Raiders must make tough choices

Since the end of the 2003 season has arrived for the Oakland Raiders and the anticlimactic dismissal of head coach Bill Callahan Wednesday, it's time to start talking about solutions.

Figuring out what went wrong after a 4-12 season concluded with a 21-14 loss to the San Diego Chargers is the easy part. After all, many folks, including this corner, have been doing just that. The question becomes -- where do the Raiders go from here? And will senior assistant/salary cap guru Bruce Allen be around to see it? According to an ESPN.com report, Allen has interviewed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. What the Raiders should do is not to be confused with what they will do.

For one thing, the Oakland Raiders should identify their core players, and, that process might not be as easy as one is inclined to think. Or, to make that question easier to answer, Raiders personnel people need to go throughout the roster and ask, "can this individual be a significant contributor in, say, three years?" That's when it can be realistic to think the Raiders can be a championship contender.

The key is for Oakland to strip down the roster and get rid of any high-salaried, old players who have a past brighter than the future. That statement might sound cold-hearted but that's the real world. There's a lot to be said for experienced players but those on the downside of their careers are not what a rebuilding team needs. You see, for too long the Raiders have lived by the "we don't rebuild, we reload" theory. Well, that won't work in today's salary cap era.

Oakland must make its ballclub younger, faster, stronger and more cost effective. They must forget the notion of mortgaging its future, an idea made sense when they were serious contenders but is irrational now.

The Raiders could use a quarterback. Is it Rich Gannon, Marques Tuiasosopo or Rick Mirer? And have they maxed out? Keeping Mirer as a backup makes sense because he is likely to come cost effectively. Tuiasosopo has the potential but the Raiders still do not know enough about him. Therefore, Oakland has to decide whether to draft one or go the free agent/trade route.

Realistically, phasing out Gannon makes sense because his cap figure is probably too high and is a 38-year old quarterback coming off shoulder surgery. While I'm not a capoligist, if getting rid of a player will cost as much as keeping him, the former is the better option.

The reality is that the Raiders cannot afford to absorb another year of high salaries, which would add to the cap in future years. In addition, every old player Oakland keeps takes away a spot that could be used to develop a young player. In a nutshell, here is Oakland's best course of action:

Make the team younger

The chances are pretty strong that defensive end Trace Armstrong and linebacker Bill Romanowski will retire like offensive tackle Lincoln Kennedy did. They might have to say goodbye to defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield but Oakland is likely to try resigning him. He may still have some gas in the tank but the Raiders might need to ask him to take a paycut.

It's also highly doubtful that the Raiders can afford running back Charlie Garner because Tyrone Wheatley became the featured back in the second half of the season. Both players are 31-years old but Wheatley will be most cost effective and the Raiders could benefit from his leadership.

Many people believe the Raiders should say goodbye to wide receivers Tim Brown (37) and Jerry Rice (41) – but they are missing the point. Their decline in production is more a reflection of Oakland's revolving door at quarterback and offensive line coupled with Jerry Porter being out of the lineup. Brown and Rice may not be among the best receivers but they are anything but the worst. The question is, would they have the patience to stick through a rebuilding process?

Identify the "core" group

The purpose of this question is which players are young enough and, most importantly, potentially good enough to be significant members of a good team in a couple of years? Porter, tight ends Teyo Johnson and Doug Jolley, defensive end Tyler Brayton, linebackers Napoleon Harris and Eric Barton along with cornerbacks Charles Woodson, Nnamdi Asomugha and Phillip Buchanon.

Woodson was Callahan's most outspoken critic and will get his wish on playing for a different coach. But can Oakland afford him? The Raiders will have to pony up a lot coin to keep him but since they have so many other shortcomings does it make sense to have one guy tie up a big chunk of the payroll?

There are some other young players who have potential but it's too early to make a call on them. Free safety Rod Woodson finished the season on injured reserve but the 39-year old may warrant bringing back simply for his intelligence. Secondly, they need to find another safety to go with him and it's clearly not Derrick Gibson. It could be Anthony Dorsett but he is likely to be looking for work elsewhere as long as the Raiders keep insisting that Gibson is impact-player material. Why, is anyone's guess? Gibson has been anything but the second coming of Ronnie Lott since drafted in the first round in 2001. Unfair comparison, perhaps, but anyone drafted that high should have produced more than Gibson by now.

Running back Justin Fargas showed promise as a rookie but ended up on injured reserve. Therefore, it makes that much more sense to keep Wheatley at least through the transition period.

At most other positions, the Raiders must try to improve themselves now mostly through the draft. Do not, however, go crazy with free agents. It's best to rely on the draft and pick up a few useful free agents along the way.

Make sound financial decisions

Defensive tackle John Parrella (33) makes sense to bring back depending on how he recovers from a groin injury that put him on IR. Parrella, however, is still a tremendous leader and this year was the first significant injury in his career that sidelined him.

Players like Matt Stinchcomb, however, should either accept a pay cut or be released. The Raiders are still high on the 1999 first round draft choice but his constant injuries make him a risk.

In the salary-cap era, paying for value is essential and not just throwing money at every position. The key is to identify needs at every position, including backups, decide on the value of that spot and the player currently occupying it, and go from there. As an example, look at Brad Badger, a valuable backup who wound up starting a good chunk of the season. Badger will never be confused with say Kansas City's Will Shields but he's perfect for his role on the team, and he's inexpensive.

The same could be said for Eric Johnson. Whether he is a better fit at linebacker or safety is still unclear but his special teams contributions and cost effectiveness make him warranted for Oakland to make a strong effort to keep.

Find a quarterback

Perhaps Callahan making wholesale changes to the offense in training camp had as much to do with Gannon's performance in 2003 as the hangover effect from Super Bowl XXXVII. The question is can Gannon, at age 38, recover from his aforementioned shoulder injury? And how effectively can he be expected to perform? Most importantly, there's the financial issue?

Tuiasosopo has been tabbed the heir apparent to Gannon but he too finished the season on injured reserve. The problem is that he has not played enough to draw any conclusions. Mirer might not be anything but a No. 2 quarterback, at best. Mirer, however, brings experience to the position.

The Raiders have the No. 2 pick in the draft and will likely be in a position to draft Mississippi's Eli Manning. Who the Raiders select as their head coach remains an unknown but teams like Philadelphia have been successful in have a coach (Andy Reid) and quarterback (Donovan McNabb) grow together.

Build up the lines, set priorities

While quarterback is on a lot of minds entering the draft, the Raiders might be best served to fortify their defensive and offensive lines. With punter Shane Lechler and placekicker Sebastian Janikowski, the Raiders have arguably the best kicking tandem in the NFL.

If Oakland can strengthen its defense, it will have the chance to win a lot of games while trying to also fortify its offense. As a prime example, look at the NFC South champion Carolina Panthers, who are ahead of their rebuilding schedule. The Panthers may not be a serious Super Bowl contender but their kicking game, running game and defense put them in a position to win a lot of games this season.

Bottom line

The Raiders must be willing to accept that next year might not be appreciably better than this year but if they keep mortgaging more cap money into the future, their fall only will be deeper, harder and longer.

They now must rebuild the right way with young players and prudent spending. The Raiders and their fans must realize that what they are going through is not unusual. The Dallas Cowboys were 3-13 in Tom Landry's last year and 1-15 in Jimmy Johnson's first year, before Johnson righted the ship. There are several other examples as well.

The Raiders can be rebuilt. What they need is a good master plan and mix in a little patience.

Vince D'Adamo can be reached at vdad7@yahoo.com


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