The AFC West division in the National Football League is in transition mode. This is nothing new to western based football programs.  In the past five years every team in the division has had several changes in their coaching infrastructure but no team in the NFL has sailed with the winds of change quite like The Oakland Raiders.  Although The Raiders have had only two general managers since 1963, the team has had seven head coaches in the past ten years.  When team owner Al Davis passed away last October, his son Mark knew he needed to bring in someone who would continue the tradition that his father built.  The hiring of former Raider Reggie McKenzie and the subsequent hiring of head coach Dennis Allen was the first small step the organization took in beginning the new era of excellence. 

Al Davis conveyed a philosophy of valuing the raw talent of his athletes and working with his head coach to mold them into outstanding football players.  Unlike Davis, McKenzie avoided making big free agent signings or surrounding the organization with a cloud of mystery regarding the direction he was taking the team.  McKenzie instead took a different approach, embracing intelligent and versatile football players even if they did not possess the pure physical talent of high priced NFL superstars.  McKenzie hired Allen to implement this new tradition of discipline, hard work and smart decision-making on the football field.  The 2012 NFL season for the Oakland Raiders will be determined by how the players learn to adapt to the new regime and whether they can find it in themselves to focus on the goal of bringing a championship back to the city of Oakland.

In 2011, The Raiders’ season started falling apart on October 8th.  The Raiders defense was being managed by Chuck Bresnahan, who was merely a puppet while his strings were being pulled by the team’s ailing owner.  Free safety Michael Huff admitted how much Davis had a hand in the team’s defense and it was evident when the defensive squad played poorly after Davis’s passing.  This past offseason, Dennis Allen hired former Stanford co-defensive coordinator Jason Tarver.  Tarver, who has a Master’s Degree in molecular biology, was brought in to concoct a defensive scheme that would give opposing offenses several different formations to defend.  While Tarver and Allen are not tipping their hand as to how they are going to make this happen, it is clear that the acquisitions of Phillip Wheeler, Jack Crawford and Miles Burris were based on their ability to run several defensive sets.  The signing of Wheeler is particularly curious. Wheeler is best suited for a Cover 2 defense so Tarver’s ability to get the most out of Wheeler in his new system will be imperative.

On offense, the team left their traditional vertical passing game and implemented a west coast style of play.  Greg Knapp, who coached The Raider’s offense for the 2007 and 2008 seasons, is returning for his second stint as the offensive coordinator.  Running back Justin Fargas excelled in Knapp’s offense, totaling nearly 1,000 yards rushing per season.  Rookie Darren McFadden also ran for close to 500 yards on 113 carries while averaging 4.4 yards per carry in 2008.  The offensive success is going to be heavily predicated on the team’s ability to set up blocks and create space for the play to develop.  Carson Palmer, the team’s starting quarterback, had success with this system his senior year at USC.  In the NFL however, Palmer has not had the opportunity to play in a true west coast offense.  Oakland will rely on Palmer to make quick decisions and to develop trust with his receiving corps to run timely and effective routes. 

Several factors could lead to the demise of the 2012 Oakland Raiders.  The first potential problem is at the wide receiver position.   In the west coast offense receivers Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore are vital to the team’s success.  Both players have had trouble staying healthy and missed a combined 11 games last season.  If they continue to miss time on the field, it will make The Raiders more of a one dimensional team and they will not be able to effectively execute their explosive run game.   In addition to their health issues, both receivers are at a disadvantage playing in this system because they are better suited for the vertical passing attack. Darrius Heyward-Bey, the team’s #1 wide receiver could also struggle as he does not catch the ball well in traffic and plays better in one on one match ups.  The second potential issue for the team is at tight end.  Brandon Myers is currently on the top of the depth chart because of his ability to consistently block on plays in training camp but if he goes down or the team wants to implement more two tight end sets, 2nd year tight end David Ausberry will have to elevate his game.  Ausberry played wide receiver in college and has great potential to succeed, but he is not a true tight end yet.
Rolando McClain, the team’s starting middle linebacker, needs to mature in order to improve one of the league’s worst defenses last year.  His ability to make adjustments on the field and his legal issues will have a major impact for The Raiders.  For years Oakland has struggled to stop the run and often get taken advantage of late in the game by short passes over the middle.  Although McClain’s numbers improved last season, he is still lost in coverage at times and unable to take the next step to stop the development of big run plays.  McClain has also been sentenced to 180 days in jail for third degree assault and reckless endangerment.   Even if he can serve a partial sentence in the offseason, the ramifications from the league could be severe.  McClain’s impending suspension could mean moving Miles Burris to the inside if Aaron Curry stays healthy. One other area of weakness for the team is at cornerback.  The Raiders brought in two free agent corners that are coming off of injury plagued seasons.  One of those cornerbacks, Ron Bartell missed all of 2011 with a neck fracture.  More than any other position, consistency at cornerback is essential for the team’s success on defense. 
The Oakland Raiders will have a lot to work to do this year.  They are in the first phase of a rebuilding process that could take several years to be fully actualized.  The team’s achievements will be measured by their focus and dedication to the new programs implemented by the coaching staff.  Certainly, there are better teams in the National Football League but The Raiders are in a good position to bring a winning tradition back to the city of Oakland