MOBILE, Ala. -- As the Raiders staggered through a horrific November -- they were outscored by a combined 169-79 in going 0-4 -- the fate of first-year defensive coordinator Jason Tarver seemed sealed.
But even as Oakland went only 1-4 in December, its defense showed improvement as two of the defeats were by three points each and it actually kept the Raiders respectable at Carolina, an 11-point loss after quarterback Carson Palmer was lost in the first quarter. In their last four games, the Raiders ranked fourth in the NFL in allowing 16.8 points per game and were second in total defense during that stretch.
Tarver earned a reprieve, so to speak, surviving the pseudo-purge that saw offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, offensive line coach Frank Pollack, linebackers coach Johnny Holland and special teams coordinator Steve Hoffman all fired.
So here stands Tarver at the dawn of Senior Bowl week, presiding over the North side's defense, looking for the next recruit to help him and defensive-minded head coach Dennis Allen continue their rebuilding of the Raiders defense.
"The best thing is you can see how they respond to coaching," Tarver said Monday of the players on the roster. "Sometimes I'll just walk in a huddle and ask a question before I give them a call and see if they're with you….see how they respond."
In a previous coaching stop, across the Bay with the 49ers in a number of roles from 2001 through 2010, Tarver was part of a staff that coached in the Senior Bowl three straight years, from 2006-08, and got an up-close-and-personal look at linebacker Patrick Willis before drafting him in 2007.
"That's a lot how that team was built…finding guys at the Senior Bowl," Tarver said. "That's one of the reasons I'm excited about it because I was a part of the early stages of that team and now we're at a point with the Raiders, a new start of personnel and things that we can do.
"And this is a great opportunity to get to know (the players) and then, get a couple. You can't get them all. You'd love to. But you can't."
Tarver acknowledged the Raiders cannot implement their entire defense on the college seniors in a week…even if they wanted to give them such a crash course. All-star game rules prohibit it and say they can only run "a few defenses," Tarver said, as opposed to the offense, which can have more schemes in the Senior Bowl.
"Really, on defense, you want to see how well they talk to each other and how well they chase or get the ball, anyway," Tarver said.
Under Tarver, and Allen, the Raiders' improved from the No. 29 overall defense in 2011 to No. 18 last season. And as hinted by Tarver, changes in personnel seem to be afoot as 10 of the Raiders' 17 unrestricted free agents are defensive players, nine of whom played in at least seven games and five of those guys started at least eight games -- defensive linemen Matt Shaughnessy, Desmond Bryant and Richard Seymour, linebacker Philip Wheeler and safety Matt Giordano.
So might the Raiders contemplate playing more 3-4 base defense in 2013, and if so, might that transition begin in earnest in scouting players here at the Senior Bowl?
"We want the best football players that love to play," Tarver said. "The No. 1 rule, my first job was with Coach Bill Walsh (in 2001 when Walsh was vice president and general manager of the 49ers), and his rule was, know your personnel and use your personnel, so that the best guys that we have will find their way on the field and then you figure out what they can do and that's how we use them.
"That's what we started doing at the end."