Déjà vu? Again? The Raiders hope not. After consecutive 4-12 seasons, approximately $60 million available this offseason to upgrade talent and solidify the quarterback position, the party line is to acknowledge the NFL preseason for what it is – the biggest ripoff in professional sports – and profess to wearing blinders until the Sept. 7 opener at the New York Jets.
Well, they have to sell something. Jim Plunkett throws softballs from the broadcast booth. Rich Gannon makes only occasional appearances, also from the broadcast booth.
Is there a theme here?
Is there a quarterback in the house?
Under the couch? Hiding in the bathroom? Cloistered in the weight room behind lock and key? Waiting to be discovered, unleashed and capable of running/throwing to the rescue?
Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie inherited a salary cap nightmare two years ago and is still fighting his way through the dysfunctional fog. And while most experts praised the signing of two-time Super Bowl winner Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley and Antonio Smith, and gave McKenzie props for drafting linebacker Khalil Mack and quarterback Derek Carr, the Black Hole remains a place where fans should tread lightly. Six or seven victories – a reasonable projection given the personnel and the difficult latter part of the schedule – suggests a season of more dips than peaks.
The secondary appears marginally improved by the presence of Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown. The ailing DJ Hayden (foot) still can’t catch a break and is sidelined indefinitely, another red flag. There isn’t a game-breaker among a wide-receiving corps famous for its drops, though it supposedly improved with the addition of former Green Bay Packer James Jones. Veteran running back Maurice Jones-Drew arrives after a subpar season, joining Darren McFadden, who is coming off yet another injury-hampered and underwhelming year, his infuriating talent notwithstanding.
And the most important position in football – quarterback – remains the duel that never dies.
So break out the swords already and be done with it, substituting one elbow and one Matt (Schaub) for another (Flynn). A year ago, Flynn was acquired and anointed the starter, only to strain his right elbow during the fourth week of camp and relinquish his starting job to Terrelle Pryor, who struggled and eventually was supplanted by Matt McGloin.
If nothing else, though, the Raiders are consistent about being inclusive. The quarterbacks of the past decade include Carson Palmer, Jason Campbell, Kyle Boller, Bruce Gradkowski, Andrew Walter, Josh McCown, Daunte Culpepper, Aaron Brooks, Kerry Collins, Marques Tuiasosopo and JaMarcus Russell.
After the Flynn flameout of a year ago, McKenzie gambled again with his pursuit of Schaub, a two-time Pro Bowl selection who enjoyed a modicum of success with the Houston Texans before morphing from respected local citizen to reviled local pariah. Schaub denies that his benching last season left physical or emotional scars, but the fact that he came up with a sore right elbow after three disappointing preseason games isn’t inciting much chest-pounding at the practice complex.
In those three appearances, the 6-foot-6, 235-pound veteran converted 24 of 47 passes for 218 yards, with no touchdowns and one interception. Most of his passes have been dinks and dropoffs, with very little zip on the ball – an alarming factor for a drop-back passer with limited mobility. His only deep completion was a 40-yard throw to Denarius Moore in the third quarter in Green Bay.
“I think we’ve got to improve the passing game,” coach Dennis Allen said last week, “and all elements that are involved in that. The protection element, the routes, finishing the plays down the field in a contested environment, putting the ball in the right spots.”
Schaub, 33, watched practices most of last week, and second-round pick Carr completed 11 of 13 passes for 143 yards and three touchdowns in Thursday’s 41-31 victory over Seattle in the preseason finale, but neither the veteran quarterback nor his head coach have publicly flinched.
“I’m not concerned about it (the elbow),” insisted Allen, who projected Schaub as his starter for opening day. “... Ultimately the true test is where you’re at on opening day.”
Hint, hint, hint. Now in their third seasons, McKenzie and Allen are attached at the hip but are no longer rookies attached to a long leash. With the stadium situation another never-ending story and owner Mark Davis an evolving, still relatively unknown commodity as the man in charge, anxiety tablets should be kept near night stands.
The general manager and his coach have seen this perplexing quarterback act before, both the injuries and the preseason struggles, which suggests they probably are far more concerned than their public comments indicate. Besides all of which, they didn’t draft the 6-foot-3, 214-pound Carr to carry a clipboard for the next few years while the crowd screams, boos, begs for a change.
The original plan, of course, was for the experienced Schaub to mentor the former Fresno State standout. But plans change. Injuries happen. Opportunities develop. Panic often ensues.
Schaub is the starter for now, but check back in a week. Make that a few days. History might not repeat itself exactly to the letter, but the potential exists for a hasty rewrite of the familiar quarterback script. Two Matts. Two sore elbows. One major issue hovering. The careers of Allen and McKenzie perhaps even hanging in the balance.
The Raiders are never dull. But are they ever going to entertain? Are they ever going to improve? Are they ever going to win? Scratch that. Start with entertain. Start with that.