How do you define progress?

You ask if the Raiders' games are more competitive. You look at the schedule and you see they don't get blown out — not like they used to, not like the Jacksonville Jaguars (why is that name familiar?) get blown out this season.

Not getting blown out is progress.

The Raiders play hard all game long. They compete. The days of Richard Seymour and guys like him loafing on the field and in practice are over. This team is developing pride and a work ethic, although I can't abide that work-ethic clich? Sometimes a team has to start with clich? and move on from there.

The Raiders' defense actually can stop teams. And that's different from past years when it was a joke.

And although the Raiders' offense is lagging — the offensive line is a mess — Oakland is attempting to develop a quarterback. This does not mean Terrelle Pryor is the quarterback of the future. Who knows? But the attempt to develop Pryor is there, and general manager Reggie McKenzie was wise not to keep Carson "A Pick a Minute" Palmer and to go through Matt Flynn and abandon him and finally light on Pryor.

Let's apply the same standard to Pryor we've applied to the Raiders as a whole. Is he making progress? If he is, how do we define progress?

He will not win a ton of games. Take that criterion off the table. But look at how he performs. Especially look at his performance the second time around against the teams in the AFC West. He should be more familiar with their defensive disguises, their blitz packages, things like that. He should have a "book" on those teams. How he performs the second time against the Chiefs, Chargers and Broncos — two of the games are at home — is crucial.

He needs to show greater command in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage. He needs to get called for fewer delay-of-game penalties. He needs to show greater familiarity with his wide receivers. He needs to show improved accuracy. This means making more accurate throws in smaller windows — like any good NFL quarterback.

And like any beginner quarterback, he absolutely must cut down on mistakes. Jimmy Johnson used to say he wasn't concerned with how many big plays a quarterback made. He was concerned with how many bad plays he made. Johnson believed he could find a way to make big plays, but he could not offset bad plays like taking sacks instead of throwing away the ball or throwing interceptions. Those are killers.

One way to define a good quarterback is how few bad plays he makes — it is not the only way to define a good quarterback. The fewest-bad-plays philosophy explains Alex Smith's success and longevity in the league. It is a definition Pryor should strive for.

As a concluding exercise, let's apply the making-progress standard to coach Dennis Allen. Is he making progress?

Yes. It's obvious for all the reasons we just noted. The team plays harder. The team plays better. The team appears unified.

Can Allen improve even more?

I believe he can. I'm going to offer Allen advice in a good spirit.

Last season, he was a dud with the media. I do not cover him every day, so maybe he's a laugh riot with the beat writers. But after games he was stiff. It's like he was carved from an oak tree. He kept saying the Raiders work hard, as if any reporter cares how hard a team works. He seemed to have no answers to basic questions.

This season, he is much better with the media, which is to say he's human. I admit his demeanor with the media means nothing. I'm trying to describe his personality. While he's improved with the media, I believe he's still a stiff during games. He stands on the sideline with a detached look on his face. He looks aloof from his players, impersonal. He is not a warm coach on the sideline.

Why is Cohn bringing up this nitpicky stuff?

Because it's not nitpicking. Indulge me here. Allen does not call the plays, does not call plays on offense or defense. He is head coach as CEO.

I want a CEO head coach who is more personal during the game. I want a CEO head coach who encourages his players, who sees this as an essential part of his job. Pete Carroll is always patting players on the back. You can see him finding guys to praise, and they are not always the obvious guys who made the big catch or tackle. Sometimes Carroll will pick up a player who loused up. Jim Harbaugh does the same thing.

Allen should watch tape of them.


Because the Raiders are a young club and young clubs are not born with confidence. Confidence comes with experience and proven success. A coach gives his players confidence. Allen has 10 new starters on defense and a patched-up offensive line, and they need his encouragement. He's got to be more player friendly during games, must actively work the sideline giving out praise, tips and pointers.

A veteran player knows how he's doing. A young player does not. The head coach can build or destroy a player's confidence during the game. The head coach has got to be overt with positive emotion. This attitude directly leads to wins, actually manufactures success in ways that are not statistically measurable.

End of sermon.

Final question: Can the Raiders beat the Steelers on Sunday?

You bet they can. The Steelers, more tin than steel these days, are 2-4 just like Oakland. This would be a good win for the Raiders, would keep the arc moving upward.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.