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Raiders and Cowboys face chemistry questions in 2008

Back in the early 1990s, while working for the Cleveland Browns, I took a side trip with head coach Bill Belichick to spend an afternoon at Indiana with legendary basketball coach Bob Knight, before continuing on to the NFL Combine.

Knight talked about how the many outside distractions, personal and professional, can affect a locker room. He explained that if players could shelter themselves from reading the daily papers, from having to deal with life's daily events -- and basically go to school, and live, breathe and eat the sport they play -- then coaches and administrators would have easier jobs. Unfortunately, this isn't the case. The problem with building team chemistry arises from many uncontrollable outside factors.

Back before the salary cap, when coaches could offer incentives (money) to players for many different things, 49ers coach Bill Walsh organized a fishing tournament during training camp with a huge prize going to the biggest catch of the day. Walsh saw training camp as time to develop players and develop team chemistry. Even though he often used boxing metaphors when talking to the team, he knew that for the 49ers to win, they needed to behave like a team, not like a bunch of individuals. He used different methods to bring the team together and learn to respect one another as they prepared to battle each week. In short, teams cannot behave like strangers in the locker room and then act as one on the field.

Two franchises that face huge chemistry questions this season are the Raiders and the Cowboys. Both head coaches will have to find ways this spring and during training camp to collaborate unity.

The Raiders are a team with very little expectations going into this season, based on their 4-12 record in 2007. They have always prided themselves on being a team of "characters," not character. With the addition of cornerback De Angelo Hall, wide receiver Jevon Walker andrunning back Darren McFadden, the Raiders have improved their talent base. Yet the prevailing question will be, Can they become a cohesive team?

When the Raiders were winning and going to playoff games in 2000-2002, it was because the best player on the team at the time was its best leader. Quarterback Rich Gannon was an amazing leader. He had great skills for the position and the inner toughness to demand excellence from his teammates. For the head coach, when your best player is your best leader, you can overcome any problems in the locker room. Gannon was able to instill his drive and his commitment to winning into every player. Every week the team was prepared to compete based on the preparation of the coaching staff and the prodding of Gannon.

The Raiders' practice field and the Oakland International Airport share a fence as a border. Often times when there were too many blown assignments or too many dropped pass during a practice, Gannon would heave a football over the fence showing his disgust. When a wide receiver ran the wrong route or a lineman missed a block, it was not Jon Gruden or Bill Callahan getting all over the players; it was Gannon. He set the tempo. He was the first one on the field and the last to leave, and he insisted that the players knew and covered all the details. Winning in the NFL is all about the details.

Who will lead the Raiders this year? Head coach Lane Kiffin will need to develop the trust of the players and gain help from some current players in that locker room. Will it be newcomer DeAngelo Hall? He has never been viewed as a "team first" kind of player. In fact, when he played for the Atlanta Falcons he refused to ride the team bus for a team bonding session at the bowling alley.

The first time something bad happens in a game -- and it will -- you need someone who can marshal the troops and get them back on course. Many would say the role of the head coach is to inspire. But often in the NFL, the players will listen to fellow teammates' words of wisdom before they heed their head coach's. The head coach must know what players he can use to get his message across to the team. If the Raiders don't improve on their four-win season from a year ago, it won't be because their team lacks talent, it will be because they don't function as a team.

The Cowboys have Super Bowl expectations, but they have added some unique individuals, which will require some blending in the locker room. Rewarding problem child wide receiver Terrell Owens with a new deal clearly is a move to help keep the locker room in check. No one can argue with Owens' production on the field -- 27 touchdowns the last two seasons -- but the timing of the extension is a little curious.

Yet, Wade Phillips may have the hardest job in football right now. Not the coaching part of the Cowboys, but managing personalities in his locker room. There are so many obvious distractions going on in Dallas right now -- the Terence Newman/Roy Williams talk and the arrival of Pacman Jones -- that focusing on football becomes rather difficult.

Newman, the Cowboys starting corner, had this to say about Williams: "He's the same guy, I think, he just sometimes gets kind of a deer in the headlights reaction, some plays ... He had a bad season last year, as far as coverage."

Williams clearly has lost the confidence of his teammates and it will be very difficult to get it back. This kind of battle being fought in the papers cannot unify a team.

Phillips must find a way to get the Cowboys season off to a fast start. "Winning," as coach John Madden used to say, is a "great deodorant." Nothing does more for building chemistry than a one-game win streak.

Dallas' September schedule is tough, opening up in Cleveland. The Browns won 10 games a year ago and can effectively throw the ball, which attacks the Cowboys' defense in its soft spot (you know they will go after Williams). Then home against Philadelphia, off to Green Bay and back home against the Redskins. That is the kind of month that can make or break a team. Dallas will need solid team chemistry to handle the bumpy road this schedule may bring.

Mike Shanahan, head coach of the Broncos, recently waived running back Travis Henry after rewarding him in 2007 with a huge contract and over $6 million guaranteed. Shanahan said, "To win a championship, you've got to have everybody going in the same direction. And if you have one of your better players not buying into it, chances are you're never going to win anything. Nobody's bigger than the team. That's the bottom line."

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