We should all wish that Antonio Pierce had something to say about the Raiders every week.
One week removed from a performance that was as lackluster and inspired as it was embarrassing, the Oakland Raiders looked themselves in the eyes and asked "Are we not men?"
The answer, at least for three-and-a-half hours on Sunday, was "Yes. Fierce men."
After laying an egg against the Giants in a 44-7 thrashing that honestly could've been 51-0 or worse, the Raiders were called out by New York linebacker Antonio Pierce.
Breaking an unwritten rule of team sports that makes it taboo for an opponent to question another team's heart, desire, passion, and professionalism, Pierce saw a team that was so far in shambles that his statement was more one of pity than it was of criticism.
It was on these players as men with pride in themselves and their craft to answer the bell and come out fired up, proving critics, fans, and a very disillusioned Raider Nation that they were professional football players. Not frauds. Not humps happy to pick up a paycheck.
I'm happy to say that they shut my mouth, that's for sure.
I don't know if it was Pierce's comments, or inspiration drawn from a fearless, hardcore pigeon that kept excellent contain on one particular Raider kickoff, but this was a different Raider team.
The pigeon gets a game-ball from me; he just flew down that field looking to hit someone. He owned that field; the strut and attitudinal head bob he showed fit right in with the swagger of the resurgent Raiders defense.
I hear Al Davis has signed him to a 5-year, $60 million contract with $25 million guaranteed.
This team came out like a house on fire. On defense, coordinator John Marshall finally decided to ignore conventional Raider wisdom and use his ultra-fast players to blitz the hell out of Donovan McNabb. Although half-joking he'll probably get in trouble for it, after the success the defense had getting in the grill of McNabb, he may be wrong.
When Eagles LT Jason Peters went out of the game in the first quarter, the Raider line began licking their chops. Richard Seymour, solid but unspectacular the last couple of games, made the trenches his own personal Ironman triathlon.
Despite being held, slapped in the head, double/triple teamed, and even blatantly tripped on one play, Seymour set up camp in the Eagles' backfield and refused to give up real estate. I'm not one for complaining about the officiating, but it was distinctly one-sided in this game; perhaps the refs felt sorry for the Eagles' O-line.
Seymour pressured McNabb constantly, knocked him down a half-dozen times, and recorded two official sacks. He would've had three had he not been taken down by replacement LT who, while prostrate after Seymour manhandled him yet again, executed a technically flawless scissor-kick that would've made the Fabulous Moolah proud.
Trevor Scott, Tommy Kelly, Kirk Morrison, and Thomas Howard were also gigantic pains in McNabb's rear. Imagine if Ellis was fully healthy? Inspired line play and good gap discipline. The Raiders intensity and creativity on defense completely and utterly took the Eagles out of their gameplan, and left them looking lost and scared. It was beautiful.
On the offensive side of the ball, we finally got that big play we've all been waiting for. I don't when I've seen a better effort from a wide receiver than Louis Murphy's one-man accompaniment of Zach Miller's 86-yard touchdown romp.
First, Murphy lines up safety Quintin Mikell and absolutely blows him up. I mean, he pasted the dude. Before he even hits the ground, he's running down field, looking for someone else to block. The unselfish sacrifice of Murphy is something we haven't seen much in Raider land, and it was as refreshing and inspiring as it was exciting. Even though he hasn't caught a pass in a while, from what I've seen, I love this kid.
JaMarcus Russell, whom I have been very very hard on recently, vindicated himself with a performance that was more about confidence, intelligence, and leadership than stats. Oh, his line was pretty good with 18/27 and 224 yds, a TD and 2 INT's (one which was a deflection) but his presence was much, much more impressive.
His pocket presence, non-existent against the Giants, was impressive against the Eagles. Although the Eagles didn't get a ton of pressure (great job, O-Line), when they did, Russell calmly slid out of the pocket and completed passes either to FB Gary Russell, or to Zach Miller.
On one play, Russell was snagged and heading for a sack. Before he went down, he showed his impressive lower-body strength by holding himself up just long enough to complete a flick to Gary Russell. He wasn't even close to making plays like that last week.
The best thing about Russell's performance was that his poise and improvement show he's been working harder. He really does care, something nobody could be sure of a couple weeks ago. It's not the win or the performance that say that to me; it's the way he carried himself all day.
This team showed what it's capable of against San Diego when they bring the fire and passion necessary to play football. They should've won that game, but didn't know how to finish. Yesterday, there were a few encouraging things that say to me this team is growing, and will continue to do so:
After Routt's pick-six was taken away (by a horrid call; the flag wasn't thrown until he was in the END ZONE), your average Raider team would pack it in and say "well, obviously it's not our day." This team didn't do that. They played even more inspired.
Impressive. Growth JaMarcus Russell stated during the week he knows he needs to improve his leadership, but he's not a vocal guy. We saw a much more poised, much more confident player on the field, and he got in some grills and did a great job reading defenses and dictating the plays to his offense. He also called audibles a couple of times and showed much better field awareness.
Growth. The defense got gashed for a couple of big plays, though no HUGE ones, and came back stout and disciplined. The tackling all day was solid, and everyone did their job and kept their responsibilities. Growth.
Nnamdi Asomugha was injured early in the game, and Stanford Routt played so surprisingly well that nobody really noticed. A good nickel back on this defense would be dangerous. Potential growth, if Routt keeps it up.
Tom Cable realized not only his, but the entire team's, backs were against the wall. Instead of glad-handing and cliches as has been his MO, he printed Pierce's quote, held players accountable, and challenged them to prove everyone wrong. He also coached a hell of a game. That play-call on fourth down was as ballsy as it was creative, and if Russell lifts it just a little, potential touchdown. Growth.
This team did what they wanted to do in the beginning. They ran the ball well, got a lead, played spectacular defense and wore the Eagles down late. They controlled this game on both lines, and did a great job of managing the clock in every situation. Once again, good coaching. Growth.
This is the best I've seen them look in a long time. Because it comes on the heels of such poor play and adversity, this performance is much more impressive than opening night. Nobody thinks the Raiders played great and forced the Eagles to play poorly. But if you watched the game, that's exactly what happened.
I've never questioned the talent of this edition of our Raiders. We have multiple potential Pro-Bowlers on both sides of the ball (potential being the key word for some of the young guys). The talent was never lacking.
I questioned their heart and professionalism. They didn't answer the call for two weeks afterward, both of which were more deflating losses than the last. However, when their backs were against the wall and when they were called out by a peer, they responded ferociously.
If this team plays with the fire and desire they did on Sunday, they can compete with anybody and win a lot more games. As encouraged as I was on Sunday, I want to see that twice in a row. If they bring it and bring it hard against the Jets, I'm convinced the season is turned around.
If they come out flat, then my cynical side will come out and it will be "same old Raiders." Consistency is the new buzzword.
Heart and desire every single game. Bring the fire. Keep it up, and good things will happen.
Don't, and our winged friend just may peck your eyes out. He obviously won't suffer a lack of effort with his intensity.
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