Victories in their final two games had the Raiders lamenting the end of last season and eagerly anticipating the upcoming season.
Now it's time to find out if the Raiders are primed to break from their six-year malaise or whether their impressive finish last season — wins at home against Houston and on the road against Tampa Bay — was an anomaly.
The discovery phase continues with the start of training camp in Napa today, when players begin arriving for 31 days of practices and meetings. All signed players are required to report by Wednesday. The first two practices are slated for Thursday.
A lot has happened since the end of last season. Managing general partner Al Davis settled upon Tom Cable as the full-time coach. Cable hired Ted Tollner as his passing game coordinator and John Marshall as a replacement for longtime defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
Cable also tweaked his roster in preparation for what he hopes will be a playoff run this season.
That's right, folks, playoffs. Cable said so in February when his interim tag was removed. For emphasis, he added, "I'm not afraid to say that."
"We think this team is ready to be competitive and compete in this division "... ," Cable said. "Our only goal is to get to the tournament, get to the playoffs. You get to the playoffs, you have a chance to win the ring."
Cable first needs to determine which of the players on the roster are best suited to take the field for the regular-season opener against the San Diego Chargers on Sept. 14.
He has numerous on-field issues that need to be resolved between now and the opener. With that in mind, here are the five most pressing issues facing the Raiders during training camp:
1. Fixing the run defense: The Raiders were worse against the run than all but one team last season and haven't had much success in that area the past six seasons, during which they are a league-worst 24-72.
Cable is convinced that the issue stems more from coaching than talent. He will find out soon enough because the Raiders' biggest move on defense during the offseason was the hiring of Marshall.
2. Improving the passing game: The Raiders were last in the league in passing yards and first downs passing, as well as near the bottom in touchdown passes, completion percentage and passer rating.
Also, their leading wide receiver, Johnnie Lee Higgins, caught only 22 passes for 366 yards and four touchdowns — all team highs.
It's incumbent upon Tollner, quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett and play-caller Cable to get quarterback JaMarcus Russell to become more efficient and consistent.
The addition of rookies Darrius Heyward-Bey and Louis Murphy figures to give Russell more reliable options, especially on the kind of deep routes preferred by the Raiders.
3. Sorting out the running backs rotation: Justin Fargas held the lead role last season. He rushed for 853 yards but averaged a pedestrian 3.9 yards per carry and scored only one touchdown.
That's not the kind of production Cable is counting upon in an offense built around the run. The Raiders need to decide whether second-year player Darren McFadden or third-year player Michael Bush — both averaged 4.4 yards — is a better option as the primary back and how to distribute the workload.
4. Choosing a left tackle: The Raiders cut their losses with left offensive tackle Kwame Harris after a failed one-year experiment. Now it's time to find out if Mario Henderson or Khalif Barnes is the best replacement at one of the most important positions.
Barnes is more experienced. Henderson showed flashes in relief of Harris last season. Cable and offensive line coach Jim Michalczik need to get this sorted out in a hurry so that the winner has ample time to get in sync with his linemates and Russell.
5. Generating more pressure: No Raider recorded more than five sacks last season, and one of those two players is unemployed.
The Raiders signed veteran free agent Greg Ellis and drafted Matt Shaughnessy in hopes of adding some juice to a punchless pass rush.
Marshall needs to gauge whether the additions of Ellis and Shaughnessy, as well as the return to health of end Derrick Burgess, are enough to generate pressure from the base defense. If not, he needs to add an array of blitzes to his scheme.
Note: Rookie strong safety Mike Mitchell of Ohio University, the Raiders' second-round draft pick, signed a four-year contract Monday that will enable him to report to training camp on time, according to a person close to Mitchell. The Raiders still have three of the seven players they selected in the 2009 NFL draft unsigned — Heyward-Bey, Murphy and linebacker Slade Norris. The Raiders have not confirmed any of their draft-pick signings as of yet. Mitchell could not be reached for comment.