Raiders Special Teams: What Happened?

jackson chesherContributor IDecember 26, 2009

DENVER - NOVEMBER 23:  Johnnie Lee Higgins #15 of the Oakland Raiders celebrates with a back flip in front of referee Jeff Triplette after his 89 yard punt return for a second quarter touchdown against the Denver Broncos during week 12 NFL action at Invesco Field at Mile High on November 23, 2008 in Denver, Colorado. The beckflip earned a 15 yard penalty as the Raiders defeated the Broncos 31-10.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The Raiders 2009 season could best be described as inconsistent. 

One week the team looks to have a lot of potential, the next they look totally awful.  There has been one thing that has been consistent and that's special teams. 

Consistently bad that is.

The only exception is the kickers. Shane Lechler and Sebastian Janikowski are both having their best season since they were drafted in 2000.

The problem lies in the returns category.

Last year the special teams were excellent. The 2008 Raider team had the second highest punt return average in the league and lead all teams in special team touchdowns. 

Johnnie Lee Higgins led all punt returners in yards and touchdowns.  He was fourth in average despite having nearly twice as many attempts than the three players ahead of him.

Justin Miller was 14th in the league in kick return average and was the only player in the league to return two kickoffs for touchdowns.  He had 19 returns of over 20 yards and four that went over 40. 

He was the special teams player of the month in December.  He did all this in only seven games with the team.

This year's team ranks dead last in kickoff return average and 29th in punt return average.  It comes as no surprise that Oakland has failed to score any touchdowns on kick returns.

So whats the problem?  Is it the players?

The Raiders opted to re-sign Miller over the offseason, but he was cut at the end of training camp.  The Raiders re-signed him for one game after they cut Louis Rankin, who started the season as kick returner.  Since then, they have used Jonathan Holland and  Gary Russell (our emergency fullback).

Russell has returned kicks the past few weeks with limited success.  He is not quick enough in my opinion to return kicks.  With Luke Lawton being suspended by the team, Gary may not be the man against the Browns.

I think the best solution for this problem is to have Darren McFadden return kicks.  He is one of the fastest players on the team and had success returning kicks in college.  His speed and play-making ability are exactly what the Raiders are looking for in a kick returner.

So what about Higgins?  He is only averaging 5.6 yards per attempt, but it is hard to believe it's all his fault. 

That leads me to the real problem with Oakland's return department: the departure of Brian Schneider, last year's special teams coach.

Schneider was replaced by John Fassel, who was Schneider's assistant in 2008. 

Schneider left for the same job at USC.  Why a coach would switch from the pros to college for the same position is beyond me.  Schneider's USC team is ranked seventh in all of FBS in punt return average. 

Quite the improvement over the 2008 Trojan team that was ranked 73rd.

He hasn't had quite the same success in the kickoff return area.  His Trojan team is ranked 110th in FBS compared to their second-ranked kickoff return team in 2008.  So all the blame can't be laid on Fassel's shoulders.

If the Raiders the are hoping to continue their improvement into 2010 the special teams return department is going to need some serious attention.