By Jerry McDonald - NFL Writer
Saturday, November 8th, 2008 at 1:55 pm in Oakland Raiders.
Opposing passers have approached the Raiders like a shooting gallery in arcade game, with the most inviting target being the cornerback opposite Nnamdi Asomugha.
The Carolina Panthers will be no different Sunday when they visit the Raiders at the Coliseum.
With Al Davis having given up second- and fifth-round draft picks and $8 million for eight games worth of DeAngelo Hall before determining he wasn’t even remotely the lockdown corner they anticipated, they turn to a 29-year-old minimum wage journeyman making his second career start.
“I’ve been waiting on this opportunity for five years,” Chris Johnson said.
An undrafted free agent out of Louisville, Johnson spent two years with the Green Bay Packers and never got into a game because of leg injuries. His most extensive playing time was with St. Louis in 2005, where he had one start and played in 14 games.
Signed as a free agent last year, two things appealed to the Raiders about Johnson. Johnson is fast _ so fast Asomugha believes he’s the fastest player on the team. He also plays special teams, with a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in St. Louis, and has played as a gunner with the Raiders.
Not exactly the resume you’d expect for a starting left cornerback, let alone one who must hold up with a good amount of man coverage opposite Asomugha. Johnson will get a heavy dose of what coach Tom Cable called the best set of starting wide receivers the Raiders have faced this season in Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad.
Smith has 33 receptions for 613 yards and four touchdowns despite missing two games on suspension for going Romanowski on teammate Ken Lucas.
Muhammad had 37 recetpions for 507 yards and two scores. Smith is quick, elusive and is on anyone’s list of the five most difficult one-on-one challenges in the NFL. Muhammad is bigger, more physical and an expert in using his body to get position and screen off cornerbacks.
If form holds, the Panthers will take turns with both receivers running at Johnson repeatedly and Jake Delhomme will look to his right and away from Asomugha.
Sounds like a mismatch, unless Johnson is a rare late bloomer at a position where players have usually identified themselves by their mid-20s. A Dallas resident, Johnson spent a month of his offseason along with Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie working with Deion Sanders.
“You’d start at 7:30 in the morning, be on the field for a few hours, then be back at 2 and go until 3:30 (p.m.),” Johnson said. “(Deion) told me to be patient, that my opportunity would come. To have a mentor like that, the best corner to ever play the game in my opinion, is good for me.”
Back to basics for defense
Sounds like there’s been some confusion on defense, and getting ripped for three early touchdowns and 57 carries for 252 yards against Atlanta brought about some changes, according to defensive tackle Gerard Warren.
“That game exposed one of our basic techniques and pretty much that’s what we’re focusing on _ simplifying the defense,” Warren said. “Maybe things were a little too complicated as far as the game plan, so we simplified things. Obviously the defense didn’t mature in the sense that Rob wanted it to. We have to scale it back down.”
Billick: Al needs some help
During an appearance on Dan Patrick’s radio show, former Ravens coach and Fox analyst Brian Billick said as gently as possible what is becoming increasingly obvious to anyone who has watched the Raiders disintegrate over the last five-plus years.
Davis needs help, and more important, needs to let someone help him. Patrick asked Billick if it would be wise for Jim Harbaugh to leave Stanford for the Raiders.
“The Raiders and Mr. Davis, who is an icon in this industry, need to find someone to partner with to rebuild a very proud franchise. It’s going to take a very special relationship, and I mean that in the sincere sense _ a partnership. I’m not sure who that partner is. Maybe that’s Jim Harbaugh, I don’t know. That’s for Mr. Davis to decide if indeed that’s the direction they want to do.
“But this next relationship does have to be a partnership because there are going to have to be some very hard decisions and some very hard action that is going to have to be taken, and it’s going to have to be done with a partnership. It can’t just be one-sided.”
Spare the faint praise for Davis realizing he made a mistake and then cutting his losses with Hall.
Bringing Hall in was an organizational disaster and cost the Raiders a potentially solid player with the second-round pick they traded away, all for a cornerback who couldn’t play the very technique on which Davis bases his entire defensive philosophy.
It was common knowledge Hall was not a good man-to-man defender, that he gave up too many completions, and that his best work was done breaking on plays out of a zone.
No matter. Davis had visions of Haynes-Hayes II, when what he’d really done was deal for a glorified Phillip Buchanon (who by the way has developed into a solid Cover 2 cornerback in Tampa Bay).
The reality is this _ with defensive backs having been restricted to a five-yard bump zone, playing man-to-man in modern football is much more difficult than it was in the Raiders’ glory years, and even more difficult is finding players as talented as Asomugha who can do it successfully.
Among the players who would have been available to the Raiders with the No. 34 pick which was dealt to Atlanta are the two most productive rookie wideouts in the NFL _ Denver’s Eddie Royal went at No. 42 and and Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson at No. 49.
Or they could have had linebacker Curtis Lofton, a solid starter for Atlanta who was selected at No. 37.
Note: In earlier blog I wrote the Falcons took Lofton with the pick they got from the Raiders for Hall. In reality, they used that pick to trade up into the first round and take tackle Sam Baker and selected Lofton with their own choice.
(I’ll entertain the argument that these players wouldn’t have necessarily developed with the Raiders as they did with their respective teams).
Found it amusing that Cable would go out of his way to say Javon Walker, who received an $11 million signing bonus and $1 million in salary, has “elevated his game” of late. Chances are that vote of confidence came from Davis, who is hoping Walker can salvage what looks to be another questionable decision on a player no one else was willing to pay that kind of money.
We’ll see how elevated Walker’s game is when that $5 million roster bonus comes due.