Oakland Raiders 2011 NFL Season in Review
In the wake of their traumatic defeat last weekend that prevented the Oakland Raiders from reaching the postseason, many fans may be just emerging from the fetal position, ready to reacquaint themselves with the rest of the football world again. After all, Sunday’s loss was a rather devastating setback that made fans more nauseous than a plate of day-old sushi. It was enough to make Raider Nation want to walk the plank.
The reason for the sunken feeling is the lofty expectations that were laid out for the team. Fans anticipated a successful season, after an 8-8 record the previous year. With new coach Hue Jackson, a well-seasoned group of veterans returning and a healthy Jason Campbell, there was firm belief throughout the organization that the Raiders would again return to prominence in 2011, culminating in a playoff berth for the first time since 2002. Jackson’s confident charisma helped elevate the ambitions of a franchise that had been down in the dumps for the better part of the previous decade.
All those expectations were amplified when Jackson loudly traded for his former protégé, Carson Palmer, after Campbell suffered a collarbone fracture midseason. Jackson firmly believed that the piracy of acquiring Palmer would send the Raiders to the postseason; so much so that he was willing to part with potentially two first-round draft picks. That move was enough to go all-in for 2011, as Jackson nearly sold the farm in hopes of returning his team to the playoffs sooner rather than later.
Alas, it was not meant to be.
Instead, the Raiders are left to reflect on the season that could have been. As in any aspect of life that generates regret, Oakland had many shoulda, coulda, woulda moments during the year that will provide grief. The late-game collapses to the Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos and Detroit Lions all take center stage. And each player will gaze woefully in hindsight at what actions would be done if they could do it all over again.
Though the season ended on a painfully sour note, there were instances to look back on that brought excitement, hope and pride for the perennially browbeaten organization.
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For the first time since their return to Oakland in 1995, the Raiders sold out every single one of their home games. That is quite an amazing achievement when considering that ticket prices weren’t exactly reduced drastically. The optimism from the head coach trickled all the way down the entire franchise, and it emanated outward in the result of ticket sales. For a rabid fan base like Raider Nation, it was a pleasure to emerge from under their rocks and rain down cheers at the Oakland Coliseum again.
What had been missing in the past several seasons, was a live audience, which resulted in fans at home not being able to watch Raiders games on TV. But in 2011, Raider fans reveled in the opportunity to cheer on their team, as hopes for a winning record, division title and trip to the playoffs were all on their wish list for the season. Oakland was back to its raucous state, and the Coliseum was again a place to fear, featuring the vaunted Black Hole.
Though the Raiders actually had a losing record at home (3-5), the ambiance was still an intimidating force. There's nothing like being at a game where the stadium is full and the crowd is loud. This season was a hopeful one, and the Raider Nation had much to cheer about.
Hopefully, next season will be as thunderous at the Coliseum.
Emergence of Darrius Heyward-Bey
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It’s safe to say that nobody would have selected former first-round draft pick Darrius Heyward-Bey as the brightest offensive star on the Raiders. Especially when considering his lackluster first two seasons in the NFL saw him nab a mere 35 combined receptions and two touchdowns.
Besides, the Raiders offense was predicted to be a run-heavy workload, featuring, in particular, the versatility of running backs Darren McFadden and Michael Bush. And with Campbell at the helm, there was no reason to suggest DHB would stand out from a dynamic, blossoming receiving corps.
But Weeks 6 and 7 were a turning point for the Raiders organization and, specifically, the offensive unit. First, Campbell went down against the Cleveland Browns. He was out for the season. The following game against Kansas City, McFadden suffered his own season-ending injury. These two setbacks altered the entire makeup of the offensive play-calling, as Oakland allowed the passing game to open up using the arm of gunslinger Carson Palmer.
That turned out to be a positive omen for Heyward-Bey.
Coupled with nagging injuries to fellow receivers Jacoby Ford, Denarius Moore and Louis Murphy, DHB stepped up his game. He finished the 2011 campaign as the team leader in receptions (64) and receiving yards (975). His consistency throughout the season certainly helped plug the many gaping holes in the Raiders’ offense.
His emergence this past year was a pleasant surprise for many critics and fans who did not feel he had lived up to his first-round selection.
Sebastian Janikowski's First Pro Bowl Selection
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Speaking of unorthodox first-round picks.
Anybody who pays attention to placekicking in the NFL knows that the best of the best is Sebastian Janikowski. The 17th overall pick in 2000, Janikowski booms field goal attempts and kickoffs as if his leg was a rocket launcher. His leg has been an incredible weapon to have in the Raiders’ arsenal. After all, it’s not every team that gets to take and make three-pointers from midfield.
Think about how nice it is to have the offense stall at the opponent’s 40-yard line and still be able to put points up on the board.
This season, Janikowski made good on seven of his 10 field goal attempts beyond 50 yards. Three of those three-pointers came in one game, against the Houston Texans—an NFL record. He tied another league record with a 63-yard moon-shot against the Denver Broncos in Week 1.
Through it all, however, Janikowski had never been selected to a Pro Bowl. The result of being a member of a downtrodden team during the last decade certainly did not help. How does a kicker get noticed when the offense is incredibly anemic and unexciting?
But this season, with the semi-reemergence of the Oakland franchise, Janikowski's record-breaking performances were some of the more remarkable highlights for an injury-stricken ball club. And his records clearly show that Janikowski belongs among the league’s elite.
His consistency throughout his career was finally rewarded this season. Congrats, to SeaBass.
Return of Swagger
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It’s tough to have a tremendous amount of confidence in a team that had a) not had a been to the playoffs since 2002, b) not had a winning season since 2002, and c) set an NFL record for most consecutive 11-loss seasons just two years ago.
How on Earth could anybody be amped about a franchise with those lowlights?
Enter Hue Jackson.
Jackson is a first-time head coach, having been an offensive coach in varying capacities at a multitude of levels with a number of teams. He came to Oakland as the offensive coordinator in 2010. After Tom Cable was dismissed, Jackson was hand-picked by Al Davis as the new man in charge. And it turned out to be a selection of confidence.
Jackson is not shy about what he believes to be true. The outspoken leader repeated throughout the season that the Raiders were indeed going to make the playoffs. He didn’t boast or come off as being cocky. He simply made it be known that he wanted the team to return to glory, and this season they were going to right the culture of the organization in order to get there.
Obviously, that presentiment did not come true. The team fell apart in several games down the stretch, and that unraveling led to a mediocre 8-8 record and a third-place showing in the AFC West (due to tiebreakers.)
But one thing’s for sure, Jackson never stopped believing in what his team was capable of. The swagger and self-confidence returned to Oakland. It’s something that had been missing for some time. Heading into next season, it’ll only make the organization hungrier for what else can be achieved.
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