Part of the Bay Area News Group

From Midway to Green Bay

By Jerry McDonald - NFL Writer
Saturday, December 8th, 2007 at 8:21 am in Oakland Raiders.

Jumping to conclusions at the three-quarter turn while making my way from Oakland to Chicago (Midway) and into Wisconsin and Packers country:

– All the changes in the locker room and culture of the Raiders orchestrated by Lane Kiffin were in danger of being undermined had they not put together back-to-back wins against the Chiefs and Broncos

At 4-8 and coming off their most complete performance in the last four-plus years, the final four against Green Bay, Indianapolis, Jacksonville and San Diego _ four teams headed for the postseason with a combined record of 35-13 _ still looks imposing but not necessarily an automatic 0-4.

– Daunte Culpepper has his best game against Kansas City, Josh McCown follows in kind against Denver, and JaMarcus Russell was as intriguing as he was imposing in his debut.

Culpepper and McCown didn’t suddenly look inside themselves and turn it around. Instead, the players around them got better, another illustration that a quarterback is only as good as the situation he is in.

If it carries over against the Packers, that bodes well for Andrew Walter, Sunday’s likely backup for McCown.

– Being better in December is no small thing where the post-2002 Raiders are concerned. Going into the Denver game, Oakland was 2-16 in December starting in 2003, with the lone wins coming against Baltimore in 2003 and Tennessee in 2004.

– Interesting dilemma shaping up with Justin Fargas in his walk year. As good as Fargas has been, the thought here is you don’t break the bank for a running back in a system which has proven over time to churn out Fargas-like stories faster than John Grisham writes novels.

– It may have no more validity than the Kiffin-to-Arkansas rumors, but one of the names surfacing in the UCLA search for a new head coach is Tom Cable.

Send Bruins A.D. Dan Guerrero the film of the Raiders offensive line last year, and the Raiders offensive line this year and there would be reason to worry.

– Included in that film would be Robert Gallery’s block on John Lynch as Fargas got loose for a 13-yard screen against the Broncos. Al Davis had to be sold on the idea of moving Gallery to guard, and to his credit, he listened to Kiffin and Cable.

Gallery has some of the same tendencies about flattening players a fraction of a second before (or after) the whistle that Wiz did, but his status as the No. 2 overall pick means he’ll never get credit for it until he reaches multiple Pro Bowls.

– Screen passes, which were horror shows last year, have of late been well-executed plays and an excellent tactic to relieve defensive pressure.

– A slow-starting rookie class is showing signs of life, and not just because Russell provided some juice against the Broncos.

Tight end Zach Miller has found his way farther than 10 yards downfield, Jay Richardson had a third-down red zone sack of Jay Cutler which forced a Broncos field goal attempt and Oren O’Neal has moments where he looks like a Lorenzo Neal-type lead blocker.

“It’s fun to watch because by the time that fourth quarter rolls around, those linebackers, they’re not real excited about playing against him anymore on those lead plays,’’ Kiffin said.

– O’Neal, said Kiffin, can catch the ball. We saw some glimpses of it early on in training camp, but haven’t seen it lately. Might be a nice change-up.

– Looks from here like Shane Lechler is the only Raider with a shot at the Pro Bowl, unless Nnamdi Asomugha suddenly has the reputation to overcome a one-interception year.

– The Raiders not only have twice as many wins as they did through 12 games last season, but twice as many offensive touchdowns (22-to-11).

– When Kiffin said he was committed to running the ball, he meant it. The Raiders are on pace for 509 rushing plays this season, their most since they had 520 in 2000 and led the league in rushing.

– When “Comeback Player of the Year’’ discussion begins, Jeremy Newberry has got to be in the conversation.

– Raiders starting safeties have two interceptions in their last 26 games, one by Stuart Schweigert and one by Michael Huff. Going back to 2003, Oakland safeties have 11 picks in 76 games and only Schwiegert, with three, has more than two.

It’s as if Rod Woodson, when he was injured in 2003 and subsequently retired, took all the big plays with him.

– Had it not been for Rod Woodson’s big year in 2002 (eight interceptions), safety has been a problem area for the Raiders since they returned to Oakland in 1995. Hard to believe they made it all the way to a conference title game with Anthony Dorsett and Marquez Pope as the starters.

– As well as smallish linebackers Kirk Morrison and Thomas Howard play the pass, there is some concern even among some teammates that neither has gotten off blocks against the run as well as they should.

A good sign_ both were much better in that regard against Denver.

The last time the Raiders had a good game against the run, against Chicago, they followed it up by getting steamrolled in Minnesota.

– Three-quarter turn award winners: MVP_Tom Brady, Patriots; Offensive player of the year_ Brady; Defensive player of the year_Jared Allen, Chiefs; Offensive rookie of the year_Adrian Peterson, Vikings; Defensive rookie of the year_Patrick Willis, 49ers; Coach of the year: Bill Belichick, Patriots; Comeback player of the year_Brett Favre, Packers.

(Note: Favre will not win this award, but the feeling here is he has been average to below-average for the past few years and and this season is surpassed only by Peyton Manning and Brady among NFL quarterbacks).

Three-quarter-turn Raiders award winners: MVP_Justin Fargas; Top offensive player_Fargas; Top defensive player_Kirk Morrison; Top rookie_Zach Miller; Biggest surprise_Chris Clemons; Biggest disappointment (literally and figuratively)_Terdell Sands; Most encouraging development_Tom Cable and ther running game; Most disappionting development_Inability to stop the run.

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