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Archive for July, 2008

Training camp, Day 8 (A.M. practice)

Quick hits from Thursday morning’s practice:

– He may not have had his best fastball, but JaMarcus Russell was felt good enough to rejoin practice and make due with off-speed stuff, choosing to simply flick his wrist rather than unleash the full power of his $60 million right arm.

In his first team session, Russell completed two of five passes, one a short pass to Johnnie Lee Higgins and a dump-off to fullback Oren O’Neal. Michael Huff broke up a sideline pass intended for tight end Darrell Strong, a screen to Louis Rankin fell incomplete and Derrick Burgess pressured him into an incomplete pass.

In Russell’s second team session, there were two more short completions.

During seven-on-seven drills, Russell was the victim of a perfectly-played pick by Nnamdi Asomugha, who stole a pass intended for Arman Shields in stride and ran the other for what would have been a touchdown.

“You can see a little bit of a velocity issue with him right now, different from normal,” Kiffin said. “I think that will go away here pretty soon.”

Kiffin said the staff watched Russell closely and that trainer Rod Martin gave the go-ahead to continue.

Russell acknowledged he wasn’t 100 percent but wasn’t comfortable watching from the sidelines.

“I just wanted to get out here today just so I could get back in practice,” Russell said. “I don’t really like sitting out and watching guys bust their behinds when I can be out there doing something. Just anything out there I can help.”

– Right guard Cooper Carlisle and right tackle Cornell Green were given the morning session off, with the Raiders reshuffling their line to accomodate the absence of two starters. Seth Wand got some work at right tackle, Chris Morris at right guard, and Mario Henderson has been working on both sides.

– Speaking of Henderson, it sounds as if Kiffin’s patience has about run out on the first of three third-round picks in the 2007 draft. During the offseason, Kiffin said the Raiders were working on Henderson’s lack of aggression and his passion for football.

It sounds like Kiffin and line coach Tom Cable haven’t made much headway. Rather than shift into coach-speak when asked if Henderson was challenging Green at right tackle, Kiffin was blunt and to the point.

“No, he’s not pushing him. We’ll continue to move Mario around to both sides,” Kiffin said. “Mario is not improving the way we’d like him to so we’ll just continue to push him. But it’s not close right now.”

When asked if Henderson needed to shore up a particular area, Kiffin said, “No, it’s everything right now. Unfortunately.”

– Sounds like Javon Walker, the free agent aquisition whose salary suggests he is the No. 1 receiver but whose practice play has been so-so, will begin getting some extra work starting Monday.

Kiffin said Walker and Fred Wakefield, rehabbing from a knee injury, would begin working twice per day Sunday when the 49ers visit Napa.

When asked if Walker was making progress, Kiffin said, “There’s progress being made. I wouldn’t say as much as I’d like at this point so we’re going to continue to push them. I think pushing him back into two-a-days will help him.”

– Defensive tackle Gerard Warren missed with a thigh injury sustained Wednesday night. Kiffin said he didn’t think the injury was as serious as one that hampered Warren last year and said he was day-to-day. Tommy Kelly sat out as scheduled and should practice tonight. Cornerback John Bowie (knee) did not practice.

Safety Greg Wesley (back spasms) was back at practice but did little of note.

– Defensive tackle Terdell Sands, who has avoided speaking with reporters for the first week of camp for reasons that ranged from a team meal to a team meeting to a doctor’s visit, stopped and chatted for a few minutes.

He conceded to being in better condition this year and was affected last season by the death of his mother.

“I lost my mother last year, so that was very big,” Sands said. “You lose anything like that, some things take tolls on you. You lose things that are aspects of life right there. That’s behind me. I’ve got to push on this year.”

Sands said he takes responsibility for the Raiders’ run defense in 2008.

“I take it all, because they look for me to be a big part of it,” Sands said. “And like I say, I wasn’t mentally in it, so I did some gap responsibility and all my true effort wasn’t out there. I thought I was. But when I watch film, it really wasn’t like I was the year before. So I take responsibility and put it on myself.”

Sands declined to specify how much he weighed last year and how much he weighs now.

– Kiffin has taken to visiting with members of the Raiders’ personnel department occasionally during practice sessions. Wednesday it was Bruce Kebric, Thursday it was Kent McCloughan.

– Defensive tackle William Joseph was worked over by Chris Morris and Jesse Boone on consecutive plays during a blocking drill. Kwame Harris buried Kalimba Edwards on another.

– McFadden was fielding kickoffs along with Hiram Eugene, Rankin, Adimchinobe Echemandu and Tyvon Branch, prompting Kiffin to be asked whether the Raiders’ biggest off-season investment might be utilized on that role.

“He’s such an explosive player that it’s something we have to look at,” Kiffin said. “Part of that will be determined by how the other returners do. Let’s say Branch in preseason is returning great. Then it’s not worth it. If you have a great return situation to put Darren out there that may not be worth it. If we’re struggling, then it becomes more valuable to us.”

Said McFadden, who has been in camp eight days and has had a sunny and agreeable disposition for every one of them: “I don’t know if they’re going to use me back there or not but I’m always prepared for it.”

– Practice joggers for pre-snap violations included Harris, Robert Gallery, tight end Chris Wagner and defensive end Greyson Gunheim.

Gunheim, an undrafted free agent from Washington, actually protested his lap, telling Kiffin that Henderson had first moved his leg, drawing him offsides. Gunheim was right, by the way.

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Posted on Thursday, July 31st, 2008
Under: Oakland Raiders, Preseason (2005), Raiders features | 481 Comments »

Training camp, Day 4 (P.M. practice)

Quick hits from Sunday night’s Raiders practice:

– Tackle Mark Wilson, a practice squad player signed to the active roster following the season, sustained a left leg injury, was taken off the field on a cart, and was sent to the hospital for X-rays.

– Left tackle Kwame Harris (lower back) returned to practice after missing the previous two sessions. He moved well and at one point fared well in a pass blocking opportunity against Kalimba Edwards.

– For the first time, no offensive or defensive lineman had to run laps for committing a false start or jumping offsides.

– Wide receiver Ronald Curry and center Jake Grove took the workout off, as scheduled. John Wade got the majority of the snaps with the first team offense in Grove’s absence. Defensive end Fred Wakefield, battling a stomach ailment, did not practice after practicing in the morning session. Safety Greg Wesley (back spasms), who returned to practice in the morning, missed the evening session. Grant Irons is still out with a hamstring pull.

– Al Davis made his first appearance at practice, watching from a golf cart between the two fields.

– During kickoff drills early in practice, running back Darren McFadden was deep and running kickoffs hard up the middle. Kiffin mentioned McFadden as a possibility for return duty on occasion.

Interesting McFadden would get his most work in that area in a practice Davis attended. Whether or not McFadden returns kickoffs will almost certainly be a decision made at the top. Davis resisted the idea of having Charles Woodson play offense or return punts, although part of that probably had to do with Woodson’s history of nagging injuries.

– Expect McFadden to be utilized only in crucial situations, in games where the Raiders need a strike at the end of a half or game, or when they are struggling on offense and need a momentum switch. To use him at all in that role in the preseason would be a questionable use of a major investment.

– McFadden had a much better practice catching the ball out of backfield than he did in the earlier session, when Kiffin expressed concern over his “hand placement.” Guess he figured out they had to be somewhere near the ball.

– Other players returning kickoffs were cornerback Chris Johnson, wide receiver Jonathan Holland and safety Tyvon Branch, who Kiffin said earlier in the day is the current leader for that role.

– Rookie wide receiver Chaz Schilens was taken to task by receivers coach James Lofton for not coming back hard enough to catch a pass.

– The offense spent one session running plays apart from the defense, meaning the opposing “defense” consisted of second- and third-line offensive players. McFadden, fortunately, looked to be a rock when it came to pass blocking against blitzing Ivy League quarterback Jeff Otis.

If the 49ers play their second-line offense as a defense against Oakland, the Raiders look to be in business.

– Johnnie Lee Higgins would seem to have a roster edge since he is the leader to be the punt return specialist, but in terms of catching the ball and making plays as a receiver, Holland appears to be staying right with him or even outplaying him.

– Nnamdi Asomugha perfectly diagnosed a JaMarcus Russell slant pass in a 7-on-7 drill, jumped the route and ran for a would-be touchdown.

– Linebackers Kirk Morrison and Thomas Howard are so adept at pass coverage that the defense they refer to as the “dime” _ which in most cases utilizes one linebacker and six defensive backs _ has both men on the field. It is distinguished from the nickel by the positioning of the backs.

– Wide receiver Todd Watkins had one drop of a Russell pass over the middle and later a juggle which he managed to retrieve, but ended practice on a strong note, catching a deep out from Marques Tuiasosopo with an impressive leap and grab as three horns sounded to end the session.

– Following Watkins’ grab, the team met in the center of the field, but Kiffin dispatched Janikowski to attempt a 57-yard field goal. Usually in those instances, something is on the line _ extended curfew, reduced meeting time, etc.

Janikowski, who had nailed a pair of 43-yard kicks in an end-of-game drill earlier in practice, this time missed wide right.

– The Raiders practice once Monday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

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Posted on Sunday, July 27th, 2008
Under: Oakland Raiders | 178 Comments »

Training camp, Day 3

Quick hits from the Raiders’ lone practice Saturday:

– It was probably to be expected after the aerial display featuring JaMarcus Russell the previous evening, but the Raiders came back to earth Saturday afternoon in a snappy practice that was wrapped up in under an hour and 40 minutes.

Things were much more difficult for the near-rookie, as Russell mixed in some nice balls with several that were broken up and nearly intercepted, as well as one badly thrown pass late over the middle that free safety Michael Huff read perfectly and snared on a dive.

Coach Lane Kiffin said he was more interested in watching Russell convert the routine plays than the sort of Star Wars show he put on Friday night.

“We’re not going to coach those special throws that he makes where he’s running over there and he throws back and makes those great throws. That’s who he is and very few people can do that,” Kiffin said. “But those happen one time a game, maybe two times. We’ve got to get him to do everything right, the little things, the little completions and the timing of everything.

“That’s all the stuff that wows the fans and people watching but that’s not what makes you a good quarterback. A good quarterback plays with great discipline, he takes care of the ball and he throws things on time. We’re going to have to get that going with him. He’s continuing to improve on it. We’re giving him a lot of reps. We’re wearing him out on purpose for conditioning, not just his arm but his body.”

Said Russell about what was important: “The small detail things. When you pay close attention to that, then things will be better for you instead of being Superman all the time.”

– During one seven-on-seven sequence, Russell was nearly intercepted by DeAngelo Hall while looking for Johnnie Lee Higgins along the sideline _ a pass that could have been a defensive touchdown. His next pass, intended for tight end Tony Stewart, was tipped in the air and nearly intercepted by Sam Williams.

– Two plays later, Marques Tuiasosopo, who also threw well Friday night, was intercepted by linebacker Robert Thomas on a pass intended for Jonathan Holland.

– In a team sequence, Russell fared better when on back-to-back throws. Drew Carter made a difficult, physical catch with Chris Johnson draped all over him on a 12-yard out, and Russell followed it up with a touch lob for 20-plus yards to tight end John Madsen in stride.

– Early in practice, with the running backs breaking out of one drill and heading toward another at the horn, Kiffin threw a high pass which nearly caught an unsuspecting Darren McFadden right in the face guard, with McFadden reaching up at the last second to knock down.

At the conclusion of practice, Kiffin was talking to an assistant coach only to be nearly struck by a Shane Lechler skyscraper. It was caught by Rashad Baker.

“Was that Shane or the JUGS machine?,” Kiffin asked as he went to the podium to speak to reporters. When told it was Lechler, Kiffin said, “Don’t think he didn’t do that on purpose.”

– Rookie receiver Arman Shields, who has had some impressive moments through the early sessions, incurred the wrath of offensive coordinator Greg Knapp for a half-speed route.

“C’mon rook. Break on it,” Knapp barked. “When you break on it, you might want to go toward the ball and not off the field. You’ve got to focus when you’re tired.”

– Running backs coach Tom Rathman was instructing running backs how to stop in their tracks in the middle of a zone then break outside to get open underneath. He used Justin Griffith to demonstrate how it was done before turning to second-year fullback Oren O’Neal and McFadden.

O’Neal ran the route well enough, but didn’t look up in time and Russell’s pass glanced off his hands.

“Gotta have it, `O,’ ” Rathman said.

Next was McFadden, who ran into the middle and then peeled off without stopping first.

“No, sit first. You’ve got to sit first,” Rathman said.

– Left tackle Kwame Harris missed practice with a sore lower back and is expected back Sunday morning. In his place, Paul McQuistan, who has been seeing time at left guard, moved outside to tackle. Also playing left tackle were Seth Wand and Mario Henderson, who is competing with Cornell Green on the right side.

Raiders tackles have had difficulty slowing the charge of Derrick Burgess (almost always on the left side, a few snaps on the right) and Kalimba Edwards from the outside. Kiffin conceded it is that area where Harris will need to get up to speed.

“He’s been a better run player for us so far,” Kiffin said. “We got some things in the pass protection going back to the left side — he hasn’t been there for a while — that we’ve got to work out, that (Tom) Cable’s working on with him. We got a lot of hopes for him, and we’re going to need him.”

– The Raiders appear to be running the ball well and crisply with Justin Fargas, McFadden and Michael Bush, although until they face a team in a different uniform, it will be tough to tell how good they really are.

– Linemen who false start have been told to take laps around the field, with McQuistan and Brandon Robb among those to make the circuit Saturday.

– Rookie end Trevor Scott has had some difficulty disengaging and making his presence felt a pass rusher. A converted tight end, Scott is listed at 6-foot-5, 255 pounds and actually looks smaller out of uniform.

One one play, with Louis Rankin breaking free, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan yelled, “C’mon Trevor, you’ve got to hold that edge!”

“It’s definitely something that takes getting used to,” Scott said. “Coming from college to the NFL, there’s really no comparison. Guys are just phenomenal, and the O-linemen have great feet, and that’s where coach (Keith) Millard is really telling me to hone in on my techniques and trust my technique and have my technique beat theirs. Use agility and quickness and try to get around them.”

– Huff, sometimes invisible while lost in among the bigger players at strong safety, has been conspicuous not only with his playmaking, but his enthusiasm for playing free safety.

“I’m out there running around, having fun, make Gibril (Wilson) take on all the tackles and guards and fullbacks and all that,” Huff said. “I can stay back there and make plays.”

Huff is doing a good job reading the offense, but is having a hard time figuring out his weight pattern. He said he tried to bulk up to last year and finished the season at a skeletal 193 pounds. Now that he’s a free safety, he is up to 205.

“I know it’s strange, but I feel quick out there, real fast,” Huff said.

– If Tommy Kelly is as good as the Raiders seem to think he is, that $18.125 million guaranteed won’t seem so bad after the $22 million guaranteed Glenn Dorsey got from the Kansas City Chiefs.

It was just a day or two ago that Chiefs exec Carl Peterson was spouting his usual nonsense about Dorsey’s contract demands, only to cave in and pay what the market demanded he pay.

– Kelly has been putting in overtime on the cardio machines after practice, working on getting his weight down. He has been one of the last players to leave the field house.

– Safety Greg Wesley (back spasms) and linebacker Grant Irons (hamstring) missed practice and are day-to-day. Defensive end Fred Wakefield (flu-like symptoms) was back at practice and even played a few snaps inside at defensive tackle.

– If Al Davis is the kind of guy who worries about these things, he hates the idea of LaMont Jordan joining New England, where he could join Randy Moss and show up the Raiders by putting up big numbers, and even warned his agent to make sure he went somewhere else.

More logically, Davis is pleased to see Jordan wind up in a place where he is buried behind Lawrence Maroney and Kevin Faulk, putting him only one rung above the Fargas-McFadden-Bush mountain he faced in Oakland.

– The Raiders have a double session today with the first practice at 9 a.m. and the second at 7 p.m.

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Posted on Saturday, July 26th, 2008
Under: Oakland Raiders | 341 Comments »

Not much special teams drama

With the first practice convening in a little under four hours, following a press briefing from Lane Kiffin, I take a look a Raiders special teams:

Kickers–P Shane Lechler, PK Sebastian Janikowski.

Core special teams players–LS Jon Condo, S Jarrod Cooper, LB Isaiah Ekejiuba, LB Ricky Brown, LB Jon Alston, CB Chris Johnson, FB Oren O’Neal, TE Tony Stewart.

Potential return specialists–WR Johnnie Lee Higgins, S Tyvon Branch, RB Darren McFadden, CB DeAngelo Hall.

There will be the usual amount of jockeying for position on the 53-man roster with regard to special teams, but not much in the way of drama for the kickers.

It will be another Napa month of leisurely sessions for punter Lechler and Janikowski. Any kicker that comes to camp will be primarily to give these two men a break, even though they mostly lollygag through sessions, wishing they were on some Napa Valley golf course.

With no more NFL Europe exemptions and rosters limited to 80, the Raiders may not be inclined to bring in a kicker to give them a break.

Lechler is coming off his finest season, breaking 40 yards net for the first time and doing his best to carry on the legacy of Ray Guy.

Janikowski has been what he has always been _ a fairly reliable kicker from 39 yards and in but whose percentage drops off dramatically from 40 yards and out. That doesn’t make Janikowski much different than other NFL kickers, except for the fact that his ability to consistently drive through long-distance kicks was the reason he was drafted in the first round.

Condo had an excellent first season long-snapping, replacing Adam Treu, with the added bonus of being younger and faster, better suited to covering punts downfield.

Ideally, Kiffin wants Higgins to win the punt return job and Branch to be the kickoff return specialist. In the backround, for times when the Raiders desperately need a quick strike, the Raiders could turn to McFadden or Hall, but no doubt Davis would probably rather leave them out of the return equation and focus on being position players.

Cooper and Ekejiuba were the undisputed leaders of the Raiders special teams units for coverage and returns. When Cooper was back from suspension and Ekejiuba was healthy, the Raiders blanked none other than Devin Hester.

When they were hurt, the Raiders were susceptible to the big returns they seemingly always have been since they returned to Oakland in 1995.

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Posted on Thursday, July 24th, 2008
Under: Oakland Raiders | 124 Comments »

Wesley in, Buchanon out

The Raiders are confirming the signing of safety Greg Wesley, who was waived by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Former Raiders exec Mike Lombardi, who writes for CNN-SI as well as on his own Web site, doesn’t think much of the acquisition.

Lombardi has dubbed the Raiders “The Hotel California,” after the Eagles song about that strange place where you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

“What can Wesley do for the Hotel? He can’t cover, play in the kicking game, or run anymore,” Lombardi writes. “All he will do is take “Someone’s” money (which he loves to spend now) and not play. Do you think they remember Donovan Darius at the Hotel? Another favorite of `someone.

“Things never change.”

“Someone,” of course, is Al Davis.

Wesley, who reportedly signed a one-year deal, is like Darius in that there is very little risk involved in the signing. If Lombardi is right and Wesley can’t run, the Raiders can cut him, just as they did with Darius.

It’s worth noting that although Darius may have been a Davis favorite, the Raiders didn’t make the mistake of keeping him on the roster when it became apparent he wouldn’t be able to hold up physically.

To make room for Wesley, Will Buchanon was waived.

The Raiders begin filtering in to the Napa Marriott Wednesday, although coach Lane Kiffin won’t address the media until Thursday, the day of the first practice.

The Raiders also announced the signing of Mauricio Lopez, who will be on the Raiders practice squad this year as part of the NFL’s International Practice Squad program.

Lopez is a defensive tackle.

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Posted on Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008
Under: Oakland Raiders, Preseason (2005) | 379 Comments »

It’s all about JaMarcus

In the days leading up to the first day of training camp, I’ll review the state of the rest of the AFC West and how they match up with the Raiders, as well as all Raiders position groups heading into the first practice on July 24. Today’s entry takes a look at Raiders quarterbacks:

Starter–JaMarcus Russell

Reserves–Andrew Walter, Marques Tuiasosopo, Sam Keller, Jeff Otis

What’s to like

We’ll see how he reacts the first time he forces the ball into coverage during a game, but early indications are that Russell is a calm and poised leader who seems to have already gained the respect of his teammates.

There are no temper tantrums or finger-pointing when things go awry at practice, just a lot of communication and encouragement with his fellow offensive players. While it’s true things can change dramatically in full pads, Russell looks up to being the man of the moment.

In terms of the Raiders offense, there seems to be a widespread belief that Russell is operating something out of his element, that he would be better off as a classic dropback thrower, the better to show off that impressive downfield arm.

I beg to differ.

Russell appears nimble enough in terms of footwork to operate a fairly conservative short passing game, with the added advantage of taking the shot now and then to keep defenses honest. It looks as if Lane Kiffin and Greg Knapp are urging safety first, making sure he takes care of the ball and finds his checkdown receivers.

As he becomes more comfortable, Russell can look for bigger and better things. It’s worth noting that with Darren McFadden around, those routine checkdowns can become big strikes in a hurry.

Walter enters camp with the edge as the backup, and he is the second-best pure passer on the roster behind Russell. He has acquitted himself well as a diplomat despite being the deposed quarterback of the future, and it’s no secret he is waiting for another day and another team.

Tuiasosopo was drafted by the Raiders to run an offensve very similar to the one Kiffin is running now. He appears to be picking things up quickly and exepcts to make a serious challenge to be the backup.

Keller played well enough on a tryout basis and has experience running a passing offense with multiple reads, having done it for Bill Callahan at Nebraska. If the Raiders find a trade partner for Walter, he could find himself as a No. 3 quarterback.

Before transferring to Nebraska, Keller was a loyal backup to Walter at Arizona State. The same could not be said for Rudy Carpenter, who lobbied and campaigned with teammates to oust Keller.

What’s not

Russell left LSU after his junior year, so it’s not as if he comes in with all the playing experience of a Peyton or an Eli Manning. He will make his share of mistakes _ and some will cost the Raiders games.

It’s a tossup whether the Raiders will be good enough defensively to allow them the luxury of playing it safe with Russell, needing to open things up before he’s ready simply to stay in games.

In so doing, the Raiders expose their tackles to pass block on the outside, and that could either force Russell into mistakes or make him put that 270-pound body to the test in terms of taking a beating.

Kiffin has never seemed to warm up to Walter, in part because he’s not a good fit for the bootlegs and rollouts he favors. He also has seen Walter as someone with bad body language when things don’t guy his way.

Tuiasosopo, for all his mobility and ability to interact well with his teammates, has never proven he can be the 60-plus percent passer the offense requires and too often makes the big mistake.

As for Keller, bad luck seems to follow the guy around _ kind of like the franchise he now plays for.

Otis is a camp arm.

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Posted on Saturday, July 19th, 2008
Under: Oakland Raiders | 217 Comments »

Raiders have Broncos on the run

In the days leading up to the first day of training camp, I’ll review the state of the rest of the AFC West and how they match up with the Raiders, as well as all Raiders position groups heading into the first practice on July 24. Today’s entry takes a look at the Denver Broncos.

If there is one thing Mike Shanahan enjoys more than beating Al Davis and reminding him of the bonus money he insists he is owed, it is the way his Denver teams have been physically superior through their ability to run the ball.

That changed in 2007, and when Davis was tallying up the plusses and minuses of Lane Kiffin’s first season, one of the biggest things in his favor was the way his teams played against Shanahan and the Broncos.

They came within a Sebastian Janikowski field goal hitting an upright of sweeping Denver for the first time since 2002, falling 23-20 in overtime in Week 2 and manhandling the Broncos 34-20 in Week 13.

You wonder if Davis’ favorite moment of the entire season wasn’t the sight of watching Shanahan sit on the ball on Denver’s final possession, essentially saying “uncle” as Justin Fargas ran for 146 yards, the Raiders gained 175 and ran up a 10-minute advantage in time of possession.

The Raiders beating the Broncos on the ground is real man bites dog stuff, as Shanahan’s 20-6 record against Oakland since 1995 has been in great measure due to Denver’s rushing superiority.

Oakland outrushed Denver 2,086 to 1,957 last season _ only the third time in Shanahan’s 13 years the Raiders gained more yards than the Broncos on the ground.

What’s more, it was accomplished with an offense in large measure stolen from the Broncos _ zone blocking, lots of bootlegs and and getting effective yardage from different running backs.

Whether the Raiders can continue beating the Broncos at their own game will be determined quickly _ Denver is at Oakland in a late Monday night game at the Coliseum in Week 1.

Broncos review

Denver was 7-9 in the AFC West, 1-1 against the Raiders. Ranked 9th in rushing, 11th in total offense, 19th in total defense, 30th in rushing defense.

What’s new

Running back Travis Henry, a rare Denver foray into free agency for a running back, was dumped after being a no-show in the offseason program and faces a suspension under the NFL substance abuse policy.

The Broncos will run by committee with Selvin Young and free agent acquisition Michael Pittman. Fourth-round draft pick Ryan Torian of Arizona State has the classic look of a one-cut, zone-blocking runner.

Linebacker Boss Bailey, brother of cornerback Champ Bailey, joins the defense, along with San Diego castoff Marlon McCree at safety. Niko Koutovides, a free agent from Seattle, will also play a large role.

What’s to like

Quarterback Jay Cutler’s mysterious weight loss last season was solved. He has Type 1 diabetes and must constantly monitor his blood sugar. The word is Cutler not only looks healthy, but is throwing the ball extremely well and appears confident and secure, perhaps relieved he knows what he is dealing with.

Not content to go the usual route with castoffs, the Broncos used a first-round pick on tackle Ryan Clady, who was a zone-blocking terror at Boise State and a perfect fit for the system.

What’s not

There was a lot of snickering when the Broncos cut Javon Walker rather than pay him a $5 millon roster bonus, only to have the Raiders sink some $16 million into him during free agency. It no doubt got louder when Walker ended up getting rolled in Las Vegas.

But the Broncos best not laugh too loud. The wideout expected to make the big plays, Brandon Marshall, sliced tendons in an offseason accident. He says he slipped on a McDonald’s bag and fell through a television set.

Considering Denver’s offseason acquisitions at wide receiver were Keary Colbert and DarrellJackson, joining Brandon Stokely, the Broncos have issues outside.

Those creaking sounds are coming from Denver’s center position. They went younger at center, signing 13-year veteran Casey Wiegmann from the Chiefs and relegating 15-year vet Tom Nalen to backup status.

Tears of joy were wept in Oakland when perennial Raider-killer Jason Elam escaped to Atlanta as a free agent. The place kickers going to camp are Matt Prater and Garrett Hartley.

There were no huge moves by the Broncos in the offseason defensively despite giving up 409 points, more than even the Raiders (398).

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Posted on Wednesday, July 16th, 2008
Under: Oakland Raiders | 296 Comments »

Looking for a middle man

Sixth in a series of concerns regarding the makeup of the 2008 Raiders with the reporting date approaching on July 24 at the Napa Marriott:

Lane Kiffin would never admit it, but the Raiders’ startling lineup will be set when the team reports to the Napa Marriott on July 23.

The only gray areas for the silver and black are at right tackle, where Mario Henderson hopes to unseat Cornell Green, and center, where a three-way battle between John Wade, Chris Morris and Jake Grove will be one of the most interesting competitions during training camp.

Kiffin has warned against reading too much into minicamp lineups, but the largest share of first-team reps during media availability periods has gone to Morris, the third-year player out of Michigan State.

Wade worked with the first team during one of the organized team activities, while Grove, who was thought to be the center of the future when he was drafted after Robert Gallery in 2004, has been rehabbing a knee injury and could be getting his last chance to claim the position assuming he is healthy enough to play when camp opens.

Morris is the least powerful and talented of the three players but may be the best at executing the cut blocking that the zone blocking concept requires. It is not unusual for zone blocking teams to utilize smallish centers who can move, guys who wouldn’t have a chance to even make a roster on power blocking teams. Denver did this for years with Tom Nalen.

Wade, 33, would be another temporary fix along the lines of Jeremy Newberry, although a more durable one.

In five seasons with Jacksonville and Tampa Bay, Wade has started 106 out of 126 games played. He is a smart, capable veteran who Kiffin said would be similar to Newberry in terms of being a leader to a relatively young line.

Although Newberry wanted to return, and Tom Cable wanted him to return, chances are Al Davis made the right call on this one. It was remarkable to see Newberry hold up as well as he did, and it’s difficult to imagine it happening again. He is probably better off as a backup at this stage of his career, which is what he will be in San Diego.

Grove came out of Virginia Tech with the reputation of having a nasty streak, and was in fact a bigger star at defensive tackle than as an offensive lineman as a high schooler in Virginia.

But all that attitude hasn’t been enough to move defensive linemen consistently at the NFL level. As a result, Grove has worked on building up his upper body while rehabbing his knee. It remains to be seen whether the added bulk will hurt Grove in terms of executing the footwork the blocking scheme requires.

Kiffin went out of his way to talk up Grove as an important part of the center competition. Short of that, if he is healthy enough, Grove would be the most likely of the three players to bring something back in the form of a training camp trade.

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Posted on Thursday, July 10th, 2008
Under: Oakland Raiders | 539 Comments »

Can Mario be super?

First in a series of concerns regarding the makeup of the 2008 Raiders with the reporting date approaching on July 25 at the Napa Marriott:

There is a lot of speculation regarding the Raiders’ potential problems at tackle, with most of it centering on the left side and free acquisition Kwame Harris.

I am more concerned about the right side, where it appears Cornell Green was in the process of holding off second-year man Mario Henderson during the mandatory minicamp and OTAs.

Harris, the way I understand it, was personally approved by line coach Tom Cable, who deserves the benefit of the doubt considering what he did with the Raiders line last season. The Raiders think they can take some of the pressure off Harris with quick timing passes and blocking help from fullbacks or backs in motion, and think Harris can be a real asset on the second level in the running game.

This isn’t a knock at Green, who is coming off knee surgery and beginning his 10th season. He is your classic veteran backup, a good locker room guy who can fill in in a pinch without a significant dropoff.

In other words, the perfect guy to have around to help out a first-time starter.

In theory, that would be Henderson, whom the Raiders traded up to get in the third round in the 2007 draft. Henderson was so raw he suited up only once even though Green was gone after 10 games with a knee injury.

Instead of seeing Henderson take a quantum leap after his year of learning, there have been more red flags than in the parking lot at Arrowhead Stadium.

It was more than simply the sight of Derrick Burgess racing around Henderson during the mandatory camp, and other linemen doing the same. Burgess can make a lot of linemen look silly, especially when they’re prohibited from firing off putting them on the ground. Nor was it the fact that other linemen were also getting past him.

It also wasn’t all that big a deal to see Cable get into Henderson pretty good on occasion, because that’s what Cable does.

It was coach Lane Kiffin’s assessment of Henderson’s issues which make you wonder if the 6-foot-7, 300-pounder is ready to seize the job and make his mark as an NFL player.

“Pads will be big for Mario. Mario’s got a lot of tools but he needs to become a physical player,” Kiffin said. “To play on this line, we want physical guys and so that’s where Mario is going to have to really grow.”

And then there was this:

“There was a lot of ability there when we picked him,” Kiffin said. “There were some questions about how physical he was, about his passion for the game, for the position, so we’re trying to improve that.”

So he’s an offensive tackle on a run-oriented team who is neither physical nor has a real passion for the game _ which only happen to be two of the most important attributes a lineman can have.

Perhaps Henderson isn’t physical because he is not yet sure of his footwork or responsibilities. He was a late-bloomer of sorts at Florida State and the same thing could be going on in the NFL.

The “passion” issue is more troubling. Kiffin talked of developing the trait, but is that even possible? You’re either passionate about something or you aren’t. If Henderson isn’t consumed by the desire to be a great player, it doesn’t seem likely to happen because his coach said it should. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a professional, a clock-puncher who works at his craft even if he doesn’t love it, but it certainly could prevent him from being an elite player.

The most striking example I can remember of passion being an issue with an emerging player was with tight end Rickey Dudley. In researching a lengthy profile on Dudley in 1998, I learned that all his basketball coaches absolutely loved him and his football coaches never knew what to make of him.

Dudley loved basketball. As a player at Ohio State, he was the team captain, most inspirational player and requested to defend the opposition’s best player so he could lock him up.

As a football player, Dudley liked the sport but never loved it the way he did basketball. It wasn’t his fault, really, because that sort of thing can’t be faked.

If Henderson has issues with passion now, it’s fair to speculate he may always have them.

Catching up

– So the police report says Javon Walker has a broken jaw as well as a fractured orbital bone. If that report is correct, and frankly I don’t know if the officers check with the hospital to verify medical facts, then Walker is either one fast healer or Kiffin was being overly optimistic in saying the injuries weren’t an iassue for training camp.

– Jason Cole’s Yahoo.com story which reported that Al Davis was second-guessing some of his offseason decisions drew a stern rebuke from Raiders spokesman Mike Taylor.

“You obviously don’t know Al Davis. Self-doubt is not part of teh equation with Al Davis. I’m not going to justify this tripe, this drivel by even asking (Davis) for a response,” Taylor said. “It’s ludicrous, it’s insane, it’s rumor-mongering and it’s irresponsible journalism.”

In one sense, Cole came off better in the Raiders eyes than Adam Schefter did when he reported (correctly, as it turned out) that Art Shell would be fired at the end of the 2006 season.

In that instance, the Raiders response was that Schefter was a “false rumor-monger.” Cole was simply involved in “rumor mongering.” Nobody said it was false.

Seriously, I have a hard time imagining Davis spilling all his doubts and fears regarding the offseason, not when the Raiders haven’t even reported to training camp.

If things don’t go well, the more likely scenario is silence, with someone else taking the fall.

– Warren Sapp told the St. Petersburg Times that his experience with the Raiders was “as dark as a black hole” and noted “stuff went on in that organization that shouldn’t go on in sports.”

What to make of it?

What did you expect? Sapp came from tremendous success at Tampa to a team with the worst record in the NFL during his tenure. Losing teams get bashed by departing players. All of them. Period.

Sapp is a more brash, profane version of Tim Brown _ a great storyteller and a remarkable quote, but someone who will fashion his answers for the best effect. When talking to NFL Films about the Bucs Super Bowl season, he said Jon Gruden took them the extra step and his hiring was necessary to get there.

Now he is saying Tony Dungy baked the cake, and all Gruden did was put on the icing. And you can make the argument that both answers are right.

Many thanks

A lot of people I talked to at my father’s memorial service Saturday who had read my blog regarding his death made mention of the string of heartfelt comments that followed the piece.

My family thanks you and I thank you.

I’d also like to thank Bay Area News Group-East Bay for making a “Toys for Tots’ contribution in my father’s name.

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Posted on Tuesday, July 1st, 2008
Under: Oakland Raiders | 287 Comments »