Click photo to enlarge

THEIR LEADER had handed them few lines to cling to, a reason to believe, a sliver of hope for those who had not given up.

There was, this time, reason for faith.

It was last September, after the unforgettable news conference in which coach Lane Kiffin was fired, that Raiders boss Al Davis was asked if he thought the organization had a need for another football executive.

His words at the time: "Yes."

His actions in the 10 months since: "No."

Despite clearly stating he saw the wisdom in having another high-powered football brain in the building, there is no evidence Davis recruited any such individual.

In short, Al decided to ignore his own advice.

So it was that the Raiders offseason ended Tuesday, signaling another year during which the fondest wish of their fans again went unanswered.

As they enter training camp with legitimate concerns about defending the run and reaching the end zone and the maturity and commitment of their young franchise quarterback, the biggest barrier to success remains in place, as stubborn and imposing as ever.

For all of Al's assets, his liabilities continue unimpeded, without the challenge that might be provided by a respected voice of reason.

And, no, bringing in journeyman offensive minds Paul Hackett and Ted Tollner does not qualify. They're coaches, and Davis claimed to have his eyes on someone "local" who would assume much greater authority.

"There's one guy I'm looking at now," he said then. "It would be an executive role."

This dramatic move would come during the offseason, Davis said. When former Raiders coach John Madden retired from broadcasting, it naturally led to speculation that the East Bay resident might rejoin the organization.

Well, the rumors about Madden were, by all appearances, unfounded. Fired Detroit Lions executive Matt Millen, a former Raider, went into TV. And Ron Wolf, the most successful personnel exec in Raiders history, ain't comin' back.

Wolf is the template for the unfilled position. He worked under Davis for 23 years, from 1966-75 and 1978-90 and shares responsibility with Davis for the glory years of yore. Wolf had Al's ear, which led to the drafting of such stars as Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, Jack Tatum, Kenny Stabler, Howie Long, Marcus Allen and Millen. Davis was not sold on some of those players, certainly not Stabler.

Indeed, to chart a graph of Raiders history is to discover that the highs and lows closely coincide with periods when Wolf was or was not on the payroll.

In the 18 seasons since Wolf's last departure — he went to Green Bay, where he quickly replaced Lindy Infante with Mike Holmgren, traded for a Falcons backup quarterback named Brett Favre and signed a free agent named Reggie White — the Raiders are 34 games under .500 (127-161), with four 10-win seasons.

Putting that into perspective, they're behind the Broncos, behind the Chargers and behind even the Chiefs.

And it's not because Davis, 80, has not been trying. His search for answers is constant and sometimes mimics desperation.

But the search also has been narrow, confined to those more inclined to comply than complement.

After the disasters of recent seasons, beginning with Al's recruitment of Tom Walsh from a rural bed-and-breakfast inn to run the offense in 2006, to the odd hire of USC assistant Kiffin in 2007 to the fury and panic evident in the spending spree of last offseason, it was conceivable that Davis had reached a point where he could accept someone capable of protecting him from his worst instincts.

Even Al concluded as much, only to be overruled by his ego, according to people who deal with him regularly.

So the sweating and grunting this week in Napa comes after a relatively uneventful offseason. Tom Cable is back, as secure as any Raiders coach can be. Draft picks were more curious than breathtaking. Signings were more calculated, requiring much less of the checkbook. Hackett and Tollner and new defensive coordinator John Marshall are pros but hardly exciting additions.

No, the most potentially exciting addition to the Raiders is as elusive as ever. No matter how hard the players work in the coming weeks or how badly the fans want to win, real change is ever more difficult to visualize.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.