NAPA -- Going up?
The Raiders seem to think they are, even though expectations from the outside world have never been lower as players report for training camp Wednesday at the Napa Valley Marriott.
After a 4-12 season and with salary-cap restraints weighing on them, general manager Reggie McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen changed the offensive scheme and overhauled the defensive personnel.
They hope the Raiders will be leaner, meaner and more serious about what it takes to win when they hit the field for their first practice Friday at Redwood Middle School.
Allen hasn't spent a lot of time talking about the team's public perception, but he did address the critics when the club finished its mandatory minicamp in June.
"I know there's a lot of experts out there that might think differently, but I like this football team," he said.
Profootballtalk.com ranked the Raiders as the No. 32 team in the NFL. ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski rated presumptive starter Matt Flynn as the No. 32 quarterback in the NFL.
Although the Raiders haven't had a winning season since 2002 -- a run of 10 non-winning seasons -- the fan base might have been deluded into thinking victory was near in the two previous offseasons based on 8-8 records under Tom Cable and then Hue Jackson.
But instead of being playoffs contenders, the Raiders might not even have been as good as their 4-12 record in 2012, given that three wins came against Kansas City (twice) and Jacksonville, teams that finished 2-14.
Rebuilding the organization after owner Al Davis' death in October 2011 has turned out to be more difficult than McKenzie and Allen expected.
"It was Year 1 for all of us -- for Coach Allen, for myself, for our owner, Mark Davis," McKenzie told the Raiders' flagship station, 95.7 The Game. "(Allen) went through some growing pains, as well as I. This year he's much more comfortable. The way he wants his team to look, his staff, his philosophies, is much smoother."
While not looking to take on the critics, the Raiders have adopted more of a "we know something you don't know" approach and plan to let their hard work speak for itself on the practice field and on game days.
When Flynn and the passing game received less-than-favorable reviews during offseason workouts open to the media, McKenzie told 95.7, "I really don't pay a whole lot of attention to that. Sorry about that, beat writers. If you were really good I'd probably get you in one of these scouting jobs."
Flynn seemed only dimly aware during organized team activities that little was expected of the Raiders.
"I don't know what's being said outside these walls, but I think if people are doubting us then we're definitely going to be underrated," Flynn said.
Middle linebacker Nick Roach, brought in from the Chicago Bears to be the defensive signal caller and to give the Raiders the kind of presence they never got from the departed Rolando McClain, thinks detail and attitude can work wonders.
"In the NFL, the talent margin is so slim that if you can get a group of guys together that just want to be around each other and care about it, it's just a matter of getting everybody on the same page as fast as possible," Roach said. "After that, anybody has a shot."
Free safety Charles Woodson, returning to the Raiders after seven seasons in Green Bay, sees a staff serious about doing things the right way, similar to what he experienced with the Packers in winning a Super Bowl.
"It's about trying to set a tone and making sure you're busting your tail like you're going to win every game, because nobody is going to give us a shot this year to do anything," Woodson said. "If we practice in a way that's going to help us win games, it doesn't really matter what anybody else says."
Defensive end Lamarr Houston, who is considered a building block for success, liked what he saw in the offseason.
"I think we look great. We have a lot of new players, and I think we're jelling real well," Houston said.
Safety Tyvon Branch, who along with Houston is the only surefire returning starter on defense, said, "I don't care if you're coming back with 22 returning starters. You never know what the next team is doing. Every year is an unknown. Every season is a new season."
Jerry McDonald breaks down Raiders' training-camp roster, with position-by-position scouting reports.