When Raiders coach Tom Cable assembled his team for the last time this season, it wasn't long before the talk turned to next season, when he expects the groundwork laid the past two years to reap dividends.
Cable didn't waste his time talking about winning back-to-back games, surpassing the five-victory mark for the first time since 2002 or just showing some improvement.
"Next year, there can only be one goal," Cable told his players Monday, "and that's to be a playoff team."
Cable believes he would have had a playoff-caliber team this past season were it not for the substandard play of quarterback JaMarcus Russell.
Impressive victories over the Philadelphia Eagles, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos bolstered Cable's claim. However, those wins were overshadowed by losses to the Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins, none of whom won more than five games.
Such inconsistent play — in addition to their 5-11 record — suggests the Raiders just aren't talented enough to be a successful team.
Ever the optimist, Cable sees things differently. He views the inconsistency as a sign of a team learning to win, one shedding the layers of pessimism spawned from seven straight double-digit-loss seasons.
Before long, he says, the close losses will turn into victories. The uneven play will smooth out. And the Raiders will be back among the league's elite.
"I said one of the things that would have to happen for us to get back to being a team that would have a chance to make a run at the playoffs and have success (is) you had to change the mentality and the defeatist attitude that gets in the locker room when you struggle for a long time," Cable said.
That transpired this season, he said.
"The thing I'm most pleased about from the season is the fact that our talk now is about we can and we will," Cable said. "It's not, 'Oh well, this happened, here we go again.' That kind of B.S. It's, 'We can and we will.' That's really a big deal."
It remains to be seen whether Cable will be around to see the potential fruits of his labor. He hasn't received any assurance from managing general partner Al Davis that he will return as coach.
His job status notwithstanding, Cable said the Raiders need to figure out what to do with Russell before they go any further.
Cable benched Russell after nine games this season and entrusted his offense to castoffs Bruce Gradkowski and Charlie Frye because he believed they "give us a better chance to win."
Maybe so, but Davis didn't use the No. 1 overall pick of the 2007 NFL draft on Russell and guarantee him $32 million so he could model silver-and-black beanies on the sideline.
It's time for the Raiders either to part ways with Russell or to figure out a way to address the issues that have plagued him his first three seasons: weight, work ethic, leadership and on-field performance.
Russell has lost the support of his coach, his teammates and the fans. As Cable said, it's up to him where he goes from here, provided Davis also hasn't lost faith in Russell.
Beyond that, the Raiders' other priorities are re-signing potential restricted free agent Gradkowski; re-signing two potential unrestricted free agents, kicker Sebastian Janikowski and defensive lineman Richard Seymour; and retooling their offensive and defensive lines.
All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said he intends to do his part during the week of practice before the Pro Bowl at the end of this month.
"If a (free agent) wants to come here, I'm bringing him along," Asomugha said. "It's building talent, and that's what we have to do here. And I can show them. I have the facts. I can show them the games we did win and what we did offensively and defensively in comparison to the games we didn't win. And that's something we can build off of. Guys will be able to get behind that. We have talent, and guys should appreciate that."
Talent gets you only so far, Seymour said. It's about harnessing that talent, playing as a team and winning games.
"We all have to do a better job, from top to bottom," Seymour said. "Obviously, five wins in a season isn't going to get you anything. So, let's not fool ourselves. We all have to get better. That's up to management to get the right pieces in place, and we'll just see what happens from there."
If that entails Cable delegating more to his coaching staff, so be it, he said.
"You've got to make the team better and look at every area, every aspect of it, all positions, really, have some real honest evaluation," Cable said. "Don't window-dress it. It's got to be very black and white."
2. Re-sign BRUCE Gradkowski: This shouldn't require much thought or effort. Gradkowski was Oakland's most effective quarterback, and he is a restricted free agent. The Raiders need to tender him a one-year offer or give him a long-term contract.
3. Fix the lines: There is plenty of room for improvement, and coach Tom Cable said shoring up both units is a top priority. Too many sacks allowed, not enough holes for the running backs and too many yards allowed by opposing backs.
4. Find winning formula: Cable says the Raiders are a playoff-caliber team. He also acknowledges that taking the next step is the most difficult one. If Cable is the coach next season, it's incumbent upon him, his staff and the players to build upon the groundwork laid this season.
5. UPGRADE ROSTER: The Raiders did well adding defensive linemen Richard Seymour, Greg Ellis and Matt Shaughnessy and receiver Louis Murphy last offseason. Those are the kinds of moves the Raiders need more of this offseason.
-- STEVE CORKRAN
Where the Raiders rank among the 32 NFL teams:
Category Rank Yds/g
Total offense 31 266.1
Rush offense 21 106.3
Pass offense 29 159.8
Total defense 26 361.9
Rush defense 29 155.5
Pass defense 7 206.4