Earlier this season I theorized that the only chance the Raiders had to succeed this year is if a few specific players were to come down with the injury bug. The idea being that there were certain Al Davis favorites that Cable was being forced to place in the starting lineup due to the players’ high draft positions and the salary they commanded because of that draft slot. Coming down with an injury seemed like the only way to keep them out of the starting lineup.
Let me just be clear that I was not then and am not now wishing serious harm on anyone. At least not of the career ending variety anyway. I am simply pointing out the fact that Mr. Davis has some overhyped, flashy toys that he insists on starting regardless of their lack of performace and/or work ethic.
Those three players are, of course, the Raiders’ last three #1 draft picks Darrius Heyward-Bey, Darren McFadden, and JaMarcus Russell.
Well, since I originally introduced my theory, the three players in question have all either been injured or benched. And in every single instance, the Raiders have shown improvement by their absence. And, consequently, I too have injured myself. I am suffering from a tricep strain due to excessive patting myself on the back after hitting that nail so squarely on the head.
The first of those players to go down was Darren McFadden. Since Cable has not been forced to feed the ball to the fragile, fumbling second year back, the run game has been much improved. This despite the banged up, patchwork offensive line they have had to run behind in every game.
Since McFadden got hurt, Justin Fargas has taken over primarily and has carried the load consistently and dependably. He ran for 87 yards in the win over the Eagles and another 67 yards on just 8 carries the week after. Bush saw his carries go up in McFadden’s absence and it resulted in a 119 yard effort against Kansas City in week 10. Fargas has run for 63 yards in each of the last two games including the big win over the Steelers last week. McFadden has only gone over 50 yards rushing in a game twice in his career. Fargas has surpassed 50 yards rushing 4 times in just 9 games as the primary back this season. Not great numbers but an obvious improvement.
The second dismissal from the lineup was that of JaMarcus Russell. This time it was not by injury but by coach’s decision. And though the decision didn’t come down until week 11, after the season was already lost, it was certainly the right decision to make.
Since Russell has been on the bench and Gradkowski has been starting, the overall play of the entire team has improved. The Raiders are 2-1 in his three games as the starter and those wins are against the Bengals and the Steelers. The Bengals are one of the top teams in the NFL and the Steelers are not exactly pushovers.
Prior to his benching, Russell had just 2 touchdown passes on the season to go along with 8 interceptions and 6 fumbles. Gradkowski already has 6 touchdown passes in these three games with NO interceptions and NO fumbles. Gradkowski has seen his totals go up in each game too. His completion percentage, passing yards, and passer rating have all gone up in the past three games. This culminated with his 3 TD passes in the fourth quarter against the Steelers and 308 yards passing while completing over 60% of his passes for a 121.8 passer rating. He earned offensive Player of the Week honors for his performance while cementing his place as the starter for the remainder of the season. Another thing I had said many times this season was this Raider team is good enough that all they need is a quarterback who keeps them in the game and gives them a chance to win. Russell dug huge holes for the Raiders to dig out of with his turnovers and wildly errant passes. Gradkowski has been accurate and has played mistake free football. The result is 2 quality wins and a renewed enthusiasm on this team as a whole.
The third player to (finally) lose his spot in the lineup was Darrius Heyward-Bey. He was the biggest mystery because despite dropping balls like a 4 year old child, he continued to get the start even after his fellow golden ticket winners JaMarcus and Darren were demoted. And it took an injury to sit him too. I hope the performance of those receivers who stepped up in his stead removes the mystery behind it. DHB had caught 9 passes for 124 yards and 1 TD on the season. Yes, that is the kind of numbers that a decent receiver would surpass in one game. Case in point would be the fact that Louis Murphy did just that. In last week’s game in Pittsburgh Murphy caught 4 passes for 128 yards and 2 TD.
Heyward-Bey’s best game all season was one in which he caught 2 passes for 28 yards. By comparison four different Raider receivers caught more passes for more yards in last Sunday’s game than that. Along with Murphy’s numbers: Jonnie Lee Higgins caught 4 passes for 63 yards, Chaz Schilens caught 3 passes for 45 yards and a touchdown and Zach Miller caught 4 passes for 43 yards.
Heyward-Bey’s numbers in the two games he played with Gradkowski in the lineup weren’t any better than with Russell. In those two games he caught a total of 3 passes for 28 yards. That is good for fourth among Raider receivers. Not exactly what you would hope for or expect from the Raiders’ supposed #1 receiver. Let alone the #7 overall selection in the draft.
What we are seeing now is since the season is lost, Al Davis has released his strangle hold on Tom Cable. Cable is able to play the players he thinks give the Raider their best chance to succeed and he gets to call the plays he thinks best suit his personnel as well. No more dumbing it down for Russell or calling the same archaic Al Davis style that stopped working ages ago. And the result is players who truly feel that they have a chance to win because they are not handcuffed by undisciplined favoritism.