Is The ‘Wait ‘Til Next Year' Over?
Oakland has experienced a playoff drought since 2002 that now equals the 13 year long dry spell the Bolts had from 1966 through 1978.
(Juvenile, I know, but irresistible.)
There is some reason for optimism in Oakland though. The team has been much better at player personnel decisions in the last 4 years. They have parleyed several high draft choices into excellent players that are coming of age. Their free agent activity has been strategic in the last 3 years, instead of overpaying for shiny toys, big names in the twilight of their careers, and rolls of the dice on injured players.
As a result, Oakland now has a starting lineup that looks competitive. They have a QB in David Carr that seems to have the physical, mental, and intangible tools to be one of the better passers in the league. They have a defensive playmaker in Khalil Mack that forces offensive coordinators to scheme with hime in mind. Though the depth may still be questionable, this team has the look and feel of a franchise about to open the door to playoff runs and potential championships. (You have no idea how much it hurts me to type that.)
As a franchise, Oakland has also rediscovered patience. Carr and Mack will get their chance to get better with a coaching staff and scheme that remains unchanged from 2015. There are not many people that have played in Oakland that have gotten a chance to say that since Y2K preparations were in vogue.
Jack Del Rio was savvy enough to let a superb offensive coordinator (Bill Musgrave) and the offensive staff run the offense, while he got more hands on with 1st year DC Ken Norton and the defense. Oakland went 7-9 last year under a new staff and look to have gotten better during the offseason. The story for this team though may not be in their acquisitions and draft, but rather what they kept.
The coaching staff returns intact. Carr will have his top 4 receivers returning (including last year's top draft pick Amari Cooper), his top 3 TE's, and the starting RB. With the chaos of the last decade, what was retained by Oakland is a large source of the optimism among their fan base.
Stockpiling and Improving
The team did lose some important contributors. Justin Tuck and Charles Woodson announced their retirements. A decent o-lineman, J'Marcus Webb left via free agency. He was more than made up for with the acquisition of Kelechi Osemele. Combining Osemele with Rodney Hudson and Gabe Jackson gives the team one of the better interior 0-line groups in the division, if not the league.
The secondary was also bolstered with the signings of CB Sean Smith and Safety Reggie Nelson. The team also got LB Bruce Irvin, who has been a decent thumper in the middle and still looks to have a lot left in the tank.
Without much need to draft for offense, the team added a lot of nice defensive pieces in the draft. Safety Karl Joseph was picked in the 1st round (perhaps an overdraft), soon to be joined by D-lineman Jihad Ward in the 2nd. Developmental players Shillique Calhoun (LB) and RB DeAndre Washington were taken in the 3rd and 5th round respectively. Washington may make an impact sooner rather than later on special teams and in some offensive packages.
This team is a popular pick by many sportswriters to be a playoff team in 2016. It is easy to see why. With Carr, a really good o-line that seems to be improving, and a weapon like Cooper, there is the potential for the offensive to be better than what KC and Denver can bring to the field. They were 17th in the NFL in total scoring last season, but now that Musgrave has had a full season with his team, you can expect that performance to get better. The team will now take a really hard look at whether Carr can take the next step; there is a team around him now.
Defensively, Del Rio and Norton will throw a lot of looks at an opponent and take calculated risks to try and change games. The weakest link last season was the secondary and depth with all sub-units. This looks to have been shored up in the offseason.
As with the offense, having another season to work with same coaching staff and system should pay some dividends. Last season was learning about what was expected from the team; this season will be more about perfecting the execution within the systems.
How many games of improvement over last season's 7-9 record that might be good for is anyone's guess. At this point, the starting roster looks competitive to anyone else's in the AFC West. What the team lacks is experience in being a winner and that intangible that is often referred to as confidence or swagger. There are also some concerns about the depth and their ability to contribute within the system if needed. Those that have not picked the team to make the playoffs are mostly agreed that they are close.
Outlook Against The Chargers
The Bolts played their worst game of the season early in the 2015 campaign. Turnovers, mental mistakes, and just plain bad play highlighted the first game. The two teams were fairly depleted when they played Christmas Eve, and the Chargers had a chance to win against them until a late game turnover ruined that chance.
This will be yet another week in which the match up on Verrett should be fun to watch. Cooper is joined by Michael Crabtree, Seth Roberts, and Andre Holmes; this group can challenge any secondary in the league. The offense looks to have a true running back by committee, with Latavius Murray and Taiwan Jones forming a decent 1-2 punch, with Roy Helu and FB Marcel Reece rounding out the group. Rookie DeAndre Washington may be used in the return game and long-yardage situations to see if his hands and speed can make things happen.
This is a balanced offensive, with a superb coordinator and excellent front line. It is now up to Carr to make the next step.
Defensively, the team plays a base 3-4 under, with the excellent Mack being the hybrid DE/OLB in this look. They have the personnel to mix in a true 4-3, with Mack putting his hand in the dirt and a nickel 3-3 look with Mack playing well off the line of scrimmage. The LB group is solid and the re-tooled secondary with Sean Smith, David Amerson, DJ Hayden, Reggie Nelson, and Nate Allen looks like it has improved. Waiting in the wings is Karl Joseph, who may be needed more quickly than planned, as Nelson is recovering from an injury.
The two teams and the two head coaches know each other well and those situations point to either blowouts or extremely tight games.
Prediction: The two teams know each other too well for things to get out of hand in normal circumstances. At this point the Bolts will probably be hungry for a win against an AFC West opponent and Oakland will be playing at home. This game shapes up to be a physical grinding match in which the home team comes out on top in a close, low-scoring game.