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Archive for May, 2008

Strictly business . . . as usual

There’s a great scene in the movie North Dallas Forty where the late John Matuszak confronts an assistant coach following a playoff loss and says, “Every time I call it a game, you call it a business, and every time I call it a business, you call it a game.”

It was business in 1979 when North Dallas Forty was released, and with the NFL having developed into a billion dollar industry, even more so almost 30 years later.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why Nnamdi Asomugha isn’t expected to participate in the Raiders’ June 3 minicamp and why he is no lock to be present at training camp when the Raiders start putting together their 2008 roster.

Asomugha is doing the wise thing and playing it very low key, as is his agent, Steve Baker, who declined comment beyond saying there is no animosity between his client and the Raiders.

There’s a school of thought that Asomugha is crazy for not signing his tender as an exclusive unrestricted free agent. The moment he puts pen to paper, Asomugha is guaranteed a figure expected to be just short of $10 million. In the meantime, Asomugha is not under contract and guaranteed nothing. If he is injured while training or involved in a freak accident, the Raiders owe him nothing.

Because it was an exclusive tag, Asomugha can’t shop himself to other teams in hopes of bringing back a contract the Raiders can match or decline, receiving two first-round draft picks as compensation. No team is going to give up two first-round picks, of course, but the whole process of negotiating with someone else can be enough to spark a deal. Asomugha cannot be involved in that process.

You can assume Asomugha, who participated this offseasonin the NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial program at Harvard Business school, understands the business world is all about leverage. And that he has precious little in that regard. You can also assume he is smart enough to be insured should he be injured while not under contract.

Forget the total value of multi-year deals when it comes to NFL contracts. Score is kept among players and agents by guaranteed money _ the amount of cash a player will get either immediately or very soon the moment a deal is struck.

So far this offseason, the Raiders committed $24.5 million to cornerback DeAngelo Hall, $18.125 million to defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and $16 million each to safety Gibril Wilson and wide receiver Javon Walker.

Last season, they spent approximately $30 million on quarterback JaMarcus Russell and very soon will have to scratch a check in the $20 million range to lock up running back Darren McFadden, assuming the running back isn’t going to press for a deal falling just shy of the $34.75 million No. 3 overall pick Matt Ryan got from the Atlanta Falcons.

There’s being a team guy, and there is being a smart businessman. If you’re the latter, and are considered a valued commodity, how would you feel at being fifth or sixth in the pecking order in a contract year? Particularly when the year’s biggest offseason acquisition is someone who plays the same position?

Asomugha could go the Charles Woodson route and sit out until training camp is over. The time Woodson signed his franchise tender early was when it became apparent to his representatives the dollar figure he was going to get was as good as anything he would likely see on the open market.

The other option, if the Raiders want Asomugha in early, would be to offer him a one-year deal which promises he won’t be a franchise player next year. It was that tactic which New England and Chicago used last year to bring in cornerback Asante Samuel and linebacker Lance Briggs, respectively.

The two sides could still negotiate and agree to a long-term deal later.

Asomugha is going to be a Raider in 2008, and will surely handle his business without ruffling any feathers. He will be back eventually, but for the time being will continue to play poker with only one card, and it’s his call to determine when to fold his hand.

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Posted on Tuesday, May 27th, 2008
Under: Oakland Raiders | 1,554 Comments »

Low-key Lane

It was about 30 minutes or so into the Raiders’ practice Thursday at the so-called organized team activity when someone asked, “Where’s Kiffin?”

I had no idea. Hadn’t heard him, seen him or even looked for him while checking off roster numbers to get an idea of who showed up and who didn’t to the voluntary workout.

I looked harder, and there he was, standing alone, taking it all in, no more noticeable than than a member of the support staff charged with making sure there was a constant supply of footballs.

Which brings us to the column in today’s Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times written by Gary Peterson (misidentified initially on the Internet as having been authored by Steve Corkran).

As you probably already know, Peterson came to practice Thursday, watched low-key Lane’s act and surmised the coach knows he is on the clock and is simply awaiting the offer of a cigarette and blindfold.

Bringing up much of the tumultuous offseason as a backdrop _ the non-firing of Rob Ryan, the hiring of James Lofton, the wardrobe selection at the Senior Bowl, etc., etc., etc. _ Peterson used his license as a columnist to reach his conclusions.

I can state with certainty that less than three months ago, Kiffin really didn’t know if he would be the Raiders coach in 2008. As to what Al Davis was thinking, I would be far less certain, but can give at least an educated guess.

The owner probably thought the kid coach was being pretty ungrateful for having been given the opportunity of a lifetime, responding with a 4-12 record, and then telling the boss the best way to go about fixing his sorry franchise.

Probably not Kiffin’s best move, in retrospect.

But Kiffin, rather than quit in anger, dug in his heels and kept coming to work. He accepted his medicine, gave his input, and watched as Davis went on a spending spree to remake a roster Kiffin has said publicly was short on talent.

How much Davis listened to Kiffin, only he knows. And he’s not saying. Whether Kiffin agreed with every move, only he knows. And he’s not saying.

But there is no denying Kiffin has much more talent at his disposal, not to mention a far less daunting schedule.

He is continuing to run the offense he wants, a zone-blocking running game combined with rollouts and safe passes designed to build passing percentage, before layering in the deep strikes Davis loves.

Kiffin’s on-field demeanor has been a topic of discussion among those of us who have been at the rookie minicamp and OTAs. I’m not ready to think it’s overly significant for a few reasons.

First, Kiffin wasn’t exactly a fireball last season until training camp hit. He was similar to what we’ve seen so far _ wandering from position group to position group, supervising rather than dominating, allowing his assistants to do their work. The practice tempo hasn’t changed.

Whether Kiffin will appear more authoritative when the Raiders adjourn to Napa is anybody’s guess. He might not feel he needs to come on as strong with a program already in place. And while I may be in the minority here, I thought at times last year his enthusiasm looked forced, almost contrived, as if he were trying to resurrect Jon Gruden.

Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian used to journey to Tampa each year to study offense with Gruden, and there were times it seemed as if Lane was operating straight out of the Chucky handbook.

The problem is, Kiffin is not Gruden in terms of personality. Having done extensive background on Kiffin when he was hired, talking to old high school coaches, former teammates, coaching colleagues and family members, he is more to the Tony Dungy or Bill Belichick side of the scale than Gruden.

What Peterson sees as Kiffin “marking time” could be the coach simply showing more of his true self.

I didn’t even notice Kiffin wasn’t wearing a Raiders emblem Thursday, and while I have no doubt he was sending a message not wearing the shield during the Senior Bowl, he has worn Raiders gear publicly in recent weeks.

For now, the worst is over and everyone seems to have moved on and is concentrating on 2008.

It is going to be all about how the Raiders perform, whether they can stop the run and at the same time get an efficient performance from a quarterback in his first full season as a starter.

A poor start, and Kiffin could be shown the door before midseason, because the players will be out for themselves, knowing the coach is a short-timer. Kiffin is the only Raiders coach under Davis to survive a 12-loss season. He won’t do it a second time.

A good start and a winning season, and Davis will at some point make a public appearance and tell everyone how good he is at identifying young coaching talent.

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Posted on Friday, May 23rd, 2008
Under: Oakland Raiders | 726 Comments »

Time for Seabass to compete

Lane Kiffin talked earnestly last year of having no free rides, a new Raiders order in which reputations meant nothing and performance was everything. He even said players “aren’t on scholarship,” a reference which had been used for years regarding certain players who were deemed Al Davis favorites (Dan Land, James Jett and Alvis Whitted come to mind).

Kiffin found his poster boy in Justin Fargas, who ascended past LaMont Jordan and Dominic Rhodes to gain 1,009 yards, an unremarkable total until you consider he wasn’t a starter until Week 7 and missed the last two games due to injury.

When street free agent Chris Clemons and fifth-round draft pick Jay Richardson fared well in training camp, better than third-round pick Quentin Moses, the Raiders did the unthinkable. They made Moses the highest drafted player not to make the roster of the team that drafted him.

When Darren McFadden became available in the draft, the Raiders unflinchingly threw him into the mix at running back along with Fargas and Michael Bush. Why? Competition. Compete every day, every play.

“It’s a pretty good stable, I mean if you want to talk to one to eight, one to nine, it’s open competition, so our philosophy is, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past. I don’t care if you were the fourth-round pick, one of the top guys of the SEC that have ever come out as a runner, I don’t care if you’re Justin Fargas and ran for 1,009 yards, I mean, we have a standard here of the play that we want to present as a group of running backs, and we’re going to hold everybody that suits up and steps out on that field to those standards,” running backs coach Tom Rathman said. “When you’re not able to get it done to those standards, we’re going to go to the next guy. Somebody’s going to perform for us, and it’s going to be at a high level, and that’s our expectations.”

Funny how you never notice special teams coach Brian Schneider saying the same thing about his place kicker.

Sebastian Janikowski has been handled with kid gloves since the day he was drafted in 2000, the same as punter Shane Lechler, who arrived in the same year.

They remain the pride and joy of Al Davis, the one man who would pull the trigger on Ray Guy, Janikowski and Lechler, all unique and gifted talents coming out of college.

The problem is Janikowski, the controversial first-round pick in 2000, has never measured up the way Guy did and Lechler has. Yet each year he is treated as an untouchable.

Before they get to training camp, and perhaps the mandatory minicamp on June 3, the Raiders should bring in a place kicker who does more than caddy for Jano. Someone who can compete with him in practice and preseason games and be given a legitimate opportunity to do as Clemons, Richardson and Fargas did _ win a job.

Granted, there isn’t a lot out there. Morten Andersen is too old, and most kickers have found spots. The Rams will be parting with former UCLA and Mission San Jose kicker Justin Medlock at some point, having drafted correction, signed Josh Brown.

Medlock would be an interesting call because he idolized Janikowski as a high school kicker. He washed out with the Chiefs, but that’s not unusual in the kicking business.

It doesn’t have to be Medlock, anyway. Just somebody who comes in and is told he has a chance to win the job based on performance. Janikowski may very well win the job anyway, but at least he would be pushed.

Last season, the Raiders didn’t even bring in a place kicker until Aug. 6, when Tyler Fredrickson arrived to allow some more down time for both Janikowski and Lechler.

If you’ve watched much football practice, you realize kickers don’t really work all that hard anyway. If they stood around much longer, they’d be as inactive as the reporters.

Yet Jano kicked sparingly in the preseason. Fredrickson, who openly acknowledged he had no shot, was doing all the kicking by the preseason finale to keep Seabass from spoiling in the sun.

In a Week 1 loss to Detroit, Janikowski lined up for three field goal attempts and made none of them. A 50-yarder was blocked and 46- and 57-yarders were wide left. It’s probably unfair to criticize any kicker for missing from 57 yards, but attempts like that are precisely why he was drafted in the first round. To be a game changer, you’ve got to change the game.

He is a 62.2 percent kicker from 40 yards and beyond (71-for-114) and is less than 50 percent from 50 and beyond (16-for-34). Again, a 50-plus kick is no gimme, but we’re not talking about “normal” kickers here.

Over the last three years, Janikowski has been at or near the bottom of the NFL in field goal percentage (71.9 percent in 2007, 72 percent in 2006, 66.7 percent in 2005). Those seasons followed his two best years (89.3 percent in 2004, 88 percent in 2003).

And while Janikowski had 22 touchbacks last year, tying a career high, his consistency in that area is maddening as well and the Raiders have not been a strong coverage team despite his powerful leg.

This isn’t to say Janikowski should be vilified or run out of town. He has stayed out of trouble and kept a low profile for a few years now after getting into trouble at Florida State and in his early years as a Raider, problems tied to drinking.

But it’s hypocritical for the Raiders to concede him the job and then carry on about open competition.

OTA

The Raiders begin another three-day organized team activity Tuesday, with media access scheduled for Thursday.

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Posted on Monday, May 19th, 2008
Under: Oakland Raiders | 442 Comments »

Reece, Spires signed

Wide receiver, Marcel Reece, who earned a Raiders helmet Sunday for his performance in the Raiders’ rookie minicamp, also earned a contract with the club.

Defensive end Greg Spires, who agreed to terms the weekend, also arrived in Alameda for the start of an organized team activity and signed a contract.

With the Raiders at the 80-man limit, cornerback Duane Starks and fullback Matt Hahn, an undrafted free agent from Penn State, were waived.

Starks was signed April 15.

The OTA runs through Thursday, with practice on the final day open to the media, which means the first look at quarterback JaMarcus Russell on the practice field in nearly a year. Russell is expected to be among the “97 to 98” percent of the roster Lane Kiffin expects to be practicing.

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Posted on Tuesday, May 13th, 2008
Under: Oakland Raiders | 1,460 Comments »

Hartwell aboard, preseason dates finalized

All that awaits Edgerton Hartwell’s addition to the Raiders linebacking corps is the official annoucement.

Hartwell excelled playing alongside Ray Lewis with the Baltimore Ravens from 2001 through 2004, cashing in with a six-year, $26 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons. He played in only 13 games before being released, the victim of an Achilles’ tendon tear in 2005.

He signed with the Cincinnati Bengals on May 3, 2007, but was released before the season started on Sept. 1.

The best case scenario is Hartwell stepping in as a strong side linebacker alongside middle linebacker Kirk Morrison and weakside linebacker Thomas Howard and giving some much-needed muscle on running downs, and coming off the field on passing downs.

At worst, the Raiders determine Hartwell, 30, can’t hold up physically and he fails to make the roster as Donovin Darius did last training camp. It’s a no-lose proposition.

He will get plenty of opportunities in what figures to be the most interest month of August since the team returned to Oakland in 1995.

The Raiders have finalized all their preseason dates _ they’ll host the San Francisco 49ers Aug. 8, visit the Tennessee Titans Aug. 15, host the Arizona Cardinals Aug. 23 and finish the preseason in Seattle on Aug. 29.

With JaMarcus Russell taking over as the starting quarterback, and the Raiders probably giving him extended time, as well as the addition of high-profile free agents such as Javon Walker, Gibil Wilson and DeAngelo Hall, plus the drafting of No. 4 overall pick Darren McFadden, even hard-core preseason cynics (guilty as charged) are curious.

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Posted on Tuesday, May 6th, 2008
Under: Oakland Raiders | 1,041 Comments »