The energy of the Raiders’ spring has proven to be renewable. The hard work of April has given way to the harder work of August. Enthusiasm, so far, has won out over defeatism.
The Raiders will soon see what they can do against somebody other than themselves. On Friday night, they’ll host the St. Louis Rams in their first exhibition of the preseason. By definition, the game shouldn’t mean much. But when you haven’t had a winning season since 2002, when the challenge is to lobotomize a losing mind-set, everything you do has meaning.
First-year Raiders coach Jack Del Rio has sought to instill focus and intensity in everything. What they eat, the way they study – it all matters. Even meaningless preseason games.
For Del Rio, Friday night’s exercise will give him a preview of what the offseason has wrought.
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“Listen, when you get to the games, when you start playing games – that’s the fun part,” Del Rio said after practice Tuesday. “There’s work that goes in; you come into camp excited and eager, but there’s nothing like playing games against other people. You get your best evaluation there. You really learn about your team there, so, yeah, I’m very excited to get out there Friday night and see what our guys can do.”
Del Rio’s emphasis on discipline has crossed into the electrical force field of his defensive coordinator, Ken Norton Jr. The industry and energy of Del Rio and Norton, linebackers in their playing days, will make the Raiders strong on the stop. They have experience and soul with Charles Woodson in the secondary, and youth, talent and versatility with Khalil Mack, whether they play him at linebacker or defensive end. The acquisitions of Nate Allen, Curtis Lofton and Dan Williams will make the secondary deeper, the linebackers better and the defensive line stronger. Competition is fierce on the corners, and Del Rio and Norton will solve that mystery.
On offense, there is a rational basis for Raiders fans to feel better. New offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave last year coached the quarterbacks on a Philadelphia Eagles team that finished third in the league in scoring.
Minus-15 The Raiders’ turnover margin last season, worst in the league
Second-year quarterback Derek Carr looks as if he could be running the show for a decade. Running back Latavius Murray got a chance to carry the ball last November and rushed for more than 400 yards in the final six games. No. 1 draft pick Amari Cooper and ex-49er Michael Crabtree improved the club where it was weakest, at wideout.
More than anything, the Raiders’ offense will achieve a measure of success if it can just stop giving away the ball. They finished last in the league last season in turnover margin with a minus-15. It’s the most important stat to fix when it comes to turning around a bad football team. If the Raiders can get it to zero, they’ll at least double last year’s win total of three.
The expected improvement of the offensive line is another cause for hope.
The Raiders made their biggest financial investment in signing former Chief and free-agent center Rodney Hudson to a $44.5 million contract for five years – $20 million guaranteed – making him the Raiders’ highest-paid player. The Raiders hope he brings cohesion to an offensive line that he makes deeper, more experienced and more talented.
“We’re growing ... growing a lot,” Hudson said, with sweat pouring off his head as he walked off the practice field. “We come out trying to work together and get better every day. We take it a day at a time and continue to grow and get better a little bit at a time.”
Hudson said he and players such as left tackle Donald Penn and the versatile Khalif Barnes, along with Gabe Jackson, Menelik Watson and free-agent addition J’Marcus Webb, have “a really good chance to be a good offensive line.”
“I think we have a bunch of leaders, which is a good thing,” said the 6-foot-2, 300-pound Hudson. “Those guys have played a lot of football.”
Jack is a tough, tough guy, not just as a coach, but he’s a tough player, and that mentality, man – he’s going to get it to the team.
Hall of Famer Tim Brown, a former Raiders receiver, on coach Jack Del Rio
Raider Nation, meanwhile, awaits its first look Friday night at Del Rio’s work in progress.
Tim Brown, inducted last weekend into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and recently named an analyst on the Raiders’ exhibition telecasts, expects to see a tougher team that will have a chance to win.
“Jack is a tough, tough guy, not just as a coach, but he’s a tough player, and that mentality, man – he’s going to get it to the team,” Brown said in a teleconference. “This is going to be a mentally tougher football team and physically tougher football team, and I think they have a great shot to compete this year. I’m not saying they’re going to win the division, but I think they can get to the point they can compete. They have to learn to win these tough games I think they’re going to be in this year. If they can find a way to do that....”
It’s up to the Raiders to fill in the blank.