Sunday, June 19, 2011

Denver Broncos: Oakland Raiders Rivalry Should Be Much Different This Season

One day soon, when the lockout actually wants to cooperate—and you know, when we actually have a season to look forward to—maybe then this Broncos vs. Raiders thing will actually matter.

Maybe then, it could actually match that of the Packers vs. Bears rivalry that the NFL constantly salutes—when Brett Favre is out of the picture, of course.

Or maybe then, it could even match that of the Patriots vs. Jets rivalry that basically brings a week full of dazzling Rex Ryan quotes, and a stern Bill Belichick that seems unfazed by it all.

Broncos and Raiders fans certainly do live in hope.

But for now, Oakland vs. Denver is pretty insignificant. In fact, it's so fragile that I'm not even sure it can be called a rivalry anymore. Really, it's more like a game between two sponges with a few star players on either side. And in the end, both pots are probably a little guilty of calling the kettle black. Or at least that's how the rest of the AFC sees it anyway.

Don't get me wrong, though, last year's games between Denver and Oakland were fun. Historically, they always have been. It was cute to watch Jason Campbell suit up in his first rivalry game and play for 202 yards and two touchdowns in a 59-14 win at Mile High. And it was just as fun seeing Tim Tebow make his first real start for the Broncos, even if he looked more like a running back in disguise, rather than the skilled quarterback the Broncos thought they were getting.

Yeah, he fooled Pat Bowlen alright.

But there's been a lot of tedious, repetitive and boring moments for Broncos fans to endure recently. Come to think of it, most are immune to it now. Josh McDaniels was holding on tight when the Broncos failed to show up in Week 7's snoozefest. So was Knowshon Moreno, and just about every defender who allowed Darren McFadden to score three touchdowns and rush like he'd just gotten off the subway.

Then again, it's probably no consolation either that the Chiefs are perhaps a step above each team right now.

But something has been missing in this rivalry for a very long time, though: skill—or at least some form of talent that isn't named Nnamdi Asomugha. It's something that the Packers and Bears can always acclaim to, just about any day. That's even more true now, since Jay Cutler has found a comfortable niche in Chicago. And it's something that just about every rivalry can look forward to, the media and fans too.

Except for Denver and Oakland, of course.

There is change in the waters though...kind of. Josh McDaniels could be blamed for that change I guess, and so could Tom Cable to a lesser extent. Or if you're tired of blaming Al Davis for the Raiders carousel of problems in the past ten years, maybe you'd like to point the finger at Oakland's management entirely. Up to you.

There are three realizations that Bronco-maniac's should come to terms with, however. They aren't all good, but they aren't all bad. Yet they should make this rivalry the least bit meaningful, if it is only temporary.

There Might Actually Be Good Quarterback Play

Can there actually be a balanced performance between Kyle Orton and Jason Campbell when they meet? Or are we destined for an eternity of one or the other?

It's time for each quarterback to get hip.

Campbell officially got the better of the Broncos last season, easily. He played for over 440 yards, whereas Orton was sacked four times, and left to wallow on the bench the second time around. None of that happened because Campbell was lucky, it happened because the Raiders actually have a great pass-rush, while the Broncos have a doughnut.

But it's leveled up for Orton immensely—not because Brandon Lloyd is expected to do great things again, but because Von Miller was selected in the first round. Jason Campbell should have a much tougher time in the pocket this season, only if everyone on the Broncos starting roster can stay healthy throughout training camp.

The Raiders can counter this added pressure if they want to, though. That's why Oakland drafted two offensive linemen in the draft.

Orton and Campbell also have to watch their back, a lot. Tebow is on the way if things go pear-shaped this season in Denver, and Campbell hasn't entirely won the starting job from Bruce Gradkowski, Charlie Frye or Kyle Boller as long as the Raiders have still failed to crack .500. Some say it's motivation for Orton and Campbell. Really, it's more of a reason to perform well on the big stage.

No Nnamdi Asomugha, Maybe

Here's one problem if you're a Raiders fan: Nnamdi Asomugha has way too much attention around the league.

That doesn't automatically mean drastic change is on the horizon, though. The Raiders don't rely on Asomugha like other teams rely on defensive playmakers. The AFC West as a whole is a strategic genius when it comes to making him a non-factor in games, and that's basically why he chalked up zero interceptions against Denver last season.

But it does mean that the Broncos may at last have some freedom in the air; good news if you're Jabar Gaffney, bad news if you're Raiders defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan. It's already obvious that Brandon Lloyd could become Denver's next best receiver threat, but here's the problem: When you have an insecure quarterback like Orton, taking Asomugha out of the picture equals a much calmer teammate.

There may be no overall benefit for the Broncos even if Asomugha does wander, however. The Raiders had the second best passing defense last season, and that's thanks in part to guys like Rolando McClain. This was also the same team that kept Knowshown Moreno clueless in the backfield while the passing game was thrown onto center stage; a defensive chore that has somehow become easier as time goes on.

As a side note, Oakland does need to decide on Asomugha pretty soon. The lockout is a road block, but leaving Asomugha on the free agent list risks his value becoming stale. There's a lot of teams that won't engage in a bidding war, especially for a cornerback who is often kept quiet in games due to strategic reasons. It will interest trigger happy teams like the Jets, but the free agent market could be quite fickle for Asomugha.

Two New Head Coaches

Neither the Broncos or Raiders are guaranteed playoff teams this year. That's an obvious fact. Sure, it's partially due to youth and a plate of raw inexperience on each roster, but it's also due to some personnel changes on the front lines that each team was quick to pursue earlier this offseason.

John Fox and Hue Jackson will both Motorola-up for their first game as respective head coaches in Week 1. In his first season in Denver, Fox hopes to bring a new winning attitude to the Broncos, but that's easier said than done when the team has a quarterback controversy the size of the entire West Coast. Jackson, well, his job is a little easier. The Raiders know where they are going, and so do the fans. He just has to put the pieces together and hope for the best.

But as much as I'd like to say both of these coaches will succeed, truth is, both of these teams will be somewhat different. Fox has left a lot of questions somewhat unanswered this offseason, and it's likely he will give Tebow a shot somewhere along the line. That should mean a variety of play action calls, and a few different rush plays that Josh McDaniels left aside, but we'll leave it at that.

Jackson, on the other hand, is a tough call. He's an offensive coordinator at heart, but on the outside Jason Campbell may not give him everything. Darren McFadden is one of several runners expected to lift in 2011, but the wide receiver game still lacks that punch that would easily elevate the Raiders to the Chiefs level—or at least keep them on par with the Chargers.

No one is really certain on how lenient and tolerant Fox will be either. During his final year in Carolina, quarterback swaps became second nature. Yet in Denver, benching a possibly inconsistent player like Knowshon Moreno leaves the window open for even more hurt. It isn't likely Fox will become the villain in Denver, either. McDaniels was good at that. Fox, well, he's loved. And that kind of positive connection goes hand in hand with John Elway's pursuit for the crown.

Broncos Should Be Much More Focused on the Pass

Maybe losing to the Raiders twice last season will help the Broncos move forward even faster, or at least regroup and think twice. OK, so that theory may be a little out there, but the Broncos draft plan in April may just indicate a change in progress, if nothing else.

Denver chose two tight ends in the later rounds earlier this year. The chances of Julius Thomas and Virgil Green seeing serious game time is slim to nil, but after Kyle Orton showed all the symptoms of a quarterback missing his best friend—a tight end—expect Thomas or Green to be thrown in, no questions asked.

Last time the Broncos met the Raiders, Knowshon Moreno was kept quiet. He had just four carries, in comparison to his Week 7 flop that saw him earn 14 attempts. That, and the fact that Moreno is still unstable, should automatically mean that the Broncos have learned from their mistakes. It doesn't mean John Fox won't rush the ball entirely, however, but it does mean the Broncos will call on Orton more.

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