NAPA, Calif. -- Sitting on a patio in Napa, surrounded by wine and wine lovers; this is not your typical setting for a hardcore football discussion. But it's the Oakland Raiders' reality -- and they wouldn't want it any other way.
Tucked inside a Napa Marriott, with practice fields right outside the window and anything they need a few steps away, the Raiders have gone to summer camp. It's where, they hope, the rebuilding process accelerates toward the 2013 season.
General manager Reggie McKenzie believes the team is coming together: "Personalities are meshing."
1) In the quarterback battle, all signs point to ... : Officially, it's still a competition in Oakland. Matt Flynn is still trying to hold off Terrelle Pryor, who has come a long way from where he ended 2012 in terms of his preparedness. But the vibe I got from the Raiders was clear: Everyone expects Flynn, the former Green Bay Packers/Seattle Seahawks backup, to seize the starting job. Flynn served as a backup to Aaron Rodgers for four years in Green Bay, and then he lost out to rookie wunderkind Russell Wilson in Seattle last year. Now, as McKenzie tells me, things might be crystalizing for Flynn. When I asked if it's safe to assume Flynn will be the starter, though, McKenzie hedged: "That's how they're going into the preseason game." The GM refuses to reach any conclusions this early in the preseason: "If guys like that get beat out, that means the backup guys are really showing themselves, and that would be encouraging for me, because you know you got a backup that's taking preseason by storm." Still, Flynn consistently has shown up in practice. As far as McKenzie (who was in Green Bay at the same time as Flynn) is concerned, "I can't see him giving it up, because he wants it so bad. His nature, I don't think he's going to let it go. But you never close the door on it. Let these guys compete."
2) Competition is king in Oakland: Quarterback isn't the only gig that's up for grabs -- not by a long shot. Look at Oakland's roster and try to find entrenched starters who aren't in position battles. Slim pickings. Instead, it's mostly unproven rookies and second-year players, along with veterans on short-term "prove it" deals, guys like cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter. Then there are examples like veteran defensive back Charles Woodson, whose market failed to materialize like he'd hoped it would. (Woodson, by the way, has been "surprisingly better, physically" than the Raiders expected, according to McKenzie.) But that mix of players -- hell-bent on scratching and clawing -- creates an identity for the team. "You got a group of guys hungry to prove themselves," head coach Dennis Allen told me. "It's a lot of young guys competing and, really, a lot of old guys competing for a spot on this 53-man roster." And the players aren't the only ones eager to establish worth -- Allen and McKenzie are in Year 2 in their respective roles, while owner Mark Davis hasn't held his post much longer. This type of uncertainty has many doubting the Silver & Black. Allen has used that. "Listen, you're looking for anything you can to motivate these guys to play well." The coach continued: "We're giving a lot of people the chance to prove themselves." Thus far, it's a good mix. One coach mentioned how, in each position group, there is at least one rock-solid leader (Andre Carter with the defensive line, Nick Roach with the linebackers, etc.), some established vets and some rookies. There are also a lot of personalities. "I didn't want to bring in a bunch of robots," McKenzie said. "What you want is everybody to have their own personality, but trying to fit to be one. This group really seems to have come together."
3) Darren McFadden might be gearing up for big things: Remember when McFadden was an electric offensive weapon, someone around whom opposing defenses based their game plans? Allen does. In the 2011 opener, McFadden torched the Denver Broncos for 150 yards on 22 carries in a Raiders win -- and Allen had an up-close-and-personal view as the Broncos' defensive coordinator. But injuries and poor scheme fits have hampered the running back's game-breaking ways over the years. Can McFadden finally fully realize his immense potential in 2013? New offensive coordinator Greg Olson's power running system should be a big boost. Last year's experience with Greg Knapp? Well, it wasn't good for McFadden. "Obviously, he never felt comfortable in what we were doing last year," Allen said. "That led to some questions about him, but if you watch practice, the guy's still explosive. He's still a threat to take it all the way. And he feels more comfortable. If you don't quite trust it, there's always that doubt." McFadden is entering a contract year, and the team has checked in with him about an extension. But McFadden wants to return to his old self and be in position to command big dollars after the season rather than talk now. The reality is, that scenario would be a win-win for both sides.
4) DJ Hayden, other rookies showing promise: Hayden provided a scare in the offseason, as abdominal surgery knocked him out until camp. In Napa, he has worn a red "non-contact" jersey, like so many of the quarterbacks, and he won't be playing in Friday night's preseason debut against the Dallas Cowboys. Yet he's spent the last few practices trying to sneak into contact drills, champing at the bit to get in the mix. After next week, though, McKenzie told me that the team will "let him go full-bore -- that third (preseason) game, the gloves come off." Despite limited involvement, McKenzie loves what he's seen from the player who overcame a near-death experience to be drafted No. 12 overall in April. The GM thinks Hayden is the real deal. Now the rook just has to prove it. "It's the mental part," McKenzie said. "He's going to have to pull the trigger on some things, get the big hit, make plays; he'll be back to normal, mentally. Physically, he's already there. His weight is right back; his strength, he's been normal. I'm excited to have him. It's going to be interesting because people are still going to wonder, how good is he? Let him show some people." There's optimism about the rest of the rookie class, too, especially tackle Menelik Watson (a second-round pick), outside linebacker Sio Moore (third round), tight end Mychal Rivera (sixth round) and receiver Brice Butler (seventh round). Watson has battled calf issues, but he's nearly overcome them. McKenzie said Moore has had a "great camp," and he also believes Rivera can be the "total package," especially given his maturity. As any evaluator knows, hitting on a sixth- or seventh-round pick is gold. "Because your team isn't just first- and second-rounders," he said. "You got to go down the line."
5) Raiders ready for Year "1" in rebuilding: Last year was almost Year 0 for Oakland. McKenzie and Allen took over a roster with little-to-no talent, no salary-cap space and few draft picks. The past year, let's be honest, was spent getting the house in order. And building through the draft takes time. What should this year be like? Probably still hard. But with a young and hungry team, the Raiders might surprise a few opponents. They must avoid major injuries, which they've done thus far. They'll need to create with scheme -- Olson and second-year defensive coordinator Jason Tarver should be in position to do just that. On defense especially, Tarver will create confusion and mismatches, particularly through the blitz. With a young team, the defensive boss has struck the right chord in communicating a simple, effective message, and he's not alone. That's been a lot of the focus in Oakland: Don't overcomplicate things; get the team playing football and moving fast. Allen feels more comfortable in his second year at the helm: "I think I'm seeing the big picture of things a little bit more clearly. Talk to any coach in the league, and a lot of being the head coach ends up being more about leading a group of men and managing situations more so than it is X's-and-O's of football. It's more about the big picture of what we're trying to do."