After the 5-11 skidmark last season, owner Al Davis and his staff made one of the most talked-about offseason moves in years when they acquired Randy Moss from the Minnesota Vikings, a move that overshadowed another much-needed move: the team's acquisition of running back LaMont Jordan, who came to Oakland from the New York Jets.
Meanwhile the Cowboys have been on something of a roller coaster this season. New quarterback Drew Bledsoe led his team to a come-from-behind victory over San Diego in the opener. The Cowboys then whipped the Redskins on all but two plays, but those two plays ended up in the end zone, giving Washington its first victory over Dallas since the Eisenhower administration (or so it seemed). But rather than collapse, Dallas dug its heels in, and -- despite playing its least impressive game of the season -- held off the 49ers to advance to 2-1.
In a break from routine, the Cowboys have not returned to Dallas since the win over San Francisco, choosing instead to remain in the Bay area while preparing for their upcoming game against the Raiders.
So the 2-1 Cowboys should roll over the 0-3 Raiders, right?
There are many who think this game has "ambush" written all over it. The Raiders are erratic and inconsistent, but also athletic and dangerous.
Here are three key areas of the game that will be worth watching, and also instrumental in determining whether the Cowboys come home with a 3-1 record, or whether they drop back to .500.
Spotlight: Drew Bledsoe
When he signed with the Cowboys, some suggested that Drew Bledsoe was nothing more than a younger version of Vinny Testaverde -- big, immobile and prone to holding the ball too long (thereby taking sacks) or forcing throws into tight coverage.
But through three games, Bledsoe has looked like he doesn't intend to let his season end without a trip to Honolulu for the Pro Bowl. He has completed nearly 65 percent of his passes for 850 passing yards, six touchdowns and just two interceptions. While head coach Bill Parcells insists that his desire for Bledsoe is for the veteran quarterback to simply "manage the game," Bledsoe has been the Cowboys most valuable player thus far. Facing a team with an anemic defense -- the Oakland secondary has yet to record an interception this season -- Bledsoe needs to lead the Cowboys to the end zone early and often.
Oakland might not be able to stop anyone, but the Raiders can score, and can score in bunches.
Bledsoe clearly has developed a rapport with receivers Keyshawn Johnson, Terry Glenn and Patrick Crayton, as well as tight end Jason Witten. If Peerless Price is included in the offense, he will be an extra deep threat for the Cowboys, preventing opponents from double-teaming Glenn every time he goes deep. Against a team as offensively potent and as "defensively challenged" as the Raiders, the Cowboys might find themselves in a game in which the last team to get the ball will win. If that's the case, Bledsoe can not go conservative just because Dallas gets a lead. He must continue to run the Cowboys' base offense, mixing in enough deep passes to keep the secondary back … thereby opening more lanes for Julius Jones.
Oakland owner Al Davis has a nearly unhealthy fascination with the vertical passing game. When he fantasizes about watching his team chew up the field with deep passes, newly acquired Randy Moss is obviously the centerfold in his mind. Already in his eighth NFL season, Moss combines size (6-foot-4), speed (4.3 in the 40-yard dash) and absurd athleticism. And while Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper has struggled without his favorite target, Moss has remained arguably the best receiver in the NFL. Through three games, hauling in 15 passes for 343 yards (22.9 yards per reception) and two touchdowns through three games.
Veteran Kerry Collins has a reputation for a big arm, a big mouth and erratic behavior, but the idea that he's Jeff George, Jr. -- a bazooka-toting loose cannon, so to speak -- is simply inaccurate. Through the team's first three games, Collins is averaging 291 yards per game, tossing six touchdown passes without an interception. After making Mark Brunell and Tim Rattay look like Doug Williams and Steve Young (sort of) over the last two weeks, the Cowboys can not allow the Raiders to get their deep game going. Moss and fellow wideout Jerry Porter are both big, fast home-run threats, and Aaron Glenn and Anthony Henry have to play better than they did against Santana Moss and Brandon Lloyd.
In addition, because the Cowboys don't flip their cornerbacks from one side of the field to the other, just to create specific receiver-cornerback matchups, Glenn, Henry and Newman all will get a chance to line up against the Raiders' top two aerial threats. All three need to play well Sunday to give the Cowboys a chance.
Snap to It
It seems minor, perhaps, but poor snaps on kicks have hurt the Cowboys in the first three games — hence the dismissal of rookie Jon Condo. Louis-Philippe Ladouceur steps in, and had better make his snaps quick and accurate, or he might face the wrath of Larry Allen.
Running back LaMont Jordan's numbers (49 carries, 148 rushing yards, 1 touchdown; 16 receptions, 125 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown) through three games aren't exactly gaudy, but Jordan is the best runner the Raiders have had in years. Part of the reason his numbers are skewed is because the team has spent much of the early part of the season playing from behind, forcing the Raiders to take to the air more than head coach Norv Turner would like.
For all the yards Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin and Jay Novacek, et al, put up during Turner's days as the Cowboys' offensive coordinator, the Dallas offense would have been grounded without the Hall of Fame running of Emmitt Smith. In a prototypical Turner-designed gameplan, the Cowboys would rely on a balanced attack (and stiff defense) to take a lead, and Smith would salt the game away with his legs. Rest assured, that's Turner's plan in Oakland, too. The Raider offense is very dangerous -- this is a winless team that entered the season thinking about a playoff berth, and the trio of Collins, Moss and Porter make the Raiders dangerous from anywhere on the field.
If Oakland gets ahead, look for a heavy dose of Jordan. The 5-foot-10, 230-pounder will get the ball often if Dallas falls behind, using his power to pound away at the Dallas defense and run out the clock.