By Greg Benson • San Leandro Times
From the time General Manager Reggie McKenzie first set foot on the shores of Bay Farm Island, a sense of great change filled the air space above Oakland Raiders headquarters.
For two years, McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen methodically stripped the Oakland Raiders franchise down to its studs. And, under a black cloud of construction dust, the team faultered with back-to-back 4-12 seasons.
With a few off-season misfires and some unfortunate injuries, the Raiders struggled to find an identity and form any consistent competitive edge.
With new majority owner Mark Davis taking over for his legendary father, Al Davis, time is running out for this reconstruction to show some better results.
One upside to the two-year deconstruction phase is the enormous amount of cushion the Raiders found under the salary cap.
By jettisoning some budget-busting contracts and signing shorter cap-conscious deals, the Raiders filled their NFL wallet with free agent dollars this offseason. Time for a shopping spree!
March, known for its madness, marked the most active month for the Raiders reconstruction — signing 12 veteran free-agent starters to fill pressing needs on both defense and offense… all in less than 20 days.
The free-agent frenzy began on March 12 with the acquisition of offensive tackle Austin Howard — a 330-pound pocket protector from the New York Jets.
Next, defensive coordinator Jason Tarver added two new pro bowlers to his defensive box set — defensive end Justin Tuck from the New York Giants and linebacker LaMarr Woodley from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Tuck may be approaching the sunset of his 10-year career at age 31, but you’ve got to love a guy who put Tom Brady on his back four times to help take two Super Bowls from the Patriots (2007 and 2011) — a team Raiders fans love to hate.
Woodley, at age 29, is another sackmaster with a long, loyal career. These two, when “activated,” will give the Raiders a much-needed boost in passer pressure.
Tarver and his defense continued to benefit from a free-agent windfall with the addition of 49er corner backs Tarell Brown and teammate Carlos Rogers (who came in two weeks later) from across the bay. That same day, the Raiders also brought in Antonio Smith, a veteran defensive lineman from the Houston Texans.
The spending spree continued with San Jose State star and Green Bay Packer wide receiver James Jones, and offensive lineman Kevin Boothe, who returns to the Raiders after seven seasons and two Super Bowl Championships with the New York Giants.
Jones adds some much-needed experience to a young receiving corps and Boothe is a solid backup that can play anywhere on the O-line, even center.
Two days later, the Raiders signed offensive lineman Donald Penn. This guy lives at left tackle. He has started 108 consecutive games at that position for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the third longest current streak among all active tackles in the NFL entering 2014.
Now it was time for the Raiders to address their most pressing need. Who is going to lead this reborn team out of the blackness?
At that time, March 21, and up until this week, that man was quarterback Matt Schaub from the Houston Texans.
Schaub, now in his 11th season, showed great poise in the pocket and produced big numbers in Houston. That is up until last year. His accuracy and timing seemed to drop off, along with the O-line’s pass protection, falling out of favor with the fans and the franchise.
Throughout the preseason, Schaub seemed to struggle with finding a rhythm in his new offense. Timing was off, receivers were dropping balls, and linemen gave way under pressure.
In his two preseason starts, Schaub ended up completing 24 of 47 attempts for 218 yards, with one interception and no touchdowns — pretty much ineffective.
A week after the Schaub trade with Houston, the Raiders found a firey little free agent down in Jacksonville. Maurice Jones-Drew returned to his Bay Area roots of Antioch and the storied De La Salle Spartans.
While his numbers may have dropped off a bit in his last two years with the Jaguars, this nine-year veteran back still has the juice to turn it upfield.
He’ll be splitting time with Darren McFadden in the backfield which should keep both backs fresh through the season and help alleviate injury concerns.
“We both can do it all,” said Jones-Drew after the 27-26 win over the Detroit Lions. “We’ll have a fresh body in there all the time. That’s going to be tough for defenses to stop.”
Add in the free-agent signings of Green Bay defensive end C.J. Wilson and cornerback Carlos Rogers at the end of March, and there you have the Raiders version of the “Dirty Dozen.”
While all of these guys are on the downslope of their career trajectory, averaging just over 30 years of age, the Raiders have always been known to target veterans that still have something to prove and enough gas in the tank to light it up. So, stand back Raiders fans. This explosive experiment has the potential to ignite some greatness…
And, yet, as we’ve seen in the past, the experiment can go horribly wrong.
It takes just the right amount of chemistry, mixed with a little luck and a whole lot of enthusiasm, for it all to come together as a winning formula.
So, for that immeasurable ingredient of enthusiasm, the Raiders next turned to the 2014 NFL Draft.
Having the fifth overall pick proved very fortuitous. In selecting Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack, the Raiders instantly solidified their linebacking corps. This young ballhawk tore up the Mid-American Conference, setting the NCAA record for forced fumbles at 16.
Mack received extensive playing time in the preseason and showed good progress as both a tackler and pass rusher.
Tarver will undoubtedly find some creative ways to utilize this gifted strongside linebacker’s skills. Whether it be with his hand in the dirt rushing the passer, dropping back in coverage or stepping up to stop the run, Mack has the skills to make an immediate impact.
The next Raiders selection in the draft was a huge surprise. Not in that it was Derek Carr, but in the fact that he was still available at number 36.
McKenzie and his scouts loved this guy. He was pegged to be the future of the Raiders at quarterback early on. But it just wasn’t certain he would be there in the second round.
Carr’s college credentials are very impressive. He established 27 school records and 21 Mountain West Conference records over his college career, including yards (12,482), completions (1,086) and touchdowns (113). He also led the nation in total offense (5,199), total passing yards (5,082) and passing touchdowns (50) as a senior at Fresno State in 2013.
Through training camp, he studied the playbook like a mad man, prepped for every game, and showed progress at every stage.
When Schaub experienced tendonitis in his elbow and was unable to practice after the 31-21 loss to Green Bay, Carr was able to step in as the starter for the final preseason game.
Don’t worry, it’s only the defending champions, the Seattle Seahawks.
Carr capitalized on the opportunity with an impressive performance, completing 11 of his 13 passes for 143 yards, and 3 touchdowns. And much of that was against the first-string defense of the defending champs.
“You want to play against the best, and they’ve got the ring to prove it,” said Carr after the 41-31 preseason win over Seattle. “They fly around. They’re fast. It was nice to play against them and I look forward to playing against them in the future.”
Little did Carr know at the time, but his wish was coming true as he spoke. A few short days later, Carr was named the starting quarterback for the Raiders over Matt Schaub.
Carr and the Raiders play Seattle in week nine.
CAPTION 1: Oakland Raiders running back Maurice Jones-Drew powers through the Detroit Lions defense in the team’s preseason debut at O.co Coliseum. He is one of 12 veteran free-agent players the Raiders signed this offseason.
CAPTION 2: Raiders rookie quarterback Derek Carr won the starting job over veteran Matt Schaub with an impressive performance against the Seattle Seahawks in the final preseason game. The Raiders won 41-31.