2011 Oakland Raiders: Year in Review
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Watching the Raiders defense fruitlessly try and defend the Chargers in the final game of the 2011 season, I was reminded of that famous quote by Aristotle. He said, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."
The Raiders may have a commitment to excellence. However, far too often in the 2011 season it was a lack of excellence that became a habit. It was that repeated habit of mistakes, penalties, lack of focus and discipline that caught up with a team many felt was ready to make a playoff push in 2011.
Before you can truly turn the page on anything, it is important to look back at what predicated the need for change in the first place. With that, here is a recap of the 2011 season followed by a preview of what may be to come in 2012.
Week 1 at Denver: Raiders Win Emotional Slugfest 23-20
McFadden leads stampede out of Mile High
In many ways, the first week was a microcosm of the season. The Raiders appeared to be superior to the Broncos in all three phases, yet struggled because of penalties and breakdowns, the most egregious being Eric Decker's 90 yard punt return in the third quarter.
However, the game—as did the opening portion of the regular season—belonged to Darren McFadden. He cut through Denver for 150 yards, including a 47-yard run to set up Jason Campbell's game clinching touchdown. Talent had won over tenacity, as the Raiders began the season with a win for the first time since 2002.
Not lost was the record tying 63 yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski. The Raiders defense held the Broncos to just 38 yards rushing on 13 carries. This performance had people thinking the run defense had finally turned the corner going forward.
Week 2 at Buffalo: Big Lead Evaporates as Bills Win Heartbreaker 38-35
Bills have last laugh in AFL-style shootout
The hardest part about watching this game was the fact that after all of the struggles in the 2000's, I still felt the Raiders could pull it out. After jumping to a 21-3 lead, the Raiders allowed five Buffalo touchdowns on five second half possessions. In spite of that, Jason Campbell led the Raiders on two go-ahead marches in the fourth quarter to hold a 35-31 lead. The second came on an absolute gorgeous touchdown pass to rookie Denarius Moore that was caught over two Buffalo defenders.
Although the run defense had been gashed by Fred Jackson in the second half, the game came down to the Raiders' ability to make a play on defense in the passing game. Twice, the Bills had fourth downs on the final drive, and they converted both times. Between those two conversions, Stanford Routt nearly had a game-clinching interception in the end zone, but he could not come down with the football. Instead, Ryan Fitzpatrick hit David Nelson with the game-winning touchdown on a busted coverage, and the Raiders fell 38-35.
The worst part about the loss was that the specter of being 1-3 loomed large, with the New York Jets and New England Patriots coming to the Black Hole for the first two home games of the 2011 season...
Week 3 vs. New York Jets: Raiders Make Statement with 34-24 Win
Raiders earn respect in grounding the Jets
Instead, the Raiders played one of their best games of the season in defeating the New York Jets in front of a loud, emotional crowd at the Coliseum. Once again, the day belonged to Darren McFadden. He rushed for 171 yards on 19 carries, the biggest being a 70-yard burst that got the Raiders back in the game after the Jets had taken a 10-point lead.
That run, along with a pass rush that would sack Mark Sanchez four times, would propel the Raiders to 24 straight points to assume control of the game. Jarvis Moss had his finest day as a Raider, tallying 1.5 sacks. Denarius Moore, keyed by a destructive block by Samson Satele, scored on a 23-yard reverse that was one of the plays of the year.
This win had fans ready for a showdown with the game's current dynasty, the Tom Brady-led New England Patriots.
Week 4 vs. New England: Raiders Outclassed by Eventual AFC Champions 31-19
Patriots just too good on this day
What began with a promising start soon evaporated into the reality that one team was simply better than the other. The Raiders led 10-7 before the Patriots pulled away and won a 31-19 game that was more dominant than that score indicated.
Although there were positives (Tom Brady held to a 53% completion percentage, career day for Darrius Heyward-Bey with 115 yards receiving, 344 yards passing for Jason Campbell), the reality was the Patriots made the plays the Raiders could not.
Case in point: Down four and inside the Patriots' 10, Campbell made a bad read and was picked off by Patrick Chung. That play, for all intents and purposes, ended the game. The Raiders settled for field goals and the Patriots scored touchdowns.
The other disconcerting element to the game was the fact that New England ran for 183 yards with essentially a rookie backup in Steven Ridley leading the way.
At 2-2, the Raiders were about to deal with something that completely altered the course of the season...as well as seasons to come.
Week Five at Houston: They Just Won for Al, 25-20
Raiders cap emotional 24 hours with win of the year over Texans
Raider fans will always remember the date: October 8th, 2011. That was the day an era ended, with the passing of NFL icon and Raider owner Al Davis. The news broke on Saturday morning, just over 24 hours before the Raiders were set to play at Reliant Stadium against the much-improved Houston Texans.
With all that emotion as the backdrop, the Raiders played in perhaps the single most emotional game of the 2011 NFL season. Falling behind 14-6, they fought back on a great individual effort by Darrius Heyward-Bey, who began showing why Davis selected him with the eighth overall pick in the 2009 draft. With a combination of guile and chicanery, the Raiders held a 25-20 lead as the Texans made a staccato, haphazard, but furious march to the Raiders six yard line.
On the final play of the game, the Raiders defense lined up with only 10 men. I am not much for symbolism, but many have said that Al Davis' spirit made up for that loss when, after Tyvon Branch forced Matt Schaub to throw, Michael Huff intercepted his pass in the end zone to preserve the win. Head coach Hue Jackson immediately broke down in what became one of the most enduring images of the season.
The win moved the Raiders to 3-2, and a home game with Cleveland awaited. It proved to be memorable for multiple reasons.
Week 6 vs. Cleveland: Raiders Lose QB, Honor Al, Win Game 24-17
Raiders defeat Browns to move to 4-2
The Raiders paid tribute to Al Davis by lighting a symbolic torch that represented what he called, "the fire that burns brightest...the will to win" at halftime of their game against the Cleveland Browns in week six. But the game also represented the end of the Jason Campbell era in Oakland.
Leading 14-7 in the second quarter, Campbell scrambled to pick up a first down and broke his collarbone while being tackled. It would turn out to be a season ending injury for Campbell.
Kyle Boller assumed the reins at quarterback and, while not spectacular by any means, he was efficient enough on this day to get the Raiders in position to score twice.
The first points came on a field goal by Sebastian Janikowski. The game clinching touchdown was thrown not by Boller, but by punter Shane Lechler, who turned a fake field goal into a 35-yard pass to Kevin Boss.
Although the Raiders could not put away the Browns, they held on for a 24-17 win to improve to 4-2, their first time being two games over .500 since 2002. However, the success was short-lived.
The Raiders would go on to add a huge addition, but they would lose something bigger the following week.
Week 7 vs. Kansas City: Raiders Gain Palmer, Lose McFadden and Game 28-0
Boller faces music after awful start
The big story of the week leading up to the first Chiefs game was the pricey acquisition of Carson Palmer from the Cincinnati Bengals at the trade deadline. Palmer, who was literally out of football, was dealt to Oakland for a 2012 first-round pick and a 2013 second-round pick.
Some argued that was much too steep of a price. Others said it was a small price to pay for a potential franchise quarterback.
There is not much to say about this game in terms of the on-field production (or lack thereof). The Raiders threw six interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns. Both Carson Palmer and Kyle Boller were ill-equipped to deal with the Chiefs on this day, and the Raiders fell 28-0.
The real story of the game was not that the Raiders lost the game; it was that the Raiders lost Darren McFadden with what turned out to be a season-ending ankle injury.
At 4-3, the Raiders headed into their bye week hoping to bounce back in time for another AFC West showdown at home—this time with the improving Denver Broncos and their new quarterback Tim Tebow.
Week 9 vs. Denver: Fast Start Fizzles as Raiders Are Gashed by Broncos 38-24
Raiders can't finish game against Broncos
The debut of Carson Palmer as the Raider starter was much more promising than his first appearance. For the better part of three quarters, he appeared sharp. The problem was, the Raider run defense first began leaking, then burst like a cracked dam en route to allowing 299 yards and 31 second-half points. The result was a 17-7 halftime lead turning into an embarrassing 38-24 loss at home.
Michael Bush was solid filling in for Darren McFadden, rushing for 96 yards on 19 carries. The problem was that the game plan did not utilize this weapon enough. Instead, the Raiders continued to throw, and it eventually doomed the offense, as Palmer threw two second half interceptions. The loss dropped the Raiders to 4-4, and it seemed as though maybe they were on their way to another slide that had become the norm post-2002.
Week 10 at San Diego: Wimbley and Bush Steal Show as Raiders Zap Bolts 24-17
Shutdown of San Diego
At a crossroads in the 2011 season, the Raiders played what may have been their most dominant game of the season, completely overwhelming the Chargers 24-17. Backed by Carson Palmer's best day as a Raider and a fabulous game by Michael Bush (242 total yards), the Raiders racked up 489 total yards.
The only thing more impressive was the job of the Raiders defensive line. They sacked Philip Rivers six times, four of them coming from Kamerion Wimbley. The constant pressure never let Rivers get into a rhythm. Matt Giordano made a clutch interception to preserve the lead, and the front four settled the issue with a pair of sacks and a fumble recovery to ice the game.
Moving to 5-4, the Raiders appeared to have the opportunity to string some wins together. The first chance was in Minnesota against the banged up Vikings.
Week 11 at Minnesota: Raiders Hold on for 27-21 Win
Raiders move to 6-4 with win in Metrodome
This game had the makings of a trap. The Vikings were 2-7 coming in and starting a rookie quarterback in Christian Ponder. Instead of a tight battle, it felt like the Raiders should dominate. Instead, missed opportunities and 12 penalties had the Raiders having to hold off another team at the end of the game.
Early on, Adrian Peterson looked like he might do real damage, scoring on a 12-yard touchdown to make it 7-0 Vikings. However, the Raiders would end his day early, forcing him out with a left ankle injury.
After Peterson exited, the Raiders scored 27 unanswered points and led by 20. But in the fourth quarter, breakdowns on defense and a Michael Bush fumble allowed the Vikings to score two touchdowns and cut the score to 27-21.
With the specter of the Buffalo collapse in week two fresh in many minds, the Raiders defense did manage to rise up and stop the Vikings on fourth down to save the game. While the Raiders were winning, they were showing they did not have the killer instinct to put teams away. This felt like something that might come back to haunt them down the road.
Week 12 vs. Chicago: Raiders Slip Past Bears 25-20 for 3rd Win in a Row
Raiders cage the Bears
To win their third straight game, the Raiders had to beat the Chicago Bears, who brought a 7-3 record into the game. However, they were bringing Caleb Hanie at quarterback and not Jay Cutler, who was lost for the season. The game appeared to be a battle of very good running backs in Michael Bush and Matt Forte. In the end, it was a game of attrition, and the Raiders had just enough to win again.
Despite multiple trips into scoring position, the Raider offense was unable to break through and score a touchdown for most of the game. Sebastian Janikowski kicked six field goals and the Raiders needed all of them, as they clung to an 18-13 lead before Carson Palmer threw a beautiful pass to Louis Murphy for 47 yards, setting up Michael Bush's game clinching three-yard touchdown.
One omen of this game was the fact that up 12 points, the Raiders defense again relaxed. Hanie threw a bomb that was somehow caught by Johnny Knox for 81 yards, setting up a short touchdown pass. For the third game in a row, the Raiders defense held on to preserve a win, and the Raiders were 7-4 for the first time since reaching the Super Bowl in 2002. However, it would not last long.
Week 13 at Miami: Listless Start Leads to 34-14 Drubbing by Dolphins
Dolphins Loot Raiders in Miami
Quite simply, the Raiders got punked. The Dolphins ran roughshod over the Raiders on both sides of the ball during the competitive stages of this game. The defense could not even slow the Dolphins offense and offensively, the Raiders looked putrid until the game was completely out of reach at 34-0. This game was a test to see how the team could match up physically with a similar opponent, and they failed miserably.
The scary part was the fact that a date with the world champions at Lambeau Field was on the horizon...and as feared, it was not pretty.
Week 14 at Green Bay: Raiders Destroyed by Packers 46-16
Raiders receive Lambeau lambasting
The week 14 game in Green Bay was over before it started. 46-16 was the final, but the numbers really do not matter. The fact is, the Packers were simply that much better than the Raiders in terms of their execution, game plan, discipline and—quite frankly—the talent on the field. The Raiders looked like they were a B-team compared to the world champions, and this game was a benchmark that showed the direction this team was headed was not the one envisioned.
Like the Miami game, the Raiders were down 34-0 and completely outclassed. Dropping to 7-6, they faced a must-win at home against the playoff-bound Detroit Lions. That's because the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos had surged into first place on the strength of five straight wins. It was a game that would truly symbolize the 2011 Raider season.
Week 15 vs Detroit: Raiders Lose 13-Point Fourth Quarter Lead in 28-27 Loss
Raiders lose heart breaker to Lions
Of all the losses in the 2011 season, this was the most painful. This was the game that I felt the Raiders outplayed an opponent and still lost. It featured many of the elements that defined the 2011 season: flashes of brilliance, lapses in discipline (10 penalties) and an inability to finish an opponent.
The typical elements of the Raider attack were in play, as Carson Palmer was sharp, throwing for 367 yards while completing 80 percent of his passes. Michael Bush ran for 77 yards and Darrius Heyward-Bey had 155 yards receiving.
The game seemed over when Aaron Curry recovered a Matthew Stafford fumble and scored a touchdown, making it 26-14. But in one of the more curious moves of the year, Hue Jackson elected to kick a meaningless extra point instead of trying to make it a two touchdown game.
That single point would cost the Raiders the game, as Stafford would lead the Lions to touchdown drives both ending in touchdown passes. First, he hit Titus Young to make it 27-21. Then, the Raiders punted down to the Lions' two yard line. With 2:14 remaining, the Lions went 98 yards, including a busted coverage that allowed Calvin Johnson to catch a 48-yard pass. Four plays later, Stafford hit Johnson with the game-winner, and the Raiders fell 28-27.
At 7-7, the season seemed over as the surging Broncos had won another miraculous game, beating the Bears 13-10 to move into first place at 8-6. To have any chance at a division title, the Raiders would have to beat Kansas City at Arrowhead for the fifth straight time—and on Christmas Eve.
Week 16 at Kansas City: Raiders Treat Nation to Early Xmas Gift with Ot Win
Raiders spoil Christmas for Chiefs with 16-13 win
Some things never change. No matter the scenario, the records, the players, coaches, etc...the Raiders and Chiefs get after it. It means that much more to win over Kansas City, but it is even sweeter to beat them in Arrowhead Stadium. With the season on the line, the Raiders played true to their personality all year long, but persevered to win in overtime.
The first half was a sloppy, error filled affair with Carson Palmer looking tentative and unable to make key plays. But in the second half, he got the game going quickly with a perfect bomb to Denarius Moore to give the Raiders the lead. However, the game would come down to a pair of plays. First, after the Chiefs rallied to tie and get in position to win, Richard Seymour blocked a 49 yard field goal on the final play of regulation to save the season.
After winning the toss, the Raiders went for the kill immediately. Palmer hit Darrius Heyward-Bey on a play action pass for 53 yards to put the Raiders in position to win the game and extend their season. Sebastian Janikowski drilled a 36 yard field goal and the Raiders had won a hard fought divisional matchup 16-13. With a little help, the Chargers game could still be full of meaning in week 17.
Week 17 vs. San Diego: Chargers Spoil Raider Playoff Hopes in 38-26 Defeat
Chargers zap Raiders out of playoffs
When it mattered most, the Raiders simply could not stop the Chargers offense. Despite the Raiders racking up 520 yards of offense and scoring 26 points, they simply had no answers for the Chargers in the rematch in Oakland. Philip Rivers had all day to throw, and it showed as he threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns, as the Raiders were eliminated from playoff contention in the final game of their season
In many ways, the game was an epitaph on the Raiders' season. They could move the ball, but could not always score when it counted (four field goals). The defense was a sieve in big games and big moments. Penalties ruined drives and took away big plays (eight on the game, 163 total). And when it absolutely mattered, the execution was lacking. First, Mike Tolbert ripped a huge run on a first and 20 after the Raiders had cut the score to 31-26. Then, driving to get back into the game, Jacoby Ford slipped on his break and Palmer was intercepted to end the game.
Even more telling was Hue Jackson's press conference after the game, in which he ripped his team and appeared to some observers to be deflecting blame for the team's sloppy play away from himself. Those comments and the blown opportunity led some to believe that was the reason for his dismissal after just one season.
Raiders moving forward in 2012
As we all know, the failure to win the AFC West in 2011, coupled with the death of Al Davis, has led to the Raiders making many changes to the direction of the football team. New owner Mark Davis hired respected personnel man and former Raider Reggie McKenzie as the new GM. Former Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is the first defensive-based head coach hire for the Raiders since a guy named John Madden. There are plenty of new things happening in Alameda and Oakland.
The question is whether those changes will be able to continue the good things the Raiders did in 2010 and 2011 and improve on the negatives that have haunted the Raiders since their Super Bowl loss a decade ago. How much better will the defense be with a modernized scheme and attacking style? Can the run defense finally be adequate enough to keep the Raiders in all 16 games?
On offense, will the loss of Hue Jackson have a significant impact on a team that improved leaps and bounds with his play calling over the last two seasons? Can Carson Palmer adapt to the West Coast offense and a new offensive coordinator? Most of all, will Darren McFadden stay healthy for a full 16 games?
These questions will have to be answered for the Raiders to make noise in 2012.