Ninth in a series analyzing questions and issues as the Raiders report for training camp in Napa next Wednesday:
Is Bruce Gradkowski really competing to be the starter?
Bruce Gradkowski went from Jon Gruden’s golden boy to the depths of the NFL to a miracle worker in his hometown in short order.
Once Tom Cable got the OK to bench JaMarcus Russell, Gradkowski hijacked a season seemingly headed for 2-14 and helped make it a slightly more palatable 5-11.
(I’d argue that even though Russell emerged from the bench to lead an improbable win in Denver, the momentum generated from Gradkowski’s insertion in the lineup before being injured kept the team together).
He guided the Raiders to an upset win over playoff-bound Cincinnati at home and a come-from-behind win over his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers in what might be the Raiders’ most stirring win in the last seven years.
Don’t forget that in the Chiefs game in which he took over for Russell, Gradkowski had the Raiders deep into Kansas City territory when one of his passes bounced off the hands of Darrius Heyward-Bey and ended up an interception. The Raiders lost, 16-10.
Keep in mind Gradkowski was fighting with Charlie Frye for a roster spot in training camp, with Russell the anointed starter and Jeff Garcia brought in to be the veteran backup. If Garcia didn’t take a look at Russell and surmise, “No way I’m playing behind this guy” and ask to be released, there’s no guarantee Gradkowski even makes the roster.
Before coming to the Raiders, three teams had given up on Gradkowski _ Tampa Bay, St. Louis and Cleveland _ teams playing at a level at or worse than Oakland.
Yet Gradkowski played better than he ever had, even as a rookie starter in Tampa, and played a hugely important role in giving the offense a spark after the listless tenure of Russell _ something that contributed to Russell’s eventual exit.
When Jason Campbell was acquired from the Washington Redskins, he immediately said in an NFL Network interview it was his impression after conversations with Cable and Al Davis that he’d be the starter.
Cable said that no, Campbell would compete for the starting job. By the time Campbell met the media in Oakland, he had softened his position considerably.
Meanwhile, Gradkowski suffered a torn left pectoral muscle lifting weights. That left most of the work with new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to Campbell, with Gradkowski starting light throwing as the Raiders finished organized team activities. Both Cable and Gradkowski expect the quarterback to be ready to go by the first practice a week from today.
So is it really a competition?
Not when Gradkowski is under for contract at around $1.8 million per year after being tendered as an unrestricted free agent, and Campbell was brought in at more than $3 million and extended an additional year to over $4 million.
Campbell is a veteran of 45 starts, has a 61.2 completion percentage with 55 touchdown passes and 38 interceptions. He wasn’t brought in to “compete” with a spunky underdog.
Not that what Gradkowski did was all for naught. He caused the Raiders, as well as every other team in the league, to give him serious consideration for a roster spot as an ideal backup quarterback.
Gradkowski would never look at it that way, nor should he. He wants to start, but his enthusiasm, mobility and skill set make him ideal to come in for a starter who is either injured or struggling and still give his team a chance to win.
Still only 27, Gradkowski could have himself a long and fruitful career as an NFL backup, and given attrition at the position, get another chance to work the kind of magic he did last season before one day becoming a coach at some level. I’m guessing that’s how the Raiders envision him, anyway.
Previous camp questions: