NAPA -- The field is still 100 yards long and 53 13 yards wide. The end zones are still 10 yards deep and, of course, the colors remain Silver and Black.So yes, the more some things change, the more they stay the same when it comes to the Raiders. But make no mistake, there is a decidedly different feel in these parts.After all, the Raiders enter the first practice of training camp Monday without Al Davis for the first time since the Kennedy Administration and, as Associated Press pointed out, only one-third of the 89 players on the camp roster have played a single game with the Raiders before Davis passed away last Oct. 8.There's still a Davis in the owner's box, Al's son Mark, but he has bequeathed all football-related decisions to new general manager Reggie McKenzie, and McKenzie wants the new coach, 39-year-old Dennis Allen, to become the face of the team."See, Reggie got his guy," Mark Davis said upon Allen's hiring, "I got my guy -- I got Reggie."Allen is the Raiders' first defensive-minded head coach since John Madden was hired in 1969 and as he embarks on a new era in Oakland, he is mindful to pay heed to the more successful past of the late owner, who came to Oakland in 1963 as coach and general manager."I think what he did here with the Raiders organization and how he built the organization, the loyalty that he's created within the organization, makes this one of the best organizations in sports to get an opportunity to work for," Allen said."I'm excited about trying to meet the standards that are here in the Bay Area for the Raiders. We won't do everything exactly the way it (was) done before. We'll put our own stamp on it, but I'm excited about working for the Raiders."McKenzie, who played linebacker for the Raiders in Los Angeles from 1985 through 1988 and cut his personnel teeth in Green Bay, has slowly but surely retooled the organization from within, from updating the organization's computer systems to revamping the scouting department.Both men, though, have their sights set on making the Raiders a more disciplined team in the wake of setting league records with 163 penalties for 1,358 yards last season.In fact, players now have to sign in for meals at camp."They're (trying) to change the discipline factor, I guess," said strong safety Tyvon Branch."With the new G.M. and the whole new regime coming in with a new mindset, the coaching change, that's what they're preaching right now -- we're changing the culture. So we're just going along for the ride, following the leaders."But can added accountability and punctuality make a difference between the hash marks?"I think it will," said running back Darren McFadden. "Just knowing where to be, and being there at the right time and being there on time, that is one main thing for us. And I feel like by tightening things down is going to help guys and translate onto the field."A healthy McFadden -- he is coming off missing basically 10 games with a Lis Franc injury to his right foot and has missed at least three due to injury in all four of his seasons -- will be a boon to the offense, as well as quarterback Carson Palmer -- the two have yet to take a single in-game snap together in the same backfield -- having a full offseason with the team as the Raiders return to offensive coordinator Greg Knapp's version of the West Coast Offense with a zone-blocking scheme."Seeing Carson before, I knew he was going to be a good quarterback," McFadden said. "And I had seen him play several times before, so it was not a big deal. It was just a matter of him getting back into the groove of things, I think."Said Palmer: "I love all the boots and play-actions and all the nakeds and keepers. I'm real excited to do that and really, those are the things that are going to help the run game."The late Davis, while always professing his affinity for the vertical passing game, seemed to take more of an interest in the defense in his later years, insisting the Raiders play a 4-3 scheme with few, if any, blitzes, and man-to-man coverage sensibilities.Now? Free safety Michael Huff may have ruffled feathers earlier this summer by saying he was looking forward to playing in a "real defense" under the new regime."Well, nothing personal but, obviously, before with Al, rest in peace, he had his hands in all the defense," Huff said. "He had all his little things he liked to do. Now, with D.A. out there, we've got all kinds of blitzes. We've got 3-4, 4-3 fronts. Just a lot of different variety and a lot of different things going on."So, I'm going to love it."Coming off a pair of 8-8 seasons in which they just missed the playoffs, the Raiders have not had a winning year since the 2002 Super Bowl season and had a record run of seven straight years with at least 11 losses. Expecting a return to greatness after a decade of despair might be asking for too much, what with so many new and moving parts at the top of the food chain.But the future looks promising and there is stability at the top as the McKenzie-Allen Era begins anew."Yeah, jacked up about it," Allen said. "We're ready. It's a start of a long journey and we'll take it. I know this is cliche, but we'll take it one day at a time and we'll attack whatever challenges come up on a day-by-day basis and deal with them and keep pushing forward."
ALAMEDA – Todd Downing has friends with fantasy football teams. Those faux general managers, like many across the roto world, took Raiders with high draft picks.
They would like to know why Derek Carr isn’t throwing touchdowns in bulk, Amari Cooper’s in a slump and Marshawn Lynch isn’t getting more carries.
“I have friends that have him on their fantasy team that are mad at me for that,” Downing said after Wednesday’s practice. “That’s part of the business.”
Ah, the life of an NFL coordinator. Players get credit when things go right. Play callers sit over a Bunsen burner the rest of the time.
Downing understands that part of this gig.
“I welcome the responsibility that this job has afforded me,” he said. “I understand that I’m going to have to deal with negative comments and consequences when things aren’t going well. I’m looking forward to standing up here in a more positive fashion some time soon.”
Positives were expected right away. He was given the keys to a Lamborghini with a franchise quarterback under center, 1,000-yard receivers on each flank, an older back considered among the best of his generation, and the NFL’s biggest and most expensive offensive line.
The Raiders ranked No. 6 in total offense before adding Lynch, tight end Jared Cook and receiver Cordarrelle Patterson in free agency. Now they’re 30th heading into Thursday night’s game against Kansas City.
The mob is lighting torches, armed with pitchforks. After six weeks.
Everyone has an opinion on what’s wrong and how to fix this offense. More interior runs, less outside zone. More play action, please. Go deep, a lot. Have Derek hold on to the ball longer. Have Derek get rid of it quick. Do all that at once. Do it now.
Downing’s going to stick with his system. The Raiders will stick with their process, thank you very much, with faith that things will turn.
“When you look at the tape, you can see that we’re so close on so many things,” Downing said. “I know that sounds cliché and I know that sounds like someone sitting up here and trying to give you the rose-colored glasses, but it’s the truth. We know that we’re just this close to making a couple more plays each game and being able to come out on top and feeling like we put together a good product.
“…We’re looking for answers right now, but we know those answers exist in our room and in our scheme. Once we hit our stride, we’re excited to see what it looks like.”
There’s reason to believe that can happen. Take the season’s first two games, for example. The Raiders scored 71 points in that span. There’s talent everywhere in the starting lineup and behind it.
That’s why concern reigns during a four-game losing streak where the offense is averaging 13.1 points. They can’t sustain drives, come through on third down or block consistently in the run game. Their play count is dismally low. According to the Associated Press, the Raiders aver averaging 54 plays per game. Every other team has at least 60. The 2005 49ers were the last team that averaged such a sum. The Raiders haven’t had a 300-yard passer, a 100-yard rusher or a 100-yard receiver.
Offense is blamed for a dismal 2-4 start. Even the universally beloved Carr has taken some heat for lackluster performances.
“I don’t think there’s a single guy that can look back over the last few weeks and say, ‘You know what, I’m really pleased with how I’ve played over the last three weeks,’ or, ‘Called the last three weeks’ or, ‘Coached my position the last three weeks.’ We all own this together,” Downing said. “There’s no one guy that is going to save it or break it or anything in between. We need to do this as a team and everybody needs to make the plays they’re afforded the opportunity to make and I need to call the right plays when afforded the opportunity to call them.”
The Raiders can and must do better before falling further. Righting the ship too late to reach the season’s goals might hurt as much as a completely dismal campaign.
Pressing, however, isn’t the answer.
“You do have to stay patient,” Downing said. “I tell the offense this every week, but it’s never been more true than where we’re at now as an offense. We have a belief in what we’ve done this far, and the system we’ve put in place, and the playmakers we have in that room, and the coaches that are up in the room with me, and you will never see me waiver in my belief of any single one of those guys, including myself. If I did, and I started acting different or started calling games differently, then that would mean I didn’t really believe in the first place.”
ALAMEDA – Obi Melifonwu participated in a Raiders practice Tuesday afternoon, his first session in months.
The second-round safety has been on injured reserve all season and hasn’t done football activities of any kind since suffering a knee injury in a preseason game in Dallas.
He had arthroscopic knee surgery and was put on the shelf for the season’s first half. Melifonwu's professional career barely started and then quickly stopped. That's why Wednesday's practice was such a big deal.
“It was awesome to get back out there, finally,” Melfonwu said. “It’s been a while. It was beyond fun to just be out there and practice with the team."
He nearing a return to game action. That’s why the Raiders designated him to return off injured reserve. Wednesday marks the start of a three-week practice window where the Raiders can decide whether to put him on the 53-roster.
He’s expected to do so when eligible. Melifonwu was first able to practice this week, and can join the 53-man roster after Week 8. His NFL debut could come in Week 9 at Miami.
He can't wait, especially because he's physically ready now.
"I feel 100 percent," Meilfonwu said. I feel fine."
The Raiders still struggle covering the aforementioned skill players, using young linebackers or an undersized safety against those guys. The Raiders have given up the most yards to tight ends and running backs in the NFL this season. Melifonwu was drafted to help cover tight ends and running backs right away in sub packages, with a long-term eye on a full-time starting spot.
"I bring versatility, and I think I’m a guy who can fit into a lot of different spots," Melifonwu said. "Wherever the coaches need me to fit and help the team win, I’m all for it."
He has missed significant development time while out. He also missed most of training camp with an apparent ankle injury. The team hopes he can be ready to contribute when eligible despite missing so much time. The downtime was difficult, but Melifonwu now hopes to hit the ground running.
"It was definitely tough," he said. "As a competitor, you always want to be out there helping your team win. As a guy who hasn’t been hurt, it was pretty tough. It comes with playing football. I’m just glad to be out there now."