It was planned weeks ago between coaches Tom Cable and Mike Singletary, but the opening team sessions between the Raiders and 49ers Tuesday afternoon symbolized what will be important as Oakland will be forced to begin the season without the services of wide receiver Chaz Schilens.
JaMarcus Russell handed the ball to Darren McFadden, who found a big hole up the middle with Chris Morris at center, the first of a series of plays during a running period, virtually in all of which the Raiders appeared to gain considerable ground.
(During non-tackling sessions, you can never be absolutely sure).
McFadden, Michael Bush, Justin Fargas and Gary Russell all had decent carries, and the 49ers went more than 10 plays before 49ers cornerback Reggie Smith strung out a sweep the left and stacked up Louis Rankin.
Nobody was talking about it on the record, but make no mistake _ the coaching and administrative staffs were sick over losing Schilens. The healing time on a fifth metatarsal fracture varies from patient to patient, but it’s a good bet he’ll miss the first three games against AFC West opponents.
As much as Tom Cable has made it a point to talk up the group as a whole, Schilens was far and away the best in his position group since the club arrived in Napa.
Thinking ahead to an annual end-of-camp feature, I thought Schilens was the easy leader as the offensive Most Valuable Player because he’s been more consistent than McFadden.
Sports Illustrated had dispatched a writer for a possible feature.
Instead, the Raiders were mixing and matching receivers in a way that made it impossible to tell exactly how they’ll go about the rotation. Darrius Heyward-Bey probably had fewer reps than he did in the morning session.
It’s something they’ll have to work out once they get an idea starting Monday if Javon Walker is a viable option after not practicing for the last nine months.
“As good of a camp as Chaz was having, you hate for him to let this happen this early on,” Walker said. “We just feel for him . . . but that’s part of the league and it happens and you’ve just got to try to move on and let other guys step up in his place that haven’t really maybe been getting a lot of reps. But they’re obviously going to get those reps now.”
During the second session Tuesday, the Raiders mostly played it safe, throwing checkdowns and safe, short passes, and giving Darrius Heyward-Bey fewer snaps than in the morning practice.
JaMarcus Russell capped one seven-on-seven red zone session with a pass over the middle to Johnnie Lee Higgins. It started with a swing left to Rankin, followed by an incomplete attempt to Marcel Reece at the goal line that was broken up by Manny Lawson.
Russell hit Brandon Myers for a short gain before finishing it off with a score to Higgins. Higgins, who along with Schilens gave the Raiders some legitimate threats at wide receiver toward the end of the 2008 season, sounds as if he’s prepared to step up.
“I encourage everybody to do better _ it’s their time to get in the limelight,” Higgins said. “So if they don’t want to get in the limelight, like I tell them all the time, I’ll get in it. I ain’t scared to get in the limelight. Y’all don’t want me in y’all limelight, though. Or y’all ain’t getting it back.”
For the most part, Russell and Jeff Garcia struggled against the 49ers first and second teams while Bruce Gradkowski and Charlie Frye fared much better against the end of the 49ers bench _ which really isn’t a fair indiction of how the quarterbacks actually played considering the level of competition.
Garcia showed flashes of what has made him a difficult quarterback to defend when he rolled right after a play fake, saw an open area and ran for a good chunk of yardage.
More notes and observations from the second session:
— Still not sure how much of a blocker sixth-round tight end Brandon Myers is, but he made a tumbling end zone catch from Gradkowski for a touchdown in a red zone drill. Tony Stewart, the incumbent backup, is giving no ground, however, and has been extremely reliable as a receiver as well.
Probably doesn’t matter _ should be room for both.
— Raiders offensive linemen showed their agility, a prerequisite for zone blockers, during two-on-two blocking sessions against stunting defenders. During one instance, Seth Wand and Paul McQuistan gave virtually no ground against Ricky Jean-Francois and Lawson.
— The leader in the clubhouse as the outstanding defensive player through training camp so far? Strong safety Tyvon Branch. Has not only held up in coverage, but made plays as well. Have the Raiders finally developed their own playmaking safety?
— Among those who didn’t practice were FB Oren O’Neal and C Samson Satele. WR Louis Murphy went through some drills with wide receivers but stayed out of team sessions, indicating he may be near getting back into the mix after sustaining a hip injury against Dallas.
Rookie defensive end Matt Shaughnessy sat out practice for undisclosed reasons _ Cable will address the media Wednesday _ as did the “normal crew” of C John Wade, G Marcus Johnson, SS Mike Mitchell, T Khalif Barnes and Walker. McQuistan, who sat out the morning session, practiced in the afternoon.
— Shaughnessy, linebacker Slade Norris, defensive lineman Desmond Bryant (correction, I originally wrote Desmond Howard) and linebacker David Nixon were given haircuts courtesy of some veterans, although they weren’t nearly as bad as some of those in years past.
Spared were the two top picks, Heyward-Bey and Mitchell.
— Larry Robbins from Encino, the media watchdog who periodically trumpets the accomplishments of Al Davis to the media through e-mails sent to newspapers and sports networks all over the country, noted in his latest message, “they have a chance to be something special _ if not this year, then next year for sure.”
Somehow I don’t think that will be the message at the bottom of the next press release.
— Practices will be at 8:30 a.m. and 4:20 p.m. Wednesday, both in pads.