Oakland would be wise to follow Carolina's lead

Sean Payton returns to the Dallas Cowboys as an assistant coach and the Oakland Raiders search for a new head coach continues one day after owner Al Davis spoke publicly Wednesday on a rare occasion.

The Raiders fired Bill Callahan, who is now the head coach at the University of Nebraska, one day after concluding a 4-12 season. Oakland remains the only one of seven teams with head-coaching vacancies that have not been filled.

Figuring out what went wrong for Oakland last season is the easy part. Fixing what went wrong will not be easy no matter who Davis names as his head coach but with the parity (err, mediocrity) that exists in the NFL nowadays all it takes is a good plan and a team can become successful in a hurry.

Look no further than the NFC representative in Super Bowl XXXVIII – the Carolina Panthers, who could be a good model for the Raiders to follow. Two years ago, the Panthers were the dregs of the NFL after finishing the 2001 season with a 1-15 record. Carolina fired George Seifert and replaced him with John Fox, oddly enough a former Raider assistant coach (1994-1995).

The Panthers only real definitive strengths were their kicking game with John Kasay (kicker) and Todd Sauerbrun (punter). The latter is the one punter in the NFL that can strongly rival the performance of Oakland's Shane Lecher the last four seasons.

The rest of Carolina, however, was pretty dreadful with the possible exception of a defensive line that featured end Mike Rucker then rookie defensive tackle Kris Jenkins and fellow tackle Brentson Buckner. Outside of that unit, the only other notable strength was safety Mike Minter.

So Fox focused his rebuilding efforts on fortifying the defense, relying on a strong ground game along with stout special teams play. The Panthers drafted Julius Peppers to form an outstanding line and added linebacker Will Witherspoon later in the draft. Carolina went 7-9 in 2002 despite the lack of a running game.

Carolina focused its second season under Fox on offense by drafting tackle Jordan Gross, adding running back Stephen Davis (who rushed for 1,444 yards) and getting unspectacular but solid play from quarterback Jake Delhomme. Now, the Panthers are just one win away from hoisting a Vince Lombardi Trophy.

The Raiders 2003 team can draw a few parallels from Carolina's 2001 team. Oakland's biggest strength is its kicking game with Sebastian Janikowski (kicker) and Lechler (punter) along with punt returner Phillip Buchanon.

Oakland has a few building blocks on defense with linebackers Eric Barton and Napoleon Harris along with Buchanon at cornerback and Tyler Brayton at defensive end. On offense, the Raiders have Tyrone Wheatley, whose powerful running style is not unlike Davis. Wheatley is likely to return to Oakland this season after being a bigger component to the offense.

The Raiders have the second overall pick in the draft. While it is tempting to take a franchise quarterback, it's not necessarily the "be all and end all." Anyhow, more on that in a later story.

Granted, it's not a given Oakland will take the same approach as Carolina but it's a thought because it remains true that defense wins championship no matter how much you hear all this nonsense about how the game has changed. The last handful of seasons have represented a trend. Early in the season, there are a few high scoring games and it brings out the pundits of the theory "defense wins championships." Those people will counter by saying, "the game has changed and you win with offense."

You might win games with offense but you won't win championships. Yes, you need to be productive on both sides of the ball but it's better to be one-dimensional on defense.

Another thing, notice how the last three Super Bowl champions (Tampa Bay, New England and the Baltimore) shut down a lot of good offenses along the way. And don't even think of mentioning the 1999 St. Louis as an exception to that theory. True, they had an explosive offense led by Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. That team, however, ranked in the top five in the NFL, which mind you had 31 teams that season. The Rams might not have made anyone forget the Steel Curtain but when you rank in the top 20 percent, you are bordering on elite.

Again, the Raiders would be well served to follow Carolina's lead.

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


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