THE RAIDERS stroll into winter clinging to a faith of mysterious origin, visualizing their ascent, believing recovery is near despite the numbers.
They believe, by and large, they are better than the 5-11 record they take into the offseason after a season-ending 21-13 loss to Baltimore Sunday at the sparsely populated Coliseum.
They believe, by and large, that head coach Tom Cable should be retained for the sake of continuity, never mind the record.
They also believe seven years of losing can be reversed by a few wise roster decisions in the coming months.
"Some tinkering and tweaking," said one veteran said.
"We're maybe five guys away from where we need to be," said another.
Both understate. This roster is at least a dozen players away from turning around a team that is 29-83 over the past seven seasons.
One of the fundamental truths about the NFL, that a team can be no better than its offensive line and secondary, has been altered in recent years. As passing has become more sophisticated and pass defense more restrictive, the quarterback has become an essential part of that dynamic.
In the absence of a transcendent defensive leader like Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, there is no winning without a quarterback who sets and maintains a high standard that crosses all areas of the team. He has to be able to manage the offense, if not consistently will it to victory.
Yet the lack of a Lewis-like presence or a legitimate franchise quarterback does not preclude the Raiders from improving in 2010. Whether it's Cable — should he somehow beat long odds, and there is no practical reason to believe he will — or a new head coach, there has to be significant movement within the roster and rededication among most of those who return.
We begin with JaMarcus Russell, who can make throws no other quarterback in the league can make. He also gives the ball away as well as anybody else.
Should he be given another chance to impress another head coach, as well as retain the loyalty of Raiders boss Al Davis, he should go straight to a personal trainer. Do not stop to party or eat and admire the image in the mirror.
Conditioning is the most basic part of a professional athlete's existence and JaMarcus has not devoted himself to it. If he can't do so now, there's no hope for him.
That brings us to rookie wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, drafted in the first round only because his talents were wildly overrated by Davis. There is nothing to indicate DHB will become an impact player, so the team's only chance to salvage the dude is with intensive instructional training. Start with the basics, like the use of hands to catch the ball and move on from there.
Good luck. It will be needed.
As for the other first-rounder drafted to revive the offense, running back Darren McFadden, it's evident he's not an every-down back; his body can't handle the demands. It's also evident his hands are his greatest asset, more impressive than his speed. A perceptive, creative coach will find more ways for him to catch passes than take handoffs.
Which would mean more of Michael Bush, the runner teams fear most. He had 123 carries this season. He should get at least 100 more in 2010.
And those carries should come behind a revamped line. Guard Robert Gallery aside, no one on the interior has reason to feel secure — certainly not penalty-prone tackle Cornell Green.
Oakland's only indispensables on defense are cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and defensive lineman Richard Seymour. Strong safety Tyvon Branch is promising and linebacker/defensive end Trevor Scott is the team's best pure pass rusher.
The other seven players on defense are, or should be, vulnerable.
Even as Davis dropped a lucrative deal on Tommy Kelly two years ago, shocked NFL insiders insisted the big tackle wasn't much of a run-stopping force. He hasn't been.
Linebackers Kirk Morrison (middle) and Thomas Howard (outside) are inconsistent and probably would be better in a 3-4 alignment. Neither is the thumper that worries opponents.
That Oakland's opponents rolled up nearly 2,500 yards on the ground — 240 on Sunday — is an indictment of the front seven.
It's time for evaluation. Honest, unflinching assessments. If accurate, they will prove the Raiders are not as close as they believe, perhaps because not enough of them are familiar with the concept of winning.
Contact Monte Poole at firstname.lastname@example.org