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Raiders still finding their way, but next three games will tell tale

Immediately following Oakland's 25-20 victory over Houston on Sunday, Raiders wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey told me how much late owner Al Davis meant to him, not so much in a historical context but because Davis, who surprisingly drafted him No. 7 overall in 2009, believed in him like few ever had.

Less than an hour later, on his way out of Reliant Stadium, Heyward-Bey was telling me why he's finally starting to deliver on Davis' faith. Hard work was a part of it, but now, the Raiders are no longer running a lot of two-receiver routes because they had to add protection or play it safe with quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Instead, three and four wideouts are dispatched, schemes are more complex and there are more ways to get open and make plays.

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The issue isn't about Heyward-Bey or the changes in strategy or anything like that. It's about how a team -- a relatively young team -- has a grip on moving forward with playing football.

"We grew up as a team," veteran defensive lineman Richard Seymour said after the game. "It's good to see it right before your eyes."

Before we examine if the team has actually matured, we have to peer through the prism that is now the Raiders following their patriarch's passing Saturday morning.

Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown, an assistant coach who's been with the club for 41 years, actually explained it to me best. There are first- and second-year players who might have spoken to Davis -- some never met him -- but didn't have anything that could seriously be considered a relationship.

They knew who Davis was but they have no idea how to put their familiarity of him in the context of his widespread impact on pro football. In fact, very few of the players fully grasped Davis like Brown and other old-guard Raiders. It's unfair to judge the generation split and Brown wasn't.

In fact, when it comes to doing what Davis was most concerned about -- winning -- it's actually a good thing players aren't feeling the sting or emotions of so many people who've been associated with the franchise for a long time, Brown said. They can focus on playing football.

Now we'll see if they will.

Without being overly bogged down emotionally, the Raiders have three home games with a bye between the second and third games. It could allow them to keep pace with or leapfrog the AFC West-leading Chargers before the team's meet Nov. 10 on NFL Network.


Oakland is 3-2 with Cleveland, Kansas City and Denver coming to town. If the Raiders are for real -- or at least mature enough to understand that they could be a very good team -- they win those three games.

Running back Darren McFadden is one of the best players in the NFL. Oakland's defensive line is one of the most imposing in the league, according to opposing players. Heyward-Bey and others are starting to figure it out.

Coach Hue Jackson seems to have a good gauge on his team and he told me before the Raiders faced Houston that some players are still learning that working hard to win is a daily task, not a Sunday or Monday night job. As it pertains to Jackson, he has to balance the history Davis laid and the future he's trying to establish. That could be a fine line to navigate with young players whose perception of Davis and the Raiders are different than Jackson's.

Things also could be changing organizationally. Instead of everything being funneled to Davis, different people are going to have to assume responsibilities that they might or might not want. There are challenges all around. This could be a defining stretch for the Raiders.

"There are many times in the past that a team like this ... stops fighting," Jackson said. "We're not going to stop fighting. I don't care what the situation is. What we're about is winning and that's what I mean by our new beginning."

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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