A few potential roadblocks as the Raiders attempt to make a run at the AFC West title and get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2002:
Injuries_The easiest and most obvious obstruction for any team. The last few times Al Davis made public appearances, he talked about injuries and their effect _ and thats when the Raiders weren’t nearly as good as they are now. It’s one of the first things brought up by Jason Campbell when asked about continued team success.
The Raiders beat the Chiefs in their pre-bye game without cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (ankle sprain) and tight end Zach Miller (arch), who only happen to be their two most consistent players over the last four years on defense and offense.
The hope is both will be ready to face Pittsburgh, but we really don’t know for sure. When Cable went out of his way to talk up Brandon Myers and how well he played against his Chiefs, my first thought was, “Uh, oh. He’s laying the groundwork for the possibility that Miller could be out awhile.”
Could be I’m reading between the lines and seeing something that’s not there. In any event, foot injuries are tricky and there’s only one tight end on the roster unless Khalif Barnes is getting a uniform number in the 80s.
Another concern is the offensive line, center in particular. Cable says Samson Satele is on the mend, and the Raiders aren’t inclined to add another center at the present time. That means if Satele is hurt, then Jared Veldheer, who has shown great promise since taking over at left tackle, moves to center, and Mario Henderson is back at left tackle. It weakens two positions in a unit that has shown much progress over the past few weeks.
Penalties_ The Raiders lead the NFL with 91 penalties for 794 yards, a pace which would give them 161 penalties for 1,411 yards at the end of the season and erase the existing NFL records of 158 penalties for 1,304 yards _ both set by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1998.
If the Raiders lead the league in penalties, it will be the 16th time in franchise history _ tying the Chicago Bears for most times leading the league. The Bears led the league for the first time in 1941, the Raiders didn’t even exist until 1960.
History says they’re going to get their penalties. A good sign was overcoming 15 flags for 140 yards against the Chiefs, because history also says that good Raiders teams overcome penalties.
But the Raiders aren’t that good. It’s not the 1960s and 1970s when the talent disparity was huge. The occasional penalties of aggression can be lived with. But false starts, encroachment, lining up in the neutral zone, illegal formations and mental penalties need to be reduced if not eliminated.
At some point in a tight game, a third-and-2 that suddenly turns into a third-and-7 (or vice-versa for the defense) may be the difference between winning and losing.
Quarterback play_ Campbell has done some great things in terms of quarterback rating during the three-game win streak, but there’s a reason Cable waited until the most recent game to make the public statement that he would probably be going with the hot hand rather than switching back to Bruce Gradkowski.
He’s not completely sold on Campbell. Gradkowski, on the other hand, is the quarterback who saved his job last year.
I’m not sold on either quarterback being “the guy” for the future and chances are you’ll need both of them to get through the season. You’ll need Campbell because the last 11 times the Raiders have played, Gradkowski has made it start to finish twice and been knocked out of two other games. You’ll need Campbell because he can be a solid, methodical game manager who minimizes turnovers and can occasionally stick a difficult throw when it matters.
You’ll need Gradkowski (when healthy) because there might be days like against St. Louis in Week 2 where the Raiders need a spark they’re not getting from Campbell.
Take a look at the teams competing for AFC playoff spots and the quarterbacks involved, then insert where “Campkowski” fits in.
In no particular order, there’s Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger and probably Mark Sanchez who are better, and that’s without even bringing Matt Schaub and a fading Houston team into the equation.
Tennessee seems stuck between Vince Young and Kerry Collins, and the Chiefs have Matt Cassel, situations which Oakland may be able to claim superiority at the most important position on the field.
Wide receivers_At this point, anything you get from Chaz Schilens is a bonus, and even if he does return, the elephant in the room will remain Darrius Heyward-Bey until the Raiders get some consistent production that goes beyond running clear-out routes. He had a big game against Seattle, 5 catches for 105 yards and his first deep strike, a 69-yard touchdown. Heyward-Bey needs to have more of those days. As long as he is not, and Jacoby Ford is cooling his heels on the sidelines after the return of Louis Murphy, then it’s a problem.
It’s OK to be in a developmental mode playing out the string. It’s an issue when you’re trying to make the playoffs.
Sebastian Janikowski_ Cable noted that when Janikowski hit the 33-yard field goal that beat the Chiefs, it came from the same spot on the field as did the miss in Arizona (actually from 32 yards) that kept the Raiders from having a 6-3 record. It officially put the Arizona loss to bed.
Janikowski, however, has missed seven field goal attempts in nine games and is 22-for-29 at 76 percent. That’s No. 27 in the NFL. The most field goal attempts Janikowski has ever missed in a season is 10 (22-for-32 in 2000, 20-for-30 in 2005).
If the Raiders hope to make a playoff run, Janikowski’s percentage will need get near or over 90 percent for the last seven games and include some clutch, long-distance kicks, possibly in bad weather.