The Oakland Raiders are look ahead to what they intend to be a bigger and brighter organization under the watchful eye of newly hired general manager Reggie McKenzie, hoping to create a brand-new administration, after over 40 years under the dictatorship of Al Davis, who passed away last October.
To determine the team’s future, we must first take a look at the past—specifically Oakland’s recent 2011 season. In an effort to help evaluate the needs of the team going forward as they embark on a revamped regime, let’s dissect the performance of each facet of the last season’s Raiders team: the offense, defense, special teams and coaching.
Here, we will break down the Raiders’ special teams play from the 2011 NFL campaign.
If there’s one player who makes the most unglamorous job in football look sexy, it’s Oakland’s punter, Shane Lechler.
An average of 50.8 yards per punt? Hot stuff.
Twenty-seven punts downed inside the 20-yard line? Oh baby.
Four punts over 70 yards, including a career-high 80-yard moon shot against Chicago? Too sexy!
For the better part of the 2000s, there were two things to be counted on in Oakland: The Raiders would lose 10 games and Lechler would be the best punter in the NFL. Through all of the ups and downs of the organization, Lechler has been one of the true positive constants in his 12 years in the league.
And, obviously, 2011 was no different.
He led the AFC (second in the NFL) in yards-per-punt average at 50.8, just a smidge under his league record of 51.1. He was also third in the league in net yards per punt (43.2). Throw in a 35-yard touchdown pass on a fake field-goal attempt, and you have arguably the best all-around season in his illustrious career. For his tremendous consistency, Lechler was named to his seventh Pro Bowl and a spot on the Second-Team All-Pro (he’s been a First-Teamer on six different occasions).
In a rollercoaster of a season, particularly on the offensive side, Lechler was a steady, staid force, helping Oakland win the battle of field position more often than not with his ridiculous ability to place the football wherever he wanted.
No punt exemplified his awesomeness more than the one against the Detroit Lions: a 46-yarder alongside the sidelines pinning them at the 2-yard line with under 2:14 left to play. Given the circumstances, Oakland holding a six-point lead with so much on the line so late in the game, so late in the season, it was certainly one of the prettiest of his 78 punts on the year.
Punting has never been sexier.
Twelve years. Twelve long years for placekicker Sebastian Janikowski to earn his first Pro Bowl selection. But finally it happened.
And what a remarkable season for Janikowski to prove once and for all how great he is. This season was for Al Davis. For all of the raised eyebrows after the Raiders selected Janikowski as their first-round draft pick in 2000. For those who doubted the placekicker’s value to a football team.
Janikowski dominated the kicking game this past season. He punched in 31-of-35 field-goal attempts, missing only once inside of 50 yards. And yet he still made an impressive 7-of-10 field goals beyond 50 yards—two attempts were blocked.
He set an NFL record with three 50-yard field goals in one game, versus the Houston Texans. He set a team record with six field goals against the Chicago Bears. And to put the icing on the cake, Janikowski mashed a 63-yarder in the season opener against the Denver Broncos.
Everything that could be achieved from a placekicking standpoint, Janikowski did it—and more. The highest-paid kicker in the league broke and set an abundance of records this season. Without his strong leg as an asset, the Raiders wouldn’t be able to put points on the board each time they stalled at their opponent’s 40-yard line.
It was time for him to be rewarded for his special team performance. The Raiders’ all-time leader in points earned a deserved trip to the Pro Bowl to go with a Second-Team All-Pro selection.
Wide receiver Denarius Moore was an exciting presence in the Raiders’ offense, hauling in the third-most receptions and second-most yardage on the team. He anticipated contributing that energy to the punt return game as well.
But the rookie showed that he needs some more experience. In 2011, Moore returned 25 punts for an average of 8.6 yards. Adequate, but nothing to write home about. At least he didn’t turn the ball over back there.
However, Moore was also sidelined for three games while nursing his own injuries. And in his absence, Bryan McCann and Nick Miller each took turns receiving punts. Neither wowed in the few opportunities they had in the special teams.
Overall, Oakland as a team placed 24th in the NFL in punt return average at 8.3 yards. Much can certainly be attributed to the return unit as a whole, but the Raiders would obviously like to—and need to—improve upon those numbers for next season.
The always-changing NFL modified another one of their rules again last offseason, moving the starting point for kickoffs to the 35-yard line in an effort to reduce the number of violent full-speed tackles during returns. This came 17 years after they had moved the kickoff to the 30-yard line in order to improve offense and make the game more exciting with more frequent returns. Go figure.
Many players were too young to know that this was indeed the original kickoff distance. This is why many return-men were upset by the possibility of increased touchbacks and fewer return opportunities.
But not Raiders’ return-man Jacoby Ford. In spite of the rule change last year, Ford vowed that the revised distance would not affect his return game—if possible. In his rookie year in 2010, Ford returned three kickoffs for touchdowns—a team record for one season. Though the rise in touchbacks would limit the number of returns in 2011, Ford still hoped to provide excitement and also field-position advantage in the Raiders’ special teams play. And he did.
Ford returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the Raiders’ Week 6 victory over the Cleveland Browns. Though he missed several games due to injury, Ford averaged 31.0 yards per kickoff return in eight games. Oakland sorely missed his big-play ability on special teams down the stretch.
In his absence, however, there were some bright spots. Second-year cornerback Bryan McCann filled in admirably, finishing the season with a 27.8-yard average on 13 returns. However, due to a myriad of injuries to various players, the Raiders as a team averaged 23.5 yards per return. Oakland was forced to use seven different kickoff return-men.
Had Ford, or even McCann played the entire season, the Raiders probably could have had better team numbers. But unfortunately, the injury bug affected more than just the team’s offense.
The problem with having a booming punter is that there is the possibility that he out-kicks his coverage team. And that has partially been the case for several years with regards to punter Shane Lechler: The Raiders have always had trouble keeping up with Lechler’s bombs.
It happened again this season, as the Raiders finished last in defensive punt return average at 13.5 yards per return. But in general, some of that lack of coverage can be attributed to the poor performance of the unit in general. After all, the San Francisco 49ers averaged 50.9 yards per punt but allowed only 8.1 yards per return.
The Raiders’ special teams squad failed again at grounding the opponent’s return game. Oakland allowed two punt returns for a touchdown in 2011. And only eight times did opponents call for a fair catch—last in the league.
Again, some of the blame can be given to Lechler, who is responsible for the hang time, direction and length of the punts, but it’s clear that the Raiders need to shore up their punting unit in order to complement Lecher’s long-ball punting.
The kickoff return unit, however, was not much better. Oakland ranked sixth-worst in opponent’s kickoff return average at 25.7 yards per return. This included one touchdown return.
Out-kicking the coverage doesn’t apply as much in kickoffs, and although Sebastian Janikowski has a strong leg too, the Raiders simply did not come through when pinning opponents deep in their own end of the field. Whether it’s tackling, routes or the wrong type of players, Oakland has been unable to corral opponents when returning kicks.
This has been a flaw for some time, and it has obviously hurt the team all around. Losing the field-position battle means that the defense is working harder to prevent teams from scoring. Ultimately, this puts more pressure on the offense to continue making first downs. Despite Janikowski’s long leg, opponents did not down the ball as often as one would hope. The Raiders ranked 20th in the NFL in touchback percentage—a testament to opponents’ confidence in reaching beyond the 20-yard line.
The Raiders may need to replace special teams coordinator John Fassel this offseason. It’s clear he hasn’t been able to do the job to help the tired Oakland special teams coverage.