NFL Nation: camp confidential 09 AFC
|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.
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."
|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.
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.|
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-
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.
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.
|Terrell Owens, the celebrity headliner on the first day of training camp, serves as a distraction from the numerous issues facing the Bills.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- On the first day of Buffalo Bills training camp, fans pressed their torsos up against the metal railing at St. John Fisher College to get the best possible look at a local attraction that, for the past few months, has been surpassed only by Niagara Falls.
For the first time since he signed in March, fans were able to behold the wonders of Terrell Owens in a Bills uniform. His every move was cheered. Each time he touched the ball -- even during casual warmup tosses on the sideline -- drew applause. They pleaded for autographs. They barked out chants, supplementing a popular refrain: "Let's go, Buf-fa-lo! Let's go, T.O.!"
The other 70 or so players were rendered afterthoughts. Owens, on the first day of camp, WAS the Buffalo Bills. He hadn't scored a touchdown, caught a pass, run a route or said something inflammatory yet. Owens, running around in chrome-bottomed Nike cleats, was all that existed.
And for the rest of the Bills, that should be a pleasant distraction.
The future Hall of Famer has diverted so much attention from myriad question marks surrounding his team.
The Bills have gone nine straight years without a playoff appearance. They went 0-6 against the AFC East last year. They have an injury-prone quarterback. Their miscreant Pro Bowl running back has been suspended the first three games. The fans generally loathe head coach Dick Jauron. The offensive line has been rearranged more than Tex Cobb's face. Rookie defensive end Aaron Maybin, the 11th overall pick, probably won't sign a contract any time soon.
Still, this year's season-ticket base will be the largest since Buffalo's Super Bowl years. The Bills have been able to market perennial hope, and this year's dreams are hitched to Owens, a player who makes the team nationally relevant for the first time since Doug Flutie was around.
But let's look deeper than the obvious storyline from Bills camp. Owens can't possibly fix everything.
|Joe Robbins/Getty Images|
|Langston Walker's transition from right tackle to left could be a key to the offensive line's performance.|
1. How will the Bills' reconstituted offensive line perform?
In the afternoon practice on the first day of training camp, Buffalo's offensive linemen conducted drills 10 feet in front of the railing that separated the most boisterous fans from the field. The throng gazed right past the most important players on the team so they could gawk at Owens and yell to him about how good his new toasted-oats cereal product is.
Buffalo will be as successful this year as its offensive line will allow.
The Bills had no choice but to trade Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, who held out right up until the regular-season opener last year. They were convinced the still-disgruntled Peters would boycott the team into the season, maybe miss several games, to make his point again. They dealt their best player to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Rather than look for veteran help to replace Peters, the Bills flopped right tackle Langston Walker, a career right tackle of no particular acclaim, to the left side. Right guard Brad Butler slid to right tackle. They signed Geoff Hangartner to play center. They drafted Eric Wood in the first round and Andy Levitre in the second round to be their guards.
All five linemen projected to start on opening day will be in different positions than last year, when they gave up the fifth-most sacks in the NFL.
2. Will the pass rush be significantly better this year?
Only three teams had fewer than Buffao's 28 sacks last year.
The Bills selected Maybin to bolster its anemic pass rush. Many were skeptical he would make an immediate impact because he was a one-year starter at Penn State who entered the draft a year early. His chances of being a significant contributor are lessening with each day he's not under contract.
But the main character here is two-time Pro Bowl end Aaron Schobel
. He played in only five games last year because of a foot injury. Schobel collected 26 sacks in 2005 and 2006, but dropped to 6.5 sacks in 2007 and 1.5 in his limited time last year.
3. What kind of impact will the no-huddle offense make?
|John David Mercer/US Presswire|
|Early on, Trent Edwards has looked good directing Buffalo's new no-huddle offense.|
If the first few days of training camp were any indication, the Bills' offense will be fun to watch -- win or lose. To maximize their weaponry both at receiver and in the backfield and perhaps mitigate the line's limitations, offensive coordinator Turk Schonert, a former Sam Wyche pupil, has gone no-huddle.
The Bills' first-team defense has had trouble keeping Owens and Lee Evans from getting behind them. Trent Edwards, criticized for his inability or unwillingness to go deep, has been hurling rainbows that are going for touchdowns.
Some close to the team, however, aren't convinced the Bills will use it throughout a game. The belief is that they'll start out in the no-huddle and use it as long as it works. If defenses don't cave in the first half, the conservative-minded Jauron might be prone to get more conventional.
Fred Jackson sounds like an everyman name. But there's a decent chance you'll know who he is, especially if you're a fantasy football enthusiast, a few weeks into the season. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended running back Marshawn Lynch for the first three games. That will cede backfield duties to Jackson and Dominic Rhodes.
Jackson emerged from football oblivion. Undrafted out of Division III Coe College, he went to the arena bush leagues, then to NFL Europa and the Bills' practice squad. He has become one of the NFL's most underrated backs. He rushed for 571 yards last year with a 5.0 average, racking up 136 yards in place of an injured Lynch in the season finale. He caught 37 passes for 317 yards.
Newcomer to watch
Is there anybody else to consider other than Owens? We don't need to discuss the obvious, so let's pick the next in line.
Wood, a dominant center at Louisville, was drafted with the top pick the Bills received from the Eagles in the Peters trade. He will be learning a new position, but is confident it will be an easier transition from center to guard than any other position-to-position switch on the line.
Some consider the Bills a dark horse in the AFC East. They have the offensive firepower to make some noise, but have they improved enough to overcome their 0-6 division record last year? The Bills have gone 7-9 each season since Jauron arrived. It's foreseeable they could go 7-9 a fourth year in a row, but be much better than they've been. … Bills fans should hope second-year cornerback Leodis McKelvin is keeping his early camp performances in perspective. He has been getting flambéed by Owens and Evans on deep balls and getting his ankles broken by Owens' post-catch cuts on the underneath stuff. McKelvin's confidence probably is bruised, but he's squaring up against two of the game's best every day. … Edwards hasn't been able to stay healthy through his first two NFL seasons, which puts an emphasis on the backup. The Bills signed Cincinnati Bengals reserve Ryan Fitzpatrick to fill that role, but the Harvard grad has struggled. The no-huddle offense hums under Edwards, but when Fitzpatrick takes over, passes frequently don't find their mark. Third quarterback Gibran Hamdan has a chance to make a push for the No. 2 job. … The Bills are one of the NFL's deepest teams at receiver, but a rash of seemingly minor injuries has them trying out even more receivers. Steve Johnson, James Hardy, Felton Huggins and P.K. Sam have been sidelined. … The Demetrius Bell project continues to evolve. The son of former NBA great Karl Malone, drafted out of Northwestern State in the seventh round last year, didn't play a down last year. He has been seeing a healthy amount of reps at second-team left tackle and guard.