Despite the massive hype and media attention it received, the uniform unveiling that the NFL and Nike hosted on Tuesday didn’t really provide much actual news. Other than the Seahawks becoming Oregon-ized, it was basically a new stripe here, a change in material there, and some creative gloves for every team.
One team that saw absolutely no change to its attire is the Raiders. Why would it? The classic look of the Silver and Black, with two crossing swords, a shield and a pirate with an eye patch on the helmet is one of the NFL’s iconic looks. Few teams are as proud of their history and tradition as the Raiders and there was no way, even with a new company producing the uniforms, that the team was going to alter its look.
“The Oakland Raiders have chosen to stay with their traditional black and silver design aesthetic as well as their former uniform fabrication this year,” Nike announced on its website.
However, don’t mistake the stagnancy in uniforms for the Raiders resisting change. Their jerseys, pants and helmet might resemble exactly what the team had in 2011, but the team as a whole is undergoing a complete overhaul. Led by new GM Reggie McKenzie, the Raiders are redefining their identity over a series of moves, which hopefully will lead to a complete overhaul in their win totals.
The changes began with the hiring of McKenzie in January, done out of necessity after the team’s owner — and lone football decision maker — Al Davis passed away last October. McKenzie immediately made fixes of his own, firing head coach Hue Jackson and bringing in former Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to succeed Jackson. The hiring of the new coach itself signified a shift in culture, as Allen became the first defensive-minded coach the Raiders have had on the sideline since John Madden stepped down in 1978. But the team wasn’t done there. For the position of offensive coordinator, McKenzie and Allen hired Greg Knapp, whose zone-blocking run scheme is radically different than the vertical passing game that has defined the Raiders for so many years.
When the league year began and he was finally allowed to tinker with the roster, McKenzie continued to make changes. High-priced defenders who weren’t producing at an elite level were let go. That meant CB Stanford Routt, DT John Henderson and most surprisingly OLB Kamerion Wimbley all were given pink slips, as the team shed salaries and committed to a younger and more versatile defense. On offense, RB Michael Bush, who led the team in rushing two of the past three seasons, was allowed to depart in free agency. In his place, the team traded OT Bruce Campbell to the Panthers for RB Mike Goodson. That move also was an example of the shakeup, as Campbell was a classic Davis guy who has the body of a great player but never produced as expected and was a disappointment as a fourth-round selection in 2010.
The GM also was as active on the free-agent market as he could be, finding veteran pieces to add to the roster while still keeping his long-term goals for the team intact. McKenzie added a trio of cornerbacks to fix a problem area in the past, signed athletic OG Mike Brisiel — who fits Knapp’s offense perfectly — and came to terms with OLB Philip Wheeler, who takes Wimbley’s spot in the linebacking corps. This was all done despite the Raiders having minimal space under the salary cap, thanks to moves made by Davis and Jackson.
Now it’s draft time, and despite having only five picks (tied with the Saints for the fewest in the league), McKenzie again will try to find some impact players who fit into the team’s long-term plan. Though Davis’ draft strategy of selecting players based on their height, weight and, most importantly, speed has not been abandoned completely, McKenzie plans to use more football common sense than his predecessor, drafting players who can add to the team’s depth and can make an impact early on. It is expected that Oakland will look to add more pieces to Allen’s defense, including some linebackers and maybe a defensive tackle. On offense, a tight end and more depth on the offensive line could be areas that are addressed.
McKenzie can’t change everything on the roster. The team’s success still will be dependent on the consistency of QB Carson Palmer, the health of RB Darren McFadden and the development of a defense that is transitioning from a traditional 4-3 alignment to a hybrid scheme that will play both “30” and “40” fronts. Allen is a first-time head coach who surely will face some tough choices in 2012, and the AFC West has greatly improved this offseason. The Raiders had the same 8-8 record as the division-champion Broncos did a year ago, but that likely won’t cut it in 2012 if they want to end their nine-year playoff drought.
In recent years, the changes in Oakland have been with quarterbacks and head coaches, spots where consistency is needed. McKenzie’s goal now is to change the culture of the Raiders, starting with the way the roster is put together. The players will be wearing the same Silver and Black they always have, but the new GM is making sure the team looks completely different.
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