Is there any reason to feel good about the Oakland Raiders?
It's a fair question to ask after a 4-12 season in which very little went right -- a season that seemed to just continue a never-ending streak of futility. The team hasn't finished above .500 since 2002, when it lost Super Bowl XXXVII to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In the years since, the Raiders have employed seven different head coaches, logging just two break-even seasons (going 8-8 in 2010 and '11).
Over the past month, I've talked to people in the Raiders organization, including players, and I've been very impressed with the positive attitude I've encountered. Everyone in the NFL, of course, tends to be excited about the future around this time of year, but the Raiders seem to be especially gung-ho.
The trouble is, while Oakland has made some positive changes -- especially on the coaching staff -- the team doesn't seem positioned to make much happen in 2013. But there's room for them to avoid disaster, provided they meet a few of the following conditions:
1) A quarterback steps up.
Carson Palmer wasn't exactly a world-beater during his time with the Raiders, but we shouldn't forget that he threw for 4,018 yards and 22 touchdowns last season before an offseason trade sent him to the Arizona Cardinals. That kind of production won't necessarily be easy to replicate by whoever ends up under center.
Matt Flynn, who has just two NFL starts to his name but will likely win the job, needs to manage the game; he must limit turnovers if this team is to have any kind of success in 2013.
It will not surprise me if fourth-round draft pick Tyler Wilson eventually wins the top job. Wilson's small hands are a concern, as it's very tough for small-handed quarterbacks to have success. But I think he does have the arm, temperament and mentality of a starter. Meanwhile, expect new offensive coordinator Greg Olson to construct some special packages for athletic signal-caller Terrelle Pryor.
2) The new assistants make an impact.
People tend to underestimate the importance of assistant coaches, but I think this area will be the strength of the Raiders this season. Oakland partially overhauled head coach Dennis Allen's staff, bringing in a handful of new faces after parting ways with offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, offensive line coach Frank Pollack and others at the conclusion of last season.
Olson is very good and highly thought of throughout the NFL. New offensive line coach Tony Sparano is considered one of the best at developing young linemen. Bobby April is taking over special teams and he is outstanding. New linebackers coach Bob Sanders, who was with the Green Bay Packers during Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie's time there, is solid.
Meanwhile, second-year defensive coordinator Jason Tarver is very knowledgeable.
As far as the head coach goes, I love the take-charge attitude Allen shows on the field; he's very detail-oriented. At the same time, I think the veteran coaches who were added to this staff should be a big plus for Oakland in 2013.
3) The offensive line improves.
Again, Sparano excels at developing young players, as he's demonstrated at previous career stops, and Oakland will need him to put that expertise to good use.
Left tackle Jared Veldheer (three years of experience) and center Stefen Wisniewski (two years) both have Pro Bowl potential. Rookie Menelik Watson should be able to start at right tackle and play well, while I expect second-year player Tony Bergstrom to contribute as a starter at left guard. Lastly, Sparano should be able to help right guard Mike Brisiel return to the form he showed with the Houston Texans in 2011, when he played extremely well in the running game.
4) Charles Woodson brings some veteran savvy to the defense.
Woodson, who will turn 37 in October and is heading into his 16th NFL season, has lost some speed, but he's a very smart player who will help ensure that the secondary is lined up correctly -- a crucial factor in Tarver's defense. Oakland will be relying on a rookie (D.J. Hayden) with health questions and two new additions (Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter) at cornerback, and Woodson can play a critical role in keeping them on point. Returning to the Raiders after spending seven seasons with the Green Bay Packers, Woodson is a veteran who has been there, done that; he knows how to be in the right spot to make a play.
5) The ground game contributes something.
If the Raiders are to have any success in 2013, this is where the team must improve.
The good thing is that the design of the offense figures to suit Darren McFadden much better than it did last season, when a poor fit and more health issues resulted in just 707 rushing yards -- at 3.3 yards per carry -- over 12 games. When healthy, McFadden is a complete player as both a runner and a receiver -- though he has yet to make it through a full season.
Beyond McFadden, Marcel Reece -- who can line up at fullback, receiver or tight end -- is a multi-talented threat and matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. Not for nothing did he make the 2013 Pro Bowl.
The bottom line is, as long as McFadden can contribute on some level, the Raiders will be able to run the ball much better than they did last year.
6) The defensive front coheres.
A lot of folks worry about how the Raiders will make up for departed veterans Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly, but I wouldn't be too concerned. While it's true that those two had been good in the past (and Seymour was an important character leader), they hadn't contributed much on the field over the last two seasons.
Look for Nick Roach, who came over from the Chicago Bears, and Lamarr Houston to be the heart of the Raiders' new front seven. Oakland needs to find depth at defensive tackle -- second-year man Christo Bilukidi might surprise there. Rookie linebacker Sio Moore, a third-round pick out of Connecticut, is a good player.
7) The young receivers keep growing.
I don't think the passing game will be as big a part of the Raiders' offense as it has been in the past, but Oakland still needs its young receivers to continue developing.
Jacoby Ford, who missed all of last season, is one of the fastest players in the league. Denarius Moore showed promise as a rookie in 2011, but stalled out a bit last season. Both players must produce in 2013. Two young receivers who flashed glimpses as rookies -- fifth-round pick Juron Criner and undrafted free agent Rod Streater -- must continue their upward trajectories.
Not much is expected of this team in 2013; in fact, many observers would likely already give them the top pick in next year's NFL draft. But I think folks underestimate the value of the coaching staff, and I think the Raiders could have a few surprises in store. McKenzie deserves praise for the work he's done with both hands tied behind his back, given the salary-cap situation and the lack of draft picks.
Ultimately, I still think they'll win about two more games in 2013 than they did in 2012, though they have the potential to take a few more, perhaps by notching a big upset or two. Oakland doesn't seem to have quite turned things around just yet, but the Raiders are definitely moving in the right direction.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.