Sounds silly right? How could a kicker possibly be the most important player on any football team?
Well, when it is all said and done, Sebastian Janikowski is going to impact more Raider football games than any other player on the roster. So with all due respect to Carson Palmer, Darren McFadden, Richard Seymour, Rolando McClain, and Tyvon Branch, here is why Janikowski is deserving of that description.
First and foremost, the Raiders play a lot of close games. Palmer can throw for 300-plus yards and the starting back could pile up nearly 250 total yards (at San Diego, Week 10), but the game remains close. The defense could allow 38 yards rushing (at Denver, Week One) or give up 375 passing (vs. Detroit, Week 15), and the games will invariably fall on the foot of the strongest kicker in league history.
So, you are still wondering how a place kicker is more important than an MVP candidate (McFadden), a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback (Palmer) and the much-maligned, though talented middle linebacker (McClain)?
Well, consider the facts. In the Raiders eight wins in 2011, Janikowski averaged 22 field goals, an average of 2.75 per game. When you consider that Janikowski has a career best 88.6 percent and only missed one field goal inside of 50 yards, the fact is, if he had missed just three more kicks in 2011, the Raiders easily could have been 5-11.
The reason this is important is because Oakland has a track record of being field-goal dependent. In the last two years, Oakland has kicked 33 and 31 field goals. Janikowski received criticism for his 31-yard miss in 2010 against the Arizona Cardinals, but that proved to be the only kick inside of 40 yards he missed. This is a valuable statistic to recognize, as no kicker has been as consistently accurate from long range in the last two years.
In 2010, Janikowski went 12 of 19 from beyond 40 yards. That improved to a ridiculous 17 of 21 in 2011.
Those free points come as a source of great frustration to the Raider Nation, as many fans want to see more touchdowns. But the reality is, the Raiders were worse with Carson Palmer than with Jason Campbell. Campbell (along with Bruce Gradkowski) had the Raiders at 18th in 2010 in red-zone efficiency. The team was 9th in the league before Campbell's injury against the Cleveland Browns. After Palmer's arrival, the team was 24th and wound up at 16th in the league.
Ultimately, what that means is, even with an improvement in the offense, it is a stretch to think the Raiders will be an elite red zone offense. As such, Janikowski will need to duplicate his incredible season kicking field goals to keep the Raiders scoring in many ballgames. And while Janikowski will never duplicate Mark Moseley's fluke MVP in 1982, he will be the key to the Raiders offense overall.
If this was just about field goals, you could make the case for Janikowski. But there is a second element that makes him so valuable.
Quite simply, the Raiders need Janikowski to lead the league in touchbacks in 2012. Oakland's kicking coverage has been lousy for the better part of six years. Last year was more of the same as the Raiders went 27th in kick coverage, allowing 25.7 yards a return.
When your defense is not particularly stout, field position makes all the difference in the world. The Raiders had four games in which they allowed a kick return of more than 50 yards in 2011. They went 0-4 in those games (vs. Denver, at Miami, at Green Bay, vs. San Diego). The Chargers game is the most memorable because it directly cost the Raiders a playoff spot. But in many ways, Richard Goodman's return was just a summation of a bad coverage squad.
Ultimately, I believe strongly about this because the Raiders have almost always been a team to win close games. In 1990, 1991, and 1993, Jeff Jaeger won four games on his foot that swung the Raiders into the playoffs. Janikowski cost the Raiders one game but probably won four others in the last two years.
For all the penalties, injuries and poor defense, it has been the special teams that have been the best harbinger of Raiders' success. If the games are close and Janikowski stays in the form he had in 2011, the Raiders will win more than they lose.