Oakland Raiders' Bruce Gradkowski's Heroics Put JaMarcus Russell On Notice

Bleacher ReportSenior Analyst INovember 23, 2009

With every win, I hope as a Raider fan, that it is a sign of better things to come.

Since 2003, that has yet to materialize. 

Today, however, I actually believed that the Raiders could win when they appeared down and out. 

On the game tying drive in the last two minutes against the Cincinnati Bengals, I actually believed that the Raiders would win, even on 4th-and-10.

After which, QB Bruce Gradkowski threw a 29 yard touchdown to receiver Louis Murphy who fought his way into the endzone for the touchdown.

On the ensuing kickoff, Oakland's Brandon Myers stripped Andre Caldwell of the ball and recovered the fumble. With less than a minute to go, Sebastian Janikowski kicked the winning field goal for the Raiders to upset the Bengals in Oakland.

Announcers Greg Papa and Tom Flores were quick to recall the Heidi Bowl game against the Jets in 1968, in which the Raiders scored twice in the final two minutes to win the game.

Raider fans have been quick to berate rookie receiver Darrius Heyward Bey because the Raiders choose him instead of Michael Crabtree, but with Chaz Schilens, Zach Miller, and rookie Louis Murphy, I think the Raiders are set at receiver for years to come.

Murphy has not emerged as a "go to" receiver, but has made big plays, and his play reminds me of Hines Ward by playing hard on every play, even when he doesn't have the ball. Schilens and Heyward Bey made critical first-down conversions, as would Miller who also caught a touchdown.

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The bigger story of the game though, was Gradkowski starting in place of JaMarcus Russell, who was benched. Gradkowski was not great in terms of completions, but many of the incompletions came in the first half, which can be excused by the fact that it was Gradkowski's first start.

Gradkowski led an efficient drive to tie the game. Russell has led game—winning drives for the Raiders, but I think the biggest difference between the two was that Gradkowski sustained the offense by getting first down conversions throughout the game.

Gradkowski was 17 of 34 for 183 yards, two touchdowns, and two turnovers, but no sacks. The fumble was early in the game so again that is excusable considering that it was Gradkowski's first start.

Gradkowski played, I think, the way Raider fans believed that Jeff Garcia would have.  Just get the ball to the receivers and sustain the offense, nothing flashy.

Raider fans did believe that we had the pieces in place, and that once we had a reliable quarterback, it would have a ripple effect throughout the rest of the team.

The defense has gotten a bad wrap in the past, because of an anemic offense that put an inordinate amount of pressure on the defense.

As long as the Raiders can sustain an offense, the Raiders will have a chance to win games.

If nothing else, Gradkowski's performance is a message to Russell that Russell is not the only option at quarterback. That to me is important, because I do believe that Russell took his opportunities for granted, because Al Davis had committed to Russell and the Raiders had appeared to be thin at quarterback depth.

No more.

Let's not forget the running game, which compiled 84 yards between three runners (Justin Fargas, Darren McFadden, Michael Bush) that each averaged over four yards a carry. 

That total doesn't sound like much, but when you consider that the Raiders played from behind for most of the game and had to pass, then it is impressive to see that the running backs made plays when they had the chance.

The defense played strong after initially allowing two touchdowns and the departure of DL Richard Seymour due to injury.  I think it is important to note that the defense rallied after they could have packed it in.

Seymour left the game early and did not return, but the reports are that the injury is not serious.  The defense had three sacks, five forced fumbles with three recoveries and an interception that iced the game.

Safety Tyvon Branch was a beast in the secondary with 12 tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble.  Defensive-back Stanford Routt would sack Carson Palmer for an big loss near the endzone that in effect prevented the touchdown.  Bengals kicker Shayne Graham would miss a short field goal, which proved to be a critical miss.

It wasn't a perfect win of course, but a win is a win.  Take it for what it is.  The nay-sayers will say what they will.  I can't hold my breath yet, but I hope that the Raiders will finish the season strong and have something to build on, with as many young players that they have.

Many in the sports media have have been quick to call it a fluke and that the Bengals choked, and have compared the game to Kansas City's win over Cincinnati's AFC North rival the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Which might be true, but I think the big difference was the quarterback play for Oakland.  The critics have pointed to Cincinnati's turnovers as the cause, even though the Raiders only scored three points from turnovers (the winning field-goal), and stopped a long Cincy drive with a fumble recovery.

Thus, the Raiders did not merely captialize on easy opportunities, because they made many of them, as opposed to the Raider win in Arrowhead, in which the defense made many big-plays to stop Kansas City's momentum, while the Raider offense look terribly until JaMarcus Russell scrapped together a winning drive.

The Raiders have a tough schedule, and I believe that the most reasonable thing to hope for is that the Raiders play for pride.  Wins, even if ithey won't add up this year, will give fans and casual observers a reason to believe that the Raiders are back.