Well here we are at the bye, in Week Nine of the NFL season. The Raiders have played eight games thus far, and sit with an all too familiar, and disappointing, 2-6 record at the midpoint.
Here's a list of my highlights and low-lights of the first half, and things to do moving forward to have increased success in the second half of the season.
Although many in Raider Nation expected Tyvon Branch to play a big role on defense once he was fully healthy—he missed the majority of last season with hand problems—his aggressiveness and hard-hitting nature have been a much-needed and pleasant change at the strong safety position.
Supplanting the departed Gibril Wilson as the starter, Branch leads all safeties in tackles, has made numerous plays behind the line of scrimmage, and has saved multiple touchdowns on occasions when the Raiders' front seven hasn't been stopping the run very well.
Branch needs to improve his coverage skills, but his play at the safety position has been a breath of fresh air. It's nice to know that if a guy breaks in the clear, and has only Branch to beat, Branch has the tackling ability and speed to make sure it's a big gain, and nothing more.
Honorable mention in this category goes to Mario Henderson for his very solid play at the all-important left tackle position. Good call on that one, Lane.
My feelings of disappointment regarding JaMarcus Russell are well documented, but the failures of the passing game are certainly not all on his broad shoulders alone.
The wide receiver corps has honestly got to be the worst, and least productive, in the NFL right now.
First-round draft choice Darrius Heyward-Bey has been about as slow to develop as sedimentary rock, and shown hands about as soft. Although coach Cable stated he's made big strides the last two weeks, we've yet to see it on the field. I still have confidence that his size-speed-skill set is good, and he'll develop into a solid player, but thus far he's been disappointing.
Fellow rookie Louis Murphy has regressed since showing burst and signs of promise earlier in the season, although his accompaniment of Zach Miller on Miller's long touchdown run against Philadelphia is the highlight of the season thus far, and a video every coach should roll when discussing teamwork.
Where is Javon Walker? This reminds me of the Jerry Porter situation without the flow of information. Is he that bad?
Higgins hasn't been the same since Russell led him into near-decapitation in Week One.
The offensive line, especially recently, has not given Russell much time to operate, and thus throws get rushed, and sometimes picked.
The combination of a quarterback who isn't getting it, wide receivers who are inexperienced and honestly also aren't getting it, and an offensive line beset by both injury and poor play has equaled a passing "attack" that scares nobody but Raider fans.
Honorable mention in this category goes to coach Cable both for his coaching, and for the negative attention he's brought on the team constantly, whether his fault or not. That may be harsh, but it's reality.
If Tyvon Branch weren't playing at such a high level, I believe Mike Mitchell could fit in here based on what we've seen from him in goal line situations alone. But, Branch is entrenched at SS (as he should be), so Mitchell will have to wait, or improve his coverage skills and move to FS if he wants to see the field more.
With Greg Ellis hobbled the last three weeks with an arthritic knee (which he underwent successful arthroscopic surgery to repair yesterday), rookie third-rounder Matt Shaughnessy from Wisconsin has stepped up his game, and shown both power and speed off the edge.
Frequently in San Diego's backfield last Sunday on both running and passing downs, Shaughnessy was the best defensive lineman on the field for either team all day. He has the size (6'5", 260), speed (4.88 40-yard), and strength (24 bench presses of 225), to either speed rush or power rush, and as he gains experience, his raw talent and athleticism are being enhanced.
With Ellis having recent surgery, and getting on in years, expect Shaughnessy to see the field more often in the coming weeks. He's earned it through hard work and excellent play, and it's exciting to think of the young, talented ends we have at our disposal in Shaughnessy, Trevor Scott, and Jay Richardson.
Honorable mention in this category goes to Desmond Bryant, whose story is fantastic, and play has been solid, but not quite to the standard of Shaughnessy's.
He made most of his big plays in the first few weeks of the season, but Louis Murphy showed early and often that he has the speed and grittiness to be a great receiver down the road.
He seems further ahead than fellow rookie receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey in his understanding of the game, his route running, and his aggressiveness when fighting for passes. He is an excellent and willing blocker, as shown in the aforementioned Zach Miller touchdown run against Philadelphia.
I don't think it's a stretch to say that Louis Murphy isn't the biggest fan of NFL officiating, or instant replay, either.
He had a touchdown catch, and a beauty one at that, taken from him with a garbage call that was explained away by a garbage rule in Week One against San Diego. That touchdown counts, and this season looks different right now.
He also had an obvious catch taken from him in the Houston Texans game, a catch in which he made a stellar veteran play in dragging his toes on the ground with possession of the ball before he went out of bounds. He jumped so high when it was overturned, I thought he'd hit his head on the dome.
He's also a humble kid who says the right things in interviews, but also has an edge and fire to him that's missing on this team.
Murphy has been solid, and the only receiver thus far willing to fight for the ball when it's in the air. He's also got the Raiders only true deep passing touchdown of the year (Miller's was catch-and-run), and has come open deep more than once. He's going to be dangerous down the road.
Honorable mention in this category goes to Darrius Heyward-Bey, who has shown the ability to get open at times, and shown good burst, but still cannot catch the ball very well. Perhaps some bubble screens or reverses to get him in space?
When the Raiders traded their 2011 first-round pick for veteran Pro Bowler Richard Seymour, many were skeptical. He'll never report, some said. He's finished, others said. He's just a rental, most said.
Well, he reported. He's certainly not finished. And with the franchise tag available, he won't be a one-year rental, either.
Seymour made headlines by not reporting to Oakland right away, leading many to speculate he didn't want to play for the Raiders. Going from the New England Patriots to the Raiders is considered a step backward in the football world, and pretty much everyone agreed he didn't want to play for the Raiders.
But he reported in great shape, said "Look for me on top of the quarterback," and then proceeded to bring a fire to the defense that hasn't been seen in years, in the Week One contest against San Diego.
Granted, the defense hasn't played with consistent passion, but that's not Seymour's fault. He went on to guarantee the Raiders would make the playoffs, and hasn't been shy when discussing the Raiders' shortcomings and their baffling lack of consistent intensity.
Seymour has brought leadership (both verbal and non-verbal), hard work, a winning attitude, and talent to a defense in sore need of all those things. The defense, at times, has looked top-five (at others bottom-five).
Seymour has played extremely well this season, accumulating 28 total tackles, four sacks, and a forced fumble.
Time will tell whether this was a good trade for the Raiders, but a lack of a long-term deal at this point is beginning to concern me. We need to lock this guy up as the leader of a good young defense quickly, because players don't like being franchised, and it generally changes their mood toward a team. If we truly don't want Seymour to be a rental, a deal must be done, and soon.
No details are necessary, I'm just tired of the negativity swirling around Cable.
It's myopic and unrealistic to blame his issues on everyone else, and I refuse to do so. He may not have broken Hanson's jaw directly, but by all accounts he was still culpable.
He may not have assaulted the women that have accused him to the extent of which he's been accused, but by all accounts, he did slap his ex-wife, and he did have an altercation with his ex-girlfriend.
Tom Cable, whether right or wrong, whether his fault or not, has become a needless distraction to this team.
Honorable mention in this category goes to Al Davis, who, unfortunately, is at the center of many of the Raiders' issues these days.
Drafted No. 7 overall in 2006, in large part for his big-play ability and coverage skills, Michael Huff was a perennial disappointment at the free safety position for the Oakland Raiders.
Until this season.
Playing first in the nickel package as a deep coverage safety, and then getting a chance to start when FS Hiram Eugene was sidelined, Huff picked off three passes in two games, and was all over the field in both coverage and run support.
He has kept his starting job, but has not made a big play in quite some time. However, he remains solid in coverage and run support, and has shown much improved tackling and positioning this season.
This kid was in danger of being cut, and most likely would have been if not for his high draft position. Now, he's entrenched in the Raiders' defensive backfield, and isn't going anywhere. Good for you, kid.
Since this Al Davis is long gone and never coming back, there are a few things to consider moving forward that I feel this team needs to do to:
a) have a successful second half
b) build for the future
Here's what they can do to accomplish this:
-Convince Al Davis to hire people to help him with football decisions. I love the man, respect the hell out of him, and am one of the last to jump ship here, but I truly believe he is too old and tired to do everything himself anymore. It's not necessarily that he's "lost it" or is going nuts, I just think he's trying to do too much and doesn't have the youth or stamina to hold it all down anymore
-Have Al let go a little so we can get a good, experienced football man to coach this team. This is tied directly to point one, and is absolutely essential. Forgetting his controversy, Cable has simply not been that good of a coach, and isn't the answer going forward. Fire him now? Not necessarily, but keeping him around isn't going to help this team.
-Have Cable coach, and not coordinate. We need a separate entity calling the plays, although I don't think Cable has done a HORRIBLE job; but he hasn't done a good one, either. Trying to be head coach, offensive line coach, and offensive coordinator at the same time isn't wise, and our play-calling, offensive line, and team morale have all suffered as a result.
-Get a new receivers coach. I don't know much about Sanjay Lal, but these guys are terrible. They body-catch the ball, don't fight for it when it's in the air, and can't sell a route to save their lives. They can't ALL be terrible receivers, so we've gotta look at the coaching on this one.
-Hold JaMarcus Russell to a higher standard. MAKE him come to camp in shape, or fine him heavily and maybe even suspend him. Force him to come in early and leave late; force him to stay behind and put in extra work with his receivers. I mean, really, if work ethic is such a concern, stop coddling the kid and threaten his livelihood. He responded well to the benching; keep up that kind of tough love.
There are obviously many other things that need to happen to return to our days of being an upper-echelon franchise, but I've already gone on too long. As I always do.
So thanks for reading!