted Mr. Davis’s comments in his August 2 show, affirming that officiating bias is, indeed, a very real phenomenon and a legitimate cause for concern in professional sports. In 2005, the zebras screwed us not once against the Chiefs, but twice, affecting the outcome of both games against our AFC West rivals. The latter instance was so infuriating that a Raiders executive confronted the officials after the game and had to be restrained. Last year, against the Browns, Seahawks and Chargers, we saw similarly dubious calls.

Here’s what Mr. Davis said: “I don't worry about gambling, I worry about bias. I worry about bias. Because if you remember, Sports Illustared ran an article about officiating in the NFL. And one of the officials said, 'The only thing we're warned in our meeting, be on the lookout when you go to Oakland. Watch out when you go to Oakland."

Mr. Davis could have also easily cited the fact that, just weeks ago, the NFL’s head of officiating took a cheap shot at the Raiders while suggesting that a blown call is more excusable if the wronged team made its own mistakes earlier in the game.

I recall Art Shell standing mute and slack jawed after that ripoff call in San Diego last November. While always trying to look poised, Art Shell seemed unable to demonstrate his pride. The officials walked all over him and us. I want, and expect, Lane Kiffin to go Earl Weaver and Lou Piniella on any zebra that dares thieve another game from the Oakland Raiders. Enough is enough.

On a similar track, do you think that our staff will be so befuddled that they will be unable (not unwilling, unable) to challenge an obviously horrible game-changing call? Do you think that Greg Knapp will go pass happy behind a broken offensive line amid a rainstorm? Do you think our team will be literally unable to run a no-huddle offense?

I don’t. What we saw last year was incompetence of biblical proportions. Thankfully, it’s the kind of thing you’ll only see once in a lifetime, because so many things have to be simultaneously wrong for it to happen at all.

Oh, I still have my concerns. Can Jerry Porter’s legs finally outrun his mouth? We’re still overly reliant on LaMont Jordan, at least until Dominic Rhodes returns from his self-inflicted boneheaded banishment (yes, I’ve heard of Adimchinobe Echemandu, but I’m not ready to anoint him the next Bo Jackson until he plays in a game or two). The offensive line…well, that subject scares me like West Nile virus and Paris Hilton with a dictionary.

Speaking of scary, how about this nugget from Saturday’s practice: “Andrew Walter’s most memorable play came when he dropped a snap from center Jeremy Newberry, looked at it for a moment, then kicked the ball before it was recovered by defensive lineman Kevin Huntley.”

I’ve come to the conclusion that Andrew Walter just might not be very alert, in the football sense of the word. I sure hope that Daunte Culpepper’s knee is fully healed. I was more comfortable with McCown as our starter before Russell’s holdout, figuring that Russell might be ready by midseason if McCown melted down. But with Culpepper here, I’m going to hitch my wagon to his train and pray that he returns to his once-remarkable form, or at least a good shadow of it, because Russell’s readiness is retreating by the day.

You know who’s also holding out in addition to Jamarcus Russell? Brady Quinn. You know, the kid with his head on his shoulders, or so we were told. Matt Leinart held out for a few weeks last year. Not to say that I’m not concerned about Russell, but it’s too early to panic. I don’t like it, but I do like that we signed Culpepper as a hedge.

There’s a reason I’m not talking much about the defense here. I just don’t have much to say about our defense. They were very good verging on great last year, and if they can stuff the run with some regularity, they will be great. I don’t want to talk about it, though. I’m afraid I’ll jinx things. Just let Caveman Ryan & Company do their thing.

By the way, I’m glad that Al Davis didn’t hand over the head coaching keys to Rob Ryan. Some said he “deserved” the job. Not the best premise for hiring a coach. And why would we hire a defensive guru to help fix one of the worst offenses in NFL history while creating a vacancy at the defensive coordinator’s position, when defense was the only thing going right for the team?

No, I like the Caveman in his cave, making fire and beating things with bones. His time might come, but Kiffin’s time is now. Al Davis has a demonstrated nose for young up-and-coming coaches. Madden and Gruden are obvious examples, but people forget that Mike Shanahan was also young and unproven, too, when Al Davis gave him the reins. It didn’t work out for the Raiders, but, as much as I hate to say it, Shanahan has proved to be a successful NFL coach.

I have no reason to expect that Kiffin will be any different.

Just recently, a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle made a slanderous allegation that Kiffin is going to cut older players because…they are older. Kiffin supposedly feels threatened by older players because of his own tender age. The same Kiffin who hired a staff of older proven coaches, such as Greg Knapp and Tom Cable. But that Adam Treu, he really had Kiffin’s knees knocking? Don’t believe it. Kiffin and his staff are a major upgrade over last year’s Cirque du Soleil troupe, and I accordingly expect to see significant improvement.

You might recall that before our late November game last year in San Diego (the one with the infamous “illegal forward pass” call), Raider Take’s favorite columnist wrote the following: “The game will be decisively lost. You Raider fans will endure all of it because you still believe your heart rather than your own lying eyes, and good on you and your blind, delusional faith. It's good to believe in something, even if it's just a sham.”

Our columnist pulled a hate muscle that day, and I think he’s still limping. Anyhow, the game wasn’t decisively lost. It was our third straight game against AFC West rivals, and we lost all three—but only by a grand total of 15 points. Don’t tell me that the Broncos, Chiefs or Chargers were taking it easy on us. If we could play those teams tough last year, we can sure play them tough this year.

I was attending a free concert at the local town park the other night, wearing my Raiders hat, and the singer mentioned that one of his bandmates was a great guy—except that he was a Raiders fan. The singer then told a joke: How does a Raiders fan teach his kid to count? Start with zero, then go 0 and 1, 0 and 2, 0 and 3, etc.

I have to admit, it was kind of funny. After last year, I’ve come to accept, and even embrace, such banter. It means that I’ll get to serve a big slice of crow someday, and probably sooner than they think.

Friends, we are coming out of the desert. As Raiders fans, we have deep reserves of passion, loyalty, faith, tenacity and fanaticism. Having drawn on these reserves, we remain resolved. The oasis lies ahead. Behold the new season.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Daunte's Inferno

Welcome, Daunte Culpepper…and hasta la vista, someone.

Prior to last season, more than a few folks were ready to lop my head off for not anointing Andrew Walter the savior of the Raiders.

Meanwhile, during our most recent minicamps, Josh McCown was billed as the heir apparent to Kerry Collins and Aaron Brooks, the free agent who, like Rich Gannon, might just discover a new life in Oakland—or who would at least keep the starter’s seat warm for top draft pick JaMarcus Russell.

Now, effective immediately, either McCown or Walter has been relegated to fourth-string status. Russell remains unsigned while the Raiders play musical chairs with the general manager’s position. And Daunte Culpepper replaces Randy Moss as the latest diva to make his way from Minnesota to the East Bay.


What does this make Cody Pickett? Water boy?

Don’t get your boxers in a twist. I like the addition of Culpepper. I just wish it had happened four months ago—or maybe 14 months ago. August isn’t the best time for an NFL team to start a full-blown carnival at the quarterback position.

But you know what, I’d rather have too much talent available at quarterback than not enough talent. Compared to last August, we’ve gone from famine to feast.

So let’s have a meal. Let’s let the ball fly—and let the chips fall where they may.