Camp Confidential: Raiders

July, 31, 2009
7/31/09
1:03
PM ET
 
  Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PRESSWIRE
  Coach Tom Cable has spent the early part of camp focusing on teaching the basics.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

NAPA, Calif. -- In his first training camp as a head coach in the NFL, Tom Cable is breaking it down.

He is trying to end the Oakland Raiders' six-year slump by going back to basics.

"It's all about learning," Cable said. "That what we're trying to do here."

Cable, who went 4-8 on an interim basis last season after the tumultuous Lane Kiffin era ended, is methodically trying to improve his team. Here's how he started: Players reported on Tuesday. The team spent all day Wednesday in meetings before hitting the practice field on Thursday.

Camp Confidential: AFC West
• Raiders: Fri., July 31
• Chargers: Tues., Aug. 4
• Broncos: Wed., Aug. 12
• Chiefs:
Thurs., Aug. 20

It wasn't exactly a strenuous football practice; the team went through two glorified walk-throughs on opening day. Cable ended plays shortly after the ball was snapped. The team won't start hitting until Monday.

The 2009 Oakland Raiders are starting with a classroom on the grass. Why not? The past six years have produced report cards with nothing but F's. The Raiders are a combined 24-72 since 2003. It is the worst six-year span by any team in NFL history.

Players, tired of Oakland literally being an NFL Black Hole, are behind Cable's slow instructional pace.

"We're really breaking it all down and starting over," linebacker Thomas Howard said. "It's good. We need it. This is all about learning and being instructed."

Key questions

 
  AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
  The Raiders clearly want JaMarcus Russell to develop into their long-term starter, but Jeff Garcia might be their best option to compete right now.

1. Can JaMarcus Russell develop? Whether or not Oakland can end its six-season slump will likely depend on its third-year quarterback.

Cable said Thursday it's all about whether Russell can win. It has gotten to that point. If Russell fails to make strides this season, his job could be on the line. Considering that veteran Jeff Garcia is looking to take his job, Russell's progress is definitely the biggest issue in Oakland this season.

Russell, who admitted that he reported to training camp heavier than he wanted to, needs to become more consistent and the Raiders want to see him become more of a leader. If he doesn't improve, the Raiders may be in trouble in both 2009 and beyond.

2. Can the run defense improve? So much has been made of the Raiders' problems in the passing game, but the run defense has been a huge issue in recent seasons.

Oakland was 31st in the NFL against the rush last season, allowing 159.7 yards a game on the ground. Oakland was ranked 27th overall on defense last season.

That weakness set the tone for Oakland's defense. If a team can't stop the run, it can't win consistently. It's that simple. Teams that have trouble against the run get eaten alive and wear down.

Oakland has to find a way to improve in this area. The Raiders haven't changed their personnel much, so they have to get better play from their defensive tackle rotation. New defensive coordinator John Marshall, an NFL veteran, appears bent on teaching fundamentals and is very vocal in camp. He has a tall task ahead of him.

3. Can Oakland's young receivers make an impact? Cable is talking up young receivers Chaz Schilens and Johnnie Lee Higgins. Both players ended last season on high notes.

But they are both still learning and are not sure things. If they continue to develop, Russell will get the help from his receivers that he needs. The Raiders, of course, are also counting on rookies Darrius Heyward-Bey and Louis Murphy. If two of these four players show they can be consistent weapons in 2009, Oakland's run-first offense has a chance to succeed.

 
  AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
  Darrius Heyward-Bey signed his rookie contract and was in camp on Thursday.

Market watch

Heyward-Bey's best move so far was to sign his rookie contract. He arrived at training camp Thursday after agreeing to a contract with more than $23 million in guarantees. That's big money for someone who is not considered to be a guaranteed NFL success.

But Heyward-Bey gave himself a chance to succeed by not missing much camp time. By all accounts, he is a talented, raw player who needs practice. He lost valuable time in the offseason due to a hamstring injury. For a player who was inconsistent and who had trouble holding on to the ball in college, the lost time was not ideal. Heyward-Bey is super fast and has big-time potential. But he needs work before he can help the receiver-
starved Raiders.

Newcomer to watch

I just get the feeling that Garcia's shadow is going to hover over Russell all season or until Garcia takes over. Garcia is honest and expresses his thoughts whenever he's asked. Garcia believes he gives the Raiders the best chance to win, but he'll support Russell while he is the starter.

That's just not the best atmosphere for a young quarterback who needs to make quick progress. Russell doesn't need to be feeling heat. He needs to feel relaxed as he tries to become a quality NFL player. Having Garcia hover may make that impossible. Before the end of the season, Garcia's presence on this team will become a major storyline. It appears inevitable.

Observation deck

Second-year running back Darren McFadden looks healthy and primed to live up to his rookie hype. McFadden can also help when lined up as a wide receiver. Expect McFadden to lead a strong running attack that also features Michael Bush and Justin Fargas ... Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly jumped offsides three times Thursday. Penalties have long been a problem in Oakland. It is clear the team needs to work on discipline this summer ... Look for former Cleveland starter Charlie Frye to be the Raiders' No. 3 quarterback ... Linebacker Ricky Brown has been working at outside and inside linebacker and the team thinks he may be ready to live up to his potential ... The Raiders are giving Mario Henderson a chance to be the starting left tackle. He has promise. If former Jacksonville starter Khalif Barnes doesn't beat out Henderson, Barnes could be moved to right tackle ... The Raiders expect to get a lot of production out of pass-rushers Greg Ellis and Trevor Scott. The Raiders think Ellis, signed this summer after Dallas cut him, can still be a factor and that Scott, a second-year defensive tackle, is ready for prime time. The presence of Ellis and Scott is a major reason the Raiders aren't sweating the puzzling holdout of defensive end Derrick Burgess ... Keep an eye out for tight end Zach Miller. He is getting better in all phases of the game.

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