After a long wait and what seemed like an insufferably long preseason, the start of the ’09 NFL season is here. The eve of the season is always an exciting time for teams and their fans. Finally, there will be answers to the questions that have been percolating and building all offseason.
The Raiders and their Nation are no exception to this. While not many people carry the expectations of playoffs for this young squad, many are hoping for signs of improvement. Signs that this team is starting to get it, starting to form an identity and that some of its young players are ready to turn that talent into results.
What...what’s that you say?
This is Week 10? That wasn’t the preseason?
Well, crap...Did the Raiders know this? I could’ve sworn watching their games that this was the preseason.
Well, my patient readers, new and shocking information has come into light—it is now evident that the season has already begun. Not only has the season already begun, but apparently the Raiders are falling somewhere below the line of excellence to which they are famously committed.
Luckily for this article, the second paragraph still applies.
The playoffs are not a realistic hope for this 2-6 team, but signs of improvement are. At this point, for the few of us left in Raider Nation, signs of improvement seem deserved—a right that should be guaranteed after prolonged suffering.
Maybe it is the suffering that has created my delusional optimism, but I have actually led myself to conclude that that the answers we have received so far have been a product of extenuating circumstances and that the true answers are about to be revealed during the start of this new season.
That’s right—I am marking the bye week as the end of a season and this week as the start of a new one. For not only has the bye week fallen directly at the midpoint, but it also sees the return of four offensive starters—starters that have thus far had little or no playing time yet this season.
These players are returning to an offense that can use whatever boost it could get. Let’s take a look at the numbers for the first half of the season.
Um...on second thought, that is a horrible idea. That is just an exercise in depression.
Let me save whatever peace of mind and sobriety you have by saying all numbers point to this offense being bad. No, wait, not bad—really bad...Wait, that isn’t true either—they are historically, epically, sickeningly, Striesandly horrible.
Enough living in the past! This is the dawn of a new season, and we are all starving for some positive signs.
Let’s take a look at the players with the biggest question marks and what they could show fans to fill them with some sense of hope.
Coming into the season Russell was the player with the most eyes straining on him for answers. Russell has answered those questions as emphatically as anyone could.
However, they have been the wrong answers—like not even in the same ballpark answers, or “did you hear the question right?” answers, or “do you speak English?” answers. Remember kids; there are no stupid questions, only really bad quarterbacks who get asked them.
That being said, this is a fresh start and Russell has had enough question marks around him that this new season can be a chance at redemption—a retake of the test he failed horribly and forgot to study for.
For any hope in Russell’s future to be restored he needs to have a decent second half. A completion percentage above 55, around as many touchdowns as interceptions and fewer plays where he just looks like he has no clue what is going on. It would also help if there were more reports of him putting in extra time.
In Russell’s defense, it is possible that he is working with the worst receiving corps in the history of this league. His numbers throwing to players that are not wide receivers (72 for 119, 752 yards, 1 touchdown and 4interceptions) are decent.
The one receiver that seemed to be turning into a playmaker, dependable route-runner and catcher of the football is about to make his season debut...
Schilens has endured a longer than expected rehab from a broken foot suffered early in the preseason—a preseason and training camp that had all onlookers predicting a break out year for him. It is hard to put a value on what his absence has meant to this team.
For Schilens, his goal for the second half of the season is simple: stay healthy. If he does I have no doubt he will showcase the talents that could someday make him a pro bowl player. This will also help take the pressure off of the rookie receivers.
After a strong start, Louis Murphy has tapered off dramatically. The last four games Murphy has caught only one pass from Russell, in defense of Murphy’s play making ability that reception did gain six feet. That big play was not his only highlight of the last four games. He did have the unforgettable moment of colliding with Johnnie Lee Higgins and falling over.
Murphy’s goals need to be: no more drops, improved route running, consistency and it would be nice to see at least one more clutch meaningful play from him this season.
Unlike Murphy, Heyward-Bey has not seen any drop off in his production. He has been a rock of consistency. Unfortunately, his contributions have been consistently unapparent.
For Heyward-Bey, his goal for the second half could happen at any moment and that is: have one play that lends some reason to get excited about you. That’s it—just one play. Something for us to hang our hopes on; something that says, “Yes, I am indeed a raw project and not a bust.” Let that speed come out and play.
Johnnie Lee Higgins
Higgins goal for the second half is to remember that he is indeed still a football player.
The problems of the passing game have been even more damaging this year due to the fading of the run game. Like the passing game there are enough excuses that I am viewing the second half of the season as a fresh start for them as well.
The success of the running game depends on the offensive line. If there is any hope for this group of lineman than the second half needs to see them show more consistency and the ability to take over games against the weaker opponents.
The Chiefs game will be the first game all season that the line will appear as head coach Tom Cable envisioned it in training camp. The play up front has been so erratic that I am giving Justin Fargas and Michael Bush a free pass, and I assume they will take advantage of the holes they are given. The same cannot be said for their cohort...
Out of this group, no one is feeling the pressure like McFadden. Running backs have short NFL careers and tend to experience success much earlier than player at other skill positions.
If McFadden is ever going to justify his draft slot or salary he is going to have to show it in the second half of this season. Since he will likely be sharing the load the second half, his goal will not be about sheer numbers for him, but rather quality touches.
He needs to stop fumbling. Let’s see if he can get through the second half of the season with two or fewer fumbles. He also needs to catch the ball whenever he gets a hand on it. If he is going to fulfill his potential he needs to be great in the passing game.
Limit the number of plays he is stopped for a loss with something less than a wrap-up tackle.
He also needs to have at least two plays where he creates something special on his own—something that has that “wow” factor.
Of course, he cannot do any of this if he is not healthy. He needs to run hard for eight straight games for anyone to believe he can be a star in this league.
Compared to the offense, the defense has been a model of good health. While they have shown flashes of brilliance they have also shown flashes of amazingly spotty and head scratching bad play.
While there is less to wonder about on the defensive side of the ball, they are not without their own question marks.
Shaughnessy had a monster game before the bye. With Ellis battling age and injuries, Shaughnessy is be going to given plenty of snaps in the second half of the season. If he can maintain a level of play anywhere near his last game he will be the gem of this draft class.
Scott has shown flashes (especially in the Philadelphia game). If the Raiders can manage to force teams into passing situations Scott needs to display his pass-rushing talent.
Plain and simple: Kelley needs to be more consistent. He no longer has the excuse of having to face continual double teams. Bring it every week.
At linebacker it has become obvious that Kirk Morrison is not what this team needs in the middle. While he leads the team in tackles at some point the middle linebacker has to take some of the blame for being the heart and soul of a rush defense that is continually near the bottom of the league.
As the quarterback of a defense there are far too many lapses and blown coverages for him to warrant resigning at this point. Maybe this is too much to pin on him, but at the very least he needs to have a second half of the season where oppositions running backs do not routinely blow into the secondary untouched.
It will be hard for Mitchell to show much in the second half, as his play will likely be limited to special teams and goal line situations.
In the second half, his main goal needs to be staying healthy. His introduction to the NFL has been slowed by hamstring injuries. He is too young for this to be a problem and any more injuries this year and he will have some bright red flags flying over his head.
Beyond that it would be nice to see one big hit out of him this year—the kind of hit that everyone remembers, except for the recipient of the hit. Announce your presence to the NFL via a large can of whoop-ass Mr. Mitchell.
Chris Johnson has watched his man catch way too many passes without being in touching distance. He is looking like a guy that should be a nickel corner on a good team. He needs to have a much better second half for me not to be asking for an acquisition that relegates him to a backup role.
Almost every Raider has significant questions hanging over their head in the second season. I guess now would be a good time to mention the few that don’t.
Keep Up the Good Work Awards
Nnamdi Asomugha, Tyvon Branch, Zach Miller, Michael Huff, Mario Henderson, Thomas Howard, Richard Seymour, and Dez Bryant (every play you make is one more than an undrafted free agent is supposed to).
I think there is one area of the Raiders that deserves special mention.
The highlight of the first half of the season is without a doubt the kickers. I think it is reasonable to say that this was the finest half of season any team has ever received from its kicker and punter.
Shane Lechler is on pace to break the yards per punt average record. He also has 14 punts inside the 20 vs. only four touchbacks.
Sebastian Janikowski is perfect, and not only is he perfect, but he probably would still be if they used arena league-sized uprights. He is also enjoying his highest touchback percentage on kickoffs. Now if he could just get more kickoffs!
Also, I would be remiss if I did not mention head coach Tom Cable, who is having one hell of a unique first half. I can’t think of any questions hanging over his head—maybe something will slap me in the face later, but until then...the dude abides.