Monday, November 23, 2009

Bruce Almighty

Gradkowski demonstrated in 1 game what Russell failed to do in the 9 previous games. Although his statistics don't jump out on the page (17-34, 183 yards, 2 TDs, 1 Int), Ski's passion for the game of football was a beautiful elixir for Raider fans desperate for hope.

Ski put together 2 critical TD drives when the offensive unit needed him to come through the most. The first drive was before the end of the 1st half that totaled 9 plays and 71 yards and culminated in a 10 yard strike to TE Miller. This drive closed the score from 14-0 to 14-7 and gave the Raiders hope entering halftime.

The 2nd TD drive was clutch. At the end of the game, with 2:12 to go, Ski drove the Raiders 80 yards and hit WR Muphy for the tying score. Prior to Murphy's TD, Ski converted a game deciding 4th and 10 with a critical 16 yard strike to WR Schilens.

Watching Ski as the starting QB was a breath of fresh air. Here's a guy who has fought tooth and nail to get signed by countless teams (Bucs, Rams, Browns, and Raiders). He takes nothing for granted and has no sense of entitlement.

Instead he over-compensates by being well prepared and totally committed to his craft. What caught my attention was more about what Ski did on the sideline than on the field itself. When the offensive unit was off the field, Ski was animated, involved, enthusiastic, and constantly offering support and instruction to his teammates. He was COMPLETELY immersed and engaged in the moment and how to improve the results on the field and adjust to what the Bengals D was showing him. Cable's quote says it all, "great feedback today when he came off the field after each offensive series."

On the field, Ski showed all of the intangibles that a successful QB needs in the ultra competitive NFL ... command in the huddle, varying the cadence at the line of scrimmage (3 Bengals offside penalties), decisiveness when the pocket broke down, ability to read the entire field, avoiding costly sacks (0). Gallery summarized what Ski brings to the table best by saying "He's just what a QB should be. Confident. He has the trust of everybody. He know's what he's doing. He has our backs if something breaks down. Just what a QB should be."

Ski has an awesome opportunity to show his value to the team over the course of the next 6 games and his future status in 2010. It will be interesting to see if the Raiders can establish productive consistency with Ski at the helm and whether or not Russell learns any valuable lessons from the gritty, determined efforts of his colleague.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Let's Go Ski

Cable made the right move by benching Russell although it should have happened a few games ago. Bruce Gradkowski gets the opportunity to prepare as the starter this week, get 1st unit reps., and have a game plan tailored to his strengths.

Gradkowski does a few key things proficiently that Russell has yet to demonstrate on a consistent basis:

(1) Ski moves within and outside the pocket much better than Russell. He has better footwork, nimbleness, decisiveness, and quickness when avoiding the pass rush. His mobility gives the team a chance to make positive plays when the pocket breaks down.

(2) Ski throws a more accurate, catchable ball which allows the Raiders WRs more opportunities to secure the ball and get YAC.

(3) Ski is more engaging when interacting with teammates. The bounce in his step, his energy, can-do spirit, and sense of urgency are important game managing traits. Getting quickly in and out of the huddle, taking control at the line of scrimmage, and having more time to audible out of a play call benefits the offensive unit.

There is no doubt that Gradkowski has a tall order to face in his first starting assignment against an elite Bengals defense. However, I thing this change at QB will give the offense a spark and new direction.

Having Russell sit and watch from the sidelines for 1 game, 2 games, or the rest of the season will hopefully recalibrate his career purpose and dedication. At this point in time, in a lost season, Russell's sense of entitlement has been officially revoked. He either hits the alarm button or goes to the snooze button.

My general feeling is that Gradkowski is getting an audition for his role in 2010. I don't see him as anything more than a stop gap measure and serviceable back up. Russell hasn't proven to be even a remotely competent signal caller through 9 games. Whether the Raiders sign a veteran free agent QB, draft another QB, or let Gradkowski, Frye, and Russell battle it out in an open competition next spring is unknown.

With Cable's job in serious jeopardy due to poor performance on the field and controversy off the field, a new head coach will need to provide input in evaluating the QB position for next season. Just like the previous 6 seasons, there are many unsettled issues that need to be resolved.

At the top of this list is the QB position, the Head Coach, and the vacancy at GM which is typically the heart and soul of a team's leadership and vision. Ideally, I would love to see these 3 areas of concern addressed in reverse order: Hire a GM. Let the GM choose a Head Coach. Then let the Head Coach size up the best QB for his team. Is that asking for too much? I guess so considering these 3 areas have been in flux and grave disappointments for 6+ years running.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Darrius Heyward Bust

9 games into the season, Darrius Heyward Bey's value as the #7 pick in the 2009 draft is evident. DHB is a bust. $23M guaranteed to a WR who is averaging less than 1 reception per and a shade under 11 total yards receiving per game (6 receptions, 96 yards).

These minuscule numbers are hard to believe. He has played well over 80% of the total offensive snaps yet his season totals would be considered nothing more than an average day at work for Wes Welker. In 4 games this year, DHB rang up zeros. He has caught only 1 ball in all the 2nd halves combined.

In the game vs. Kansas City on Sunday, DHB had 2 key opportunities to contribute to his unit's success. The first opportunity was a deep 52 yard strike from Russell inside the 5 yard line that was right in his bread basket. DHB dropped it. In the game deciding drive, DHB was wide open around the KC 10 yard line. Gradowski's pass to DHB was right on the mark. Inexplicably, DHB jumped up when he didn't need to jump at all. Instead of securing the ball and keeping a game winning drive alive, DHB played patty cake with the ball, batting it up for Safety Mike Brown to easily catch the carom.

These 2 plays are a microcosm of DHB's season. When the ball is thrown to DHB he fights it, uses poor technique, and seems to panic. DHB lacks the basic football instincts and fundamentals for doing what he is paid to do ... catch the ball. In a nutshell, he lacks the poise, confidence, and abilities to perform the rudimentary elements to being a productive WR.

Is there hope for a guy who has been a complete bust to develop into a solid, reliable WR in the near future? I personally think that DHB could one day become a serviceable, complimentary WR if he works tirelessly at his craft. He could be used as a decoy and and occasional big play WR. We all know he can stretch the field with his speed. We also know the Raiders will give him an extended "try out" due to the HUGE investment sunk into him already.

As far as becoming a "star" WR, true starter, productive 50+ catch WR, DHB lacks the football instincts and sure handed abilities. Until a Head Coach is hired who has complete authority on the 53 man roster, a guy like DHB will continue to earn a steady, sizable scholarship paycheck. None of the other 31 Head Coaches in the NFL would have DHB starting this far into the season based on his performance.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Real Deal on Gruden

Jerry MacDonald had a very interesting blog post tonight detailing the Gruden saga and the unlikely conditions of his return.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the key to turning this team around is:

"The newly hired Head Coach and GM need to have the authority on all football matters"

When push came to shove, the reason that Gruden left after the 2001 season is that the original contract that had been agreed upon earlier in the preliminary stages of negotiation had been stripped of the 2 key provisions:

(1) the authority to pick his own 53 players
(2) the authority to pick his own coaches

Gruden bailing on Oakland and heading for Tampa Bay had nothing to do with a bad working relationship with Davis nor was it caused by Gruden's interest in being closer to family in Florida.

In essence it boiled down to a Head Coach who had won 2 straight divisional titles wanting to have control over the players he coached and the staff he worked with.

In order for the Raiders to attract and hire a proven, capable Head Coach candidate, a few critical elements need to be in place. A new Head Coach needs a GM on board to act as an important buffer and partner when dealing with Davis. The Head Coach needs to know that if he is going to be the cook, he should be allowed to pick the ingredients to the team members that fit his system. This imaginary Head Coach also needs to be paid fair market value.

Doling out $5M+ for a Head Coach & GM and giving authority to allow them to do their jobs is a very small price to pay to restore the franchise's luster. The alternative is an unproven Head Coach who is struggling mightily, a vacant GM slot, and more double digit loss seasons. Doesn't seem like a very difficult choice unless you factor in Davis' ego and the constantly dysfunctional management that currently permeates the building.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

1st Half Review - Offensively Impotent

Here is a quick snap shot of the Raiders offenses 1st half statistics which can be characterized as offensively impotent or the exact opposite of explosive:

(All statistics are on a per game average)

First Downs: 12

3rd Down Conversion Rate: 29%

Total Offensive Yards: 215

Total plays: 54

Rushing Yards: 94

Passing Yards: 121

Passing Completion Rate: 49%

Pass Completions: 12.5

Touchdowns: .75 (not a misprint ... averaging less than 1 TD per game)

Time of Possession: 26:37

Points per game: 9.8

In 8 games played this season, the Raiders have failed to score more than 1 TD in 7 games while getting completely shut out from the end zone in 3 games. The offensive unit has only a few players that are executing at a starter's caliber: TE Miller, LT Henderson, and when healthy, LG Gallery. The rest of the 8 men on the unit need to demonstrate a huge level of improvement, be cut, or take a seat on the pine.

With the Nation in a foul mood over a 6.5 year run of ineptitude in winning less than 25% of the games played over this span, here is my "wish" list to get the franchise back on track:

(1) First and foremost, Al Davis needs to hire a General Manager. Yes, this is stating the obvious. A GM who is involved in the player evaluation, the draft, coaching hires, and football operations would be the only significant way to recalibrate the path we are on.

(2) The newly hired GM's first order of business is to demote Tom Cable to OLine Coach and conduct a thorough, exhaustive search for the most proven, capable Head Coach.

(3) The draft needs to focus on building the team from the inside, out. The offensive and defensive lines need to be the priority.

(4) A starting caliber, veteran QB needs to be added to the roster with a real, best man wins, competition in camp 2010.

(5) At least 1 established, veteran WR needs to be added to the roster via free agency.

(6) A traditional SLB needs to be added through the draft or free agency. We haven't had a legitimate SLB since the days of Romo and our run defense has suffered the consequences.

(7) The newly hired Head Coach and GM need to have the authority on all football matters. This includes modernizing the offensive and defensive schemes and running more sophisticated game plans.

(8) The owner needs to put the team first and his ego a distant second. He needs to trust the executive support staff that he hires to do their jobs. He needs to return to the loyal fan base the one thing that has been missing the past 7 seasons ... hope.