Monday Night Football will return to Oakland for the first time since the 2009 season opener versus San Diego. Raiders fans will remember that night largely for the biggest pass of JaMarcus Russell's unfortunate career, the bomb to Louis Murphy that put the team on top with under two minutes left. Philip Rivers and the Chargers had the last laugh, and that matchup will be repeated a month from now at the O.Co Coliseum.
The Cowboys-Raiders tilt isn't likely to produce many enduring memories, but it includes at least one surefire storyline - Jon Gruden's first trip to the Coliseum since 2004. The Raiders' recent Monday Night appearances have all come in the second half of the opening weekend doubleheader, so Gruden has yet to work a Raiders game. Everyone remembers Gruden's biggest win, the Super Bowl victory over Oakland less than a year after Al Davis relented and sent him to Tampa. Fewer remember the Raiders' triumph over the Bucs in 2004 on Gruden's return to Oakland, or their convincing upset win in Tampa Bay to conclude the 2008 season, keeping Gruden out of the playoffs and costing him his job.
Gruden had lots of good things to say about the organization and its fans on his return to the team's Napa training camp on Saturday. There's little doubt that his presence Monday night will produce at least one or two memorable moments, and many fans watching at home will eagerly anticipate the moment when Gruden talks about Al Davis and his legacy. That being said, there's a football game to be played, and while exhibition games lend themselves to storylines centered around announcers, this will be the debut for a plethora of rookies looking to make their first NFL roster. Let's take a look at some of the areas of the game that will most intrigue fans, coaches, and front office personnel:
Offensive Lines: Most critics of the Dallas roster are quick to point to the line as their biggest area of concern. The unit charged with keeping Tony Romo upright won't have to do that for very long this evening, as the veteran is unlikely to stay on the field for longer than a series or two. But new backup Kyle Orton is no stranger to being terrorized by Oakland's defensive line, and unless the Cowboys' linemen hold up, it figures to be a long night for him. Dallas will likely be without starter Phil Costa at center, and after trying out former Eagle Jamaal Jackson, they declined to sign him as a replacement. The start figures to go to David Arkin, a guard who has only recently begun to learn the position. Other backups Bill Nagy and Kevin Kowalski are dealing with long term injuries and won't play, so Arkin figures to play an awful lot. Three other Cowboys may get a shot to man the middle, though none have significant experience as centers: Harland Gunn, an undrafted free agent; Pat McQuistan - not to be confused with brother Paul, the Raiders third round pick back in 2006; and Daniel Loper, the former Titan and Lion who filled in for Robert Gallery on Oakland's line in 2010 before being a surprise cut last offseason. While the play at center will carry the most intrigue, the Cowboys have questions all along the line and will have their hands full with the Raiders stout defensive line. The Cowboys linemen have a new coach this season in Bill Callahan, the one time Raider coordinator in the Jon Gruden who took over as head coach but never recovered after losing to his former boss in the Super Bowl.
On the other side of the ball, Oakland is returning to the zone blocking scheme first implemented in Greg Knapp's initial run as the team's offensive coordinator. The team is eager to see its priciest free agent addition, Mike Brisiel, signed out of Houston where he worked with Frank Pollack, Oakland's new line coach. Also of interest will be the performance of veterans Cooper Carlisle and Khalif Barnes, who are more experienced in the zone system and had their share of struggles over the past two seasons as the Raiders flirted with more of a power scheme. When the second unit comes out, a pair of recent third rounders will be fighting to take a starting spot from one of the veterans: Tony Bergstrom, the rookie out of Utah, and Joe Barksdale, the second year former LSU Tiger. The bigger question might be how Stefan Wisniewski fares at center after a fairly solid rookie season at guard. Another matchup sure to merit interest will be Jared Veldheer's play lined up against DeMarcus Ware, though Ware doesn't figure to stay on the field long.
Cornerbacks: Dallas jettisoned Terrence Newman in the offseason, traded up to pick Morris Claiborne, and signed former chief Brandon Carr. Shoring up the position is viewed as essential for coordinator Rob Ryan's defense, which depended heavily on Nnamdi Asomugha in Oakland and Joe Haden in Cleveland. There would be some intrigue in the chess match between Ryan and Knapp, as the two were the Raiders' coordinators in the Lane Kiffin era, but preseason is a time for young players to establish themselves and playcallers to keep it vanilla. Claiborne's Dallas debut would be the big story here, but his recent MCL sprain will keep him off the field. Likewise, veteran Mike Jenkins is on the PUP list and won't see the field. Carr and Cowboy vet Orlando Scandrick figure to get some good reps in, but behind them the Cowboys have a lot of youth with much to play for tonight. Akwasi Owusu-Ansah was a fourth round pick as a safety in 2010, but suffered a season ending injury that season and didn't make the final roster out of camp in 2011. He was signed to Dallas' practice squad where an attempt was made to convert him to wide receiver, but he didn't stick. He ended up being signed by Jacksonville, but the Jaguars waived him this offseason, and the Cowboys picked him back up. When training camp started, they moved him to cornerback, where Ryan views him as the sort of physical corner he made of another former safety, Asomugha. On the flip side, the Cowboys have flirted with converting another practice squad player from 2011, Mario Butler, from cornerback to safety, but he figures to see time at CB on Monday. A pair of young players easily confused with baseball players, Teddy Williams and CJ Wilson, will probably play most of the second half, and undrafted free agent Lionel Smith will hope to make an impression when he makes it onto the field.
Oakland will see the Raider debuts of two veterans signed this offseason after spending their whole career with one team, Ron Bartell from the Rams and Shawntae Spencer from the 49ers. The two corners were born on the same day, and both have connections to coaches on the Raiders' staff. Behind them, DeMarcus Van Dyke hopes to carry over his stellar play from training camp to the game setting. The 2011 third round pick was viewed as just another Al Davis speed pick in his difficult rookie season, and rarely saw the field after the team handed a starting position to Lito Sheppard halfway through the season. This year, his ball skills seem to have improved tremendously, and he'll be looking to prove he's worthy of a starting spot. Chimdi Chekwa, the fourth round pick a year ago, seemed ahead of Van Dyke last offseason, but this year reports have him struggling to make the roster. A strong showing in the preseason will be important to his future, especially with former Packer second round pick Pat Lee breathing down his neck. Lee was lost in the numbers game behind Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, and Sam Shields in Green Bay, but after being brought aboard in Oakland by Reggie McKenzie, Lee has already jumped ahead of Chekwa on the depth chart. Bryan McCann, known to Dallas fans for his scintillating kickoff returns but also a series of fumbles in that role, was brought to Oakland last season to help their return game with Jacoby Ford, Denarius Moore, and Taiwan Jones losing time to injury. While his return skills will help his case to make the roster, he'll need to acquit himself well as a defender to have a realistic shot of surviving the final cut.
Receivers: It would be a great surprise to no one if Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, or Miles Austin were to put in All-Pro seasons in 2012. But should the Cowboys need to rely on their backups, things could get quite dicey after the departures of Laurent Robinson to Jacksonville and Martellus Bennett to the Giants. Kevin Ogletree has flashed some potential at wide receiver, but is no one's idea of a top level third wideout. Still, hamstring injuries are likely to keep both Miles Austin and Dez Bryant from playing in Oakland, so Ogletree will get the start. Late round picks Dwayne Harris, in his second year, and Danny Coale, a fifth round pick this season, are the favorites to make the roster after Ogletree, but both are under six feet tall and so in reality they might be competing with each other for a spot. Coale's broken foot figures to keep him from playing this evening anyway, so Harris will likely line up across from Ogletree with the Dallas first string. Raymond Radway, who missed his rookie season to injury, and Andre Holmes, who played at Hillsdale with Veldheer, are big, tall receivers whose development would go a long way toward giving Dallas the depth they'll need. They, along with a host of undrafted free agents, will be competing to move up the Cowboys' wide open depth chart at the position, but unless some of them make big plays tonight, don't be surprised if Dallas continues to be linked to half baked rumors, like the still unemployed Plaxico Burress or the freshly unemployed Chad Eight-Five Johnson. Meanwhile, rookie James Hanna will be vying for the right to backup Witten with fourth year veteran John Phillips, who earned some starts last year.
Many think Oakland should give Burress a chance, though that seems unlikely. Still, if injuries linger to deep threat Denarius Moore and sleeper big man Eddie McGee, it becomes more of a possibility; hamstring injuries will keep both out of Monday night's game. The ever-improving Darrius Heyward-Bey will start opposite Jacoby Ford, but with Ford being groomed to break out as a slot receiver, undrafted rookie Rod Streater and fifth round pick Juron Criner will see playing time early and often. Streater had the size and speed that would normally get a receiver drafted, but the run heavy offense at Temple left him with only 19 catches last season and draft evaluators weren't convinced enough to call his name. Criner was seen as a potential second day pick after starring at Arizona, but his relatively slow 40 time let him fall all the way down to the supplemental picks at the end of the fifth round. Oakland likes his sure hands, big size, and ability to go up and get jump balls. The only veteran the Raiders had at the position beside the big three of DHB, Moore, and Ford was Duke Calhoun, but he is now lost for the season. Undrafted free agents Derek Carrier, Thomas Mayo, Dre Muhammad, Travionte Session, and Brandon Carswell will be fighting for an outside shot at being the sixth wideout on the roster or a more likely spot on the practice squad. At tight end, Brandon Myers has established himself as the likely starter, but figures to miss the Dallas game with a recent shoulder injury. Richard Gordon and David Ausberry, the former a talented blocker and the latter a talented receiver, will have plenty of time to make their case to be part of the regular rotation at the position. Veteran Tory Humphrey will hope to supplant them, and rookie Kyle Efaw out of Boise State will be fighting to earn a spot on the practice squad.
Debuts: With Oakland having dealt its first round pick in this year's draft for Carson Palmer, its second rounder to drafter Joe Barksdale and Taiwan Jones last season, and forfeiting its third rounder in last year's supplemental draft, there won't be as much excitement about their rookie debuts as in a year with more hyped picks. Likewise for Dallas, with Claiborne out and the Cowboys having given up their second round pick to acquire him. Beside the aforementioned Bergstrom, Criner, and Streater, the most anticipated rookie debuts will be in the front seven. Tyrone Crawford, Kyle Wilber, and Caleb McCurdy will try to earn playing time with the Cowboys. Miles Burris figures to start for Oakland with Aaron Curry on the PUP list, and Jack Crawford, Christo Bilukidi, and Nathan Stupar will try to play their way onto the roster, as will undrafted DT Dominique Hamilton, who has been making waves in training camp. Of all the debuts, the longest lived and most anticipated figures to be that of Terrelle Pryor, whose only moment on the field during an NFL game to this point was an aborted trick play against the Chiefs where he was called for a false start. He'll see his first exhibition action and figures to play nearly two quarters worth in this game behind veterans Palmer and Leinart before giving way to undrafted rookie Kyle Newhall-Caballero. He'll try to flash talent and consistency as a passer, but no one will be surprised if he busts out a big run like cross-bay rival Colin Kaepernick did on Friday. And of course, all eyes will be on Dennis Allen's debut as head coach, as well as Jason Tarver's debut as defensive coordinator. Some fans will be cheering extra hard if they see the Raiders in a formation with three down linemen and four linebackers, a look they've very rarely seen the last two decades.
There will be some interesting battles on the field, and plenty for fans to pour over afterward. Nonetheless, Jon Gruden, Bill Callahan, and Rob Ryan all returning to Oakland? Should be a fun night.