In Bruce Gradkowski We Trust: A New Day Dawning for the Oakland Raiders?

Justin Smith@smittstylesCorrespondent IDecember 9, 2009

PITTSBURGH - DECEMBER 6: Bruce Gradkowski #5 of the Oakland Raiders jumps into the arms of Cornell Green #74 after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter during the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 6, 2009 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

I've been taken to task at times this season by the Raider Nation for being somewhat perpetually negative, and at times it's been justified. Call me a cynic, but this team had just broken my heart too many times to look at much in a positive light, especially when the season began going into the toilet by week six, or ol' faithful, as I call it.

But I am unabashedly excited about this team right now. In my weekly Pressures, Hurries, and Knockdowns articles, I routinely write in the Knockdowns section about ideas we have about the Raiders that have been disproved the previous week.

It is my distinct pleasure when I write something such as "Bruce Gradkowski is not the Saviour" and then am promptly proved wrong.

How can you not love Bruce Gradkowski if you're an Oakland Raider fan? Here is a guy that has been tossed on the slag heap by his past three teams, who just happen to be the 1-11 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 1-11 Cleveland Browns, and the 1-11 St. Louis Rams.

With Josh Freeman, Brady Quinn/Derek Anderson, and Marc Bulger/Kyle Boller as the incumbents to beat out, all three teams determined that Gradkowski wasn't good enough.

Bad decision.

Here is a guy who entered into Raiderland with incumbent JaMarcus Russell, by virtue of his draft position and contract and NOT his work ethic or on-field production, entrenched at the starting QB position.

Second-string Jeff Garcia was a former Pro-Bowl and playoff starter, and Charlie Frye, whom Gradkowski would battle for the third-string job, was a former NFL starter (with the dubious distinction of being the only QB in NFL history to start opening day, and be traded the next week, by the Seahawks).

For Gradkowski to crack the starting lineup this season, a few interesting and catastrophic things had to happen. And, remarkably, they did.

First, Garcia, disgusted by Russell's work ethic and scholarship status, realized he'd never get a chance and begged to be released. With his skills diminishing and his attitude anywhere but in practice, the Raiders gladly obliged. Those who have called for Garcia's return periodically have been gently reminded that he still doesn't have a team for a reason.

Then, Gradkowski had to play well enough and hard enough to beat out the equally hard-working and fiery Frye as the backup to Russell. He did that, although many, myself included, thought Frye was a more viable option. Not anymore.

Then, he had to have Russell either get seriously injured, or flame out so horrendously that he'd be benched. Although I held out for Russell to succeed for a long time, his work ethic, weight issues, and overall attitude had everyone, including the most staunch supporters, wondering if it was just a matter of time before he played himself out of a job.

It was.

Enter the Bruce. Pedestrian in his first appearance in relief of Russell in a loss to the Chiefs, and then most of his first start against the Bengals, to say we as a Nation were underwhelmed would be an understatement.

Yet, something magical happened in the fourth quarter of the Bengals game. The Raiders, down late and in a position to fold as usual, got hoisted onto the shoulders of the Pittsburgh kid and Toledo grad and marched the ball down downfield for a game-tying touchdown.

To say we were surprised would be the understatement of the season. The Raiders of recent vintage simply do not make those types of plays in crunch time.

Then, inexplicably, a team other than the Raiders made a huge mistake to give the game away late when Andre Caldwell fumbled the ensuing kickoff and left Seabass with a chip-shot field goal opportunity to win the game. The kick is good. The Raiders win.

Boom. Gradkowski was 1-0 as a starter and equalled Russell's season-long touchdown production in one game, throwing two TD's in the win, including his first to his new favourite receiver, Louis Murphy.

Suffice it to say, Raider fans who had suffered through Russell's apathetic and pathetic performances were stoked for a dude who led a game-tying drive against a great opponent and acted like he cared more about football than his earrings and toques.

Then, he came out against a fired-up Cowboys team that never loses at home on Thanksgiving, and played a passable but unspectacular game. He did, however, get embattled rookie Darrius Heyward-Bey his first touchdown catch of the season.

But the Raiders, from the minute Gradkowski took the field in the Chiefs game, were a different team on offense. They got after it, played hard, and had a leader who was fired up and ready to go.

Enter the Pittsburgh game, a homecoming for Gradkowski, a native of the Steel city. His last trip there produced a QB rating of 1.0. No, that's not a typo. Playing in front of tons of friends and family, it was anyone's guess how Grad would play under this sort of pressure.

With both teams middling throughout three quarters, nobody could've expected the offensive explosion unleashed by Gradkowski and company in the fourth quarter.

Down 10-6, the Raiders stubbornly stuck with a running game that wasn't doing much, but what it did do was set up the passing game and play-action that would carry the Raiders through. In this sense, it was brilliant game-management.

I think Coach Cable actually did a great job in the fourth quarter of this game with all aspects of game management.

Gradkowski calmly and efficiently directed the offense downfield, culminating in a 17-yard touchdown to fan favourite Chaz Schilens. The drive was underwhelming, covering 57 yards but taking 11 plays. The offense was still moving slowly, but they were moving.

Pittsburgh promptly responded with a quick-strike touchdown, going 60 yards in two plays in a little over a minute. Raider Nation braced themselves for the usual letdown.

But it never came. A noticeably excited and hopped-up Gradkowski got back on the field and made the biggest play of the Raiders season thus far.

I said in a recent article that it was simply a matter of when, and not if, one of our speedy rookie wideouts would get behind the defense, have a ball thrown well, and actually catch it for a big play. We always seemed to have 2/3, but could never put it together.

Louis Murphy, Gradkowski's favourite target, came open deep downfield, Gradkowski dropped it softly into his arms, and Murphy used his speed and agility to juke the defender and spring loose for a 75-yard catch and run touchdown.

The Raiders were in the lead again. I, along with many other members of the Nation, rubbed my eyes in disbelief. Then, I rubbed them again. Then, I smiled broadly. But, like anyone who has seen his team snatch defeat from the jaws of victory time and again, I tempered my enthusiasm as there was still a lot of time left.

Sure enough, less than two minutes later the Steelers regained the lead on an 11-yard TD from Hines Ward, who got away with a blatant facemask on Chris Johnson to get open. Ward, known as the dirtiest player in the game, showed why when he wrenched Johnson's mask to get separation.

There's long been a theory that the referees are against the Raiders and for the Steelers. That play certainly did nothing to disprove the theory.

The Raiders typically tuck their tail and run in these situations, and despite the fact that the defense faded when we needed them the most, the newly minted Gradkowski eleven, with two subs in on the offensive line due to injury, decided that they would take it upon themselves to win this game.

Starting at their own 12 yard line with a little under two minutes left, nothing in recent history said the Raiders would win this game. But Gradkowski wasn't having any of it.

He started a methodical two-minute drill in which he made plays with both his arm and his legs, making some nice quick-strike passes to move the ball and then rushing for a first down on third and three.

He barked at his teammates, danced around in the huddle, cracked jokes, kept guys loose, and managed the clock and his offense like a Zen master. The best story of the day comes from Mario Henderson, who tells of Gradkowski catching him looking at a replay on the scoreboard and telling him to "quit watching the F*#*#G thing and get in the game!"

Henderson, obviously not used to any kind of leadership or vocality from his quarterbacks, was initially taken aback before realizing Gradkowski was right. In fact, Henderson stated "you're the man."

In what to me was the defining play of the game, Gradkowski then scrambled around a bit before throwing up a pop-fly to the left sideline. There was only one Raider in the vicinity, the athletic Murphy, and three Steelers. It could've been disaster.

What makes this the defining play of the game in my eyes is the maturation of Murphy before our very eyes. Not content to let a Steeler make a play for the ball, Murphy leapt high, leading with his hands, and attacked. He snatched that ball out of the air with an aggressiveness we haven't seen from a receiver since Tim Brown was lacing them up.

Murphy simply said "that's my ball! Rightfully mine, and I'm taking it from you" and then did. It was so refreshing, and what I think could be a turning point in both Murphy's confidence and production.

We all know what happened then. Roughing penalty on Pittsburgh, Gradkowski to Murphy for the game-winning touchdown with nine seconds left. I leapt off the couch and hugged my buddy in disbelief. The Raiders had scored three touchdowns in a game!

No wait, three in the fourth quarter! And won the game! Unbelievable.

I apologize for the long-winded recap of the game, but I wanted to show just how much of a difference Gradkowski made with his leadership, preparation, and will to win.

So how can you not love this guy?  He's battled from the streets back to the NFL with sheer will, determination, and hard work, and it shows in his every move and word. In short, he's the polar opposite of Russell, who was handed the keys and a ton of money without earning any of it, which also has shown through in HIS every move and word.

Grad's enthusiasm and leadership are infectious. Listening to Raider players after the game, you can tell they believe in this guy.With two fourth-quarter comebacks against excellent teams and stellar defenses in his last three games, I believe in this guy too.

We have suffered long, and we have suffered hard, Raider Nation. To say that Bruce Gradkowski is our saviour is still premature, but to say we are very encouraged with the Raider attitude and play with him under center is not.

This guy has brought excitement back to Oakland and to the Raider Nation, and  given us a gift for Christmas that is priceless: hope. 

Is he the quarterback of the future? He's still quite young and doesn't have a lot of mileage on him. He's mobile, he's vocal, he's a hard worker, and he's shown himself to be a leader of the first order. Sounds like a potential franchise QB to me. I actually quite liked him when he played in Tampa. I think he could turn into something special with the right chance.

Of course, we have to see if the Raiders can maintain this momentum for a second straight game, something we've been unable to do this season. But for the first time since our week two victory over the Chiefs, I feel good about this team. I feel excited. 

I feel good about Gradkowski and humbled, yet never more glad to be, wrong yet again. 


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