The Raiders have a new outlook these days. It was just a year ago that the talk was about getting players who can infuse winning spirit into this team. Being from a winning team certainly helps. But a winning team isn’t made entirely of players who are used to winning. Sometimes it requires players who have the right attitude and know what it takes to be great.
People talk about getting talent on a team to make it better. But that is not what creates a winner. A winner is built from the ground up. A team is like a structure. And with any structure, you must start with a foundation. After you have built that foundation, you add the framework. This process is the hardest work of all, and is the work that goes mostly unnoticed.
Once this structure is built, you don’t see the foundation or the framework. Those parts are not pretty. They are built with sweat and dirt. They are built on a dark field under a single light or alone in a gym long after everyone else has gone home. Or in the early morning hours that connect to the late night before watching film with a pot of coffee.
Once the structure is strong, only then can the esthetics be added, the things that get noticed, the things that show up in the stat line, the win column, and in the trophy case.
The Raiders have a few players who have hoisted this team on their shoulders and provided the leadership and example to follow. Here are the five who bear the most weight.
He has been a leader of this team since the moment he came to the Raiders two seasons ago. He commands respect both with his play on the field and with his demeanor and leadership off of it.
He played defensive end his entire career prior to coming to the Raiders. But in his second year in Oakland, he was asked to move to defensive tackle and made the switch with no issues. Lesser men might have made a stink about such a move. But Seymour saw his new position as an opportunity and earned his way to the Pro Bowl after just one season.
Just prior to the lockout, he signed a long term contract and used some of that good fortune to fund the players’ minicamp in Atlanta. Now he is saying how he was born to be a Raider and his new contract should be the last one he signs before retiring as a Raider.
He is the first player resembling a solid quarterback this team has had since Rich Gannon. That is more a testament to the lack of leadership at the quarterback position for the Raiders than it is about Campbell, so I am in no way putting him on Gannon’s level. But consider the whirlwind of different head coaches and offensive coordinators that Campbell has had going back to his college days, and just how well he has handled himself throughout.
He began the 2010 season as the starter and was benched after one game. Then he got his starting job back only to lose it again due to injury — and then regain it and finish off the season at a very high level. Following the season a soon-to-be head coach Hue Jackson glowed about his improved play.
Fast forward to last month when Campbell had three Raider receivers living at his house while they worked on timing and routes in his backyard. Next he teamed up with Richard Seymour to round up the offense for a player-organized minicamp. Just to lend some comparison, his replacement in Washington, Donovan McNabb, is already looking for a new team. The Raiders made out big time in that deal.
Cartwright was another savvy offseason addition by the Raiders. As the do-it-all player for the team, he leaves everything on the field every game. His selfless and tireless efforts on special teams and on offense made him a shoo-in for the Raiders’ Commitment to Excellence Award.
He was left on the scrap heap after several seasons with the Redskins. The Raiders were in need of a third string running back and got a whole lot more. Along with his running back duties, he returned kicks and punts, blocked in the return game, and covered kicks and punts. He had several gunner tackles as well as key blocks on two of three return touchdowns by Jacoby Ford. He even blocked a punt against the Chargers that was returned for a touchdown. He is everywhere on the field but most importantly, he is in Oakland.
Not only has he been the best receiver the Raiders have had the past few years, he has also been the picture of consistency. That consistency paid off when he was named to the 2010 Pro Bowl. If I went through and looked at every touchdown drive the Raiders have had in the last two or three seasons, I would bet money that Zach touched the ball on around 80% of them. He has been extremely dependable on a team that has been rife with undependable players for the better part of the last decade.
He was also chosen as the Raiders player rep which shows that they greatly respect him. There are several other players on this Raider team that they could have chosen — Nnamdi Asomugha for instance — but they chose Zach. While he was not able to attend the players minicamp because he is in free agent limbo, he still worked out with Bruce Gradkowski this offseason so it is clear that if he could be in camp with his teammates, he would be.
Wimbley has a rare combination of size, athleticism, and intelligence. Those are just the things that make him such a great player. He is also an extremely likeable and approachable guy though I am not sure opposing quarterbacks would agree with that assessment. They would prefer he stay well away and don’t care for his company because usually it involves a hard thud and turf in their helmet. After all, he didn’t exactly charm his way to leading the Raiders with nine sacks last season. But he has come in and further united this locker room with his calm, focused demeanor off the field and his vicious relentlessness on the field.
When I put this together, it was not my intention to have four players acquired last offseason and one acquired two seasons ago. But it is certainly no coincidence that once these players joined this team, it began its resurgence. These are core guys who have strengthened the foundation on which this team is built.
This is a strong team now and with that strength, there is now the ability to add some electricity, some flash, some high tech toys, and even a few luxury items. The land value just went up considerably. Get settled in, this house could be built to last.