After yet another rough season for the Silver and Black, it is now time to put together the list of those who are part of the eventual solution as opposed to those that were part of the problem (Don’t worry, I will get to the problem children in the next article). In a season in which the Raiders barely escaped with even the five wins they had, it can be difficult to find a lot of good. But trust me, there were some real diamonds in the rough. Unfortunately, those players and coaches that were bad, were so horribly bad that even those that shined the brightest, often went unnoticed. But that is what this is all about.
This is why the true devoted and educated fans keep watching. That is why we keep hoping. Despite the bad times, (for which there have been many) the payoff could be right around the corner. And if this ship can be righted and the bad can either be fixed or jettisoned, that payoff will be the playoffs. So without further ado, here are the Raiders 2008 Season…
He made the baller list six times during the season. All told, he could probably have made it nearly every week. He had about two not so great punts all season and didn’t have a single punt returned for a TD. In those games that he was good, he was REALLY good. His numbers were that of best all-time. He averaged 48.8 yards per punt and had 33 punts inside the 20 yard line. Those are the best numbers of his career. He had 17 more punts this season than last season and yet the opponent had 20 FEWER return yards and only one fewer fair catch. He made the probowl yet again which was to be expected with the kind of year he had and the kind of career he has had. I pray everyday that the Raiders can somehow keep him. But if he won’t accept a big contract and insists on leaving, we may have seen the last game in a Raider uniform for the greatest punter ever to play the game. If that is the case then I am just thankful the Raiders can say they have had the two greatest punters ever suit up in the Silver and Black.
He is the other of the two probowlers on this team. An honor that was long overdue. As much as ESPN seems to hate the Raiders, we have them to thank for campaigning all season long for Nnamdi to get the invite. Fans tend only to look at the stats and with great corners, they can be deceiving. Despite starting all but one game this season, he had a total of 15 passes thrown to the man he was covering. One of those was a pass behind the line that he tackled for a loss, one he forced a fumble on, eight were passes defended and one was an interception. Which means that he only gave up FOUR passes for positive yards on the season. One was a sideline pass to Gonzo that he had terrific coverage on and another two were in the New England game which was the worst game of the season for the entire defense. How much good can possibly be said about a guy who only gives up four passes for positive yardage in an entire season? And yet again, just like Lechler, this story may not have a happy ending for the Raiders. Nnamdi has also expressed interest in leaving this team due to it’s losing ways and dysfunctional “organization”. As much as I love Lechler; Aso is much more important to this team and it’s future. So he is the utmost priority among player signings.
He appeared on the Baller list six times on the season. He hit 100% of his field goals under 40 yards and set a new Raider record twice in the season with field goals of 56 and 57 yards (which broke his own previous Raider record of 55 yards). The 57 yarder was even bigger because it was the game winning field goal in overtime to knock off Brett Favre and the Jets in Oakland. If a guy is going to set a record, that is definitely the way to do it. He had the second best season of his career in kickoffs with a 65.6 yard average and tied his career best with 22 touch backs on 67 kickoffs. Twice during the season he scored the only points the Raiders had and six times he outscored the offense. He is tied for second in the AFC with 3 field goals made outside of fifty yards.
Jonnie Lee Higgins–
This guy was hot and cold for most of the season. But when he was hot, he was really hot. After an abysmal preseason, he started off the season landing on the buster list and I questioned why he was even still on this team. Then in week 3 against the Bills, he topped the Baller list after he had his first return for a touchdown and suddenly he looked pretty good. He followed up that performance with a great return on the opening kickoff against the Chargers in week 4. Also in that game he showed the first flashes that he could become a viable option at receiver. Then in week 8 against the Ravens, he was back to his old ways again. His worst play came when he caught a punt at the two along the sideline and just walked out of bounds. It was one of those “Dan Orlovsky” completely stupid types of plays that make you lose you mind as a fan. Then in week 10 he earned his Buster status about five seconds into the game when he took the opening kickoff out of the end zone and fumbled it at the 16 yard line to set up the Panthers’ first touchdown. And the rest of that game he looked as bad as I had ever seen him on punt returns including two returns in which he had negative yardage. Then in week 11, after the Raiders had not scored a touchdown in three weeks, he broke through for another punt return touchdown. Then in week 12 he improved on that effort by returning another punt for a touchdown as well as having an all-around great return game and added some offense as well. In week 15 against the Patriots he was given the start and he made the best of it by taking a short slant pass from Russell 56 yards to the house in a game in which there was not much to cheer about otherwise. Then in week 16 he had his best game of the season. He scored two touchdowns; One on a great leaping catch in traffic in the end zone and the other was an 80 yard punt return touchdown. At that point he officially led the team in touchdowns. Then in week 17 he had a team leading 6 receptions for 52 yards and a touchdown. He ended the season as the leading touchdown scorer and the leader in catches and yards among wide receivers. He made the Baller list a team leading seven times. Well done for a guy who had me calling for his head after four preseason games and just one game into the season.
Zach led all other Raiders by a long shot with 56 catches for 778 yards. While it is a little sad that a tight end easily led the Raiders in receptions and receiving yards, Miller is extremely exciting and his potential is even more exciting. There is only one other tight end that is as good of a receiver and he is future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez. Zach led the Raiders in either catches or receiving yards 8 times this season. He had at least two catches in every game but one and had over 40 yards receiving in 11 games including going five of the last seven games with at least 60 yards. In the first game against San Diego he had 95 yards receiving which included a huge 63 yard touchdown catch and run. And in the second meeting between the two teams he had eight catches for 64 yards. He was fourth in the AFC in receiving yards behind only Gonzo, Dallas Clark, and Owen Daniels but Miller had a higher yards per catch average than any of them. Also his 16 catches of 20+ yards was the best in the NFL among tight ends(The closest was Jason Witten with 14). Pretty awesome especially for a guy who was on an inconsistent offense with essentially a rookie quarterback.
All season (that he was healthy) he churned out the difficult yards and worked his ass off. He has never been a flashy player but one thing he has endless amounts of is heart. And gaining 853 yards while missing 3 games is a pretty good accomplishment. That would put him at 1049 yards if he hadn’t missed those games. He only cracked the 100 yard plateau one time but it was against the Broncos IN Denver for that great win. Also he was splitting carries with McFadden all season so that makes it a bit more difficult. That is not what he is about anyway. He does what the NFL analysts love to talk about: “He gets the tough yards”. He is always hitting the hole at full speed and hits every prospective tackler with everything he has. Regardless of who Raider fans think are the best two backs on this team, there is always room for Fargas and his workhorse style of running. And why can’t this team have three good running backs? The Giants do it with their “Earth, Wind and Fire”. And I would say that is not a bad model for this team right about now.
He started five games this season and made the baller list four of those times. He probably should have made it every time he hit the field because HE DIDN’T GIVE UP A SINGLE SACK all season. He also looked pretty good in run blocking. About half way through the season, I was dreading the possibility that the Raiders would have to bring in two starting offensive tackles to replace Kwame Harris and Cornell Green this offseason. Henderson is a huge (literally) relief for this team because it means that tackle is not a position in a state of emergency any longer. And replacing not just one tackle, but a right tackle is about 50 times easier than replacing both a left and right tackle. And when Paul McQuistan is healthy again, he could possibly step back into playing right tackle as he did last season and this team would actually be in pretty decent shape at the tackle positions. Now all they need is some depth.
He was the lone free agent signing by the Raiders that I liked from the start and he was also the lone free agent signing that paid dividends. He was as advertised. He played the run extremely well, which is what this team needs more than anything and he is a hard hitter that doesn’t miss tackles. His 129 tackles led the ENTIRE NFL among defensive backs. He led the Raiders in tackling seven times and had over 10 tackles seven times during the season. Despite being one of the cheapest of the Raiders’ high priced free agent signings, he was BY FAR the only one who lived up to his price tag. Now if the Raiders could get a good free safety and strong side linebacker to lighten his load a bit.
Yet another extremely pleasant surprise for the Raiders. If only he could have shown the coaches and the man upstairs (no not God, think the antithesis) what he could do sooner. Then he could have gotten the job in the offseason before that horrible deal was made for DeAngelo Hall. CJ was nothing short of amazing. Despite having Asomugha shutting down the left side of the field, which meant many more passes were coming his way, he was still a thorn in the opposing quarterback’s side as well as that of the receiver he was covering. I wish I could say he made Raider fans forget about Dhall but unfortunately the money thrown at Hall as well as the lost 2nd and 5th round draft picks are a constant reminder. But he sure did make us wonder what could have been and what is to come. He started a total of 8 games this season and made the Baller list 5 times. He ended the season with 3 interceptions including a big one in the Week 15 game against Houston to help the Raiders win the game. Also in that game he held Andre Johnson to just 1 catch for 7 yards (Andre had 2 total catches but only 1 was with CJ guarding him) and had a pass defended in the end zone to stop a Houston touchdown.
What a find this guy was. He may have only made the Baller list three times during the season but for a rookie who was drafted in the seventh round and started just six games all season, that is pretty freakin’ good. And he saved his best for last. In the final two games of the season in which the Raiders beat the Texans and the Buccaneers, he had 6 catches for 98 yards and 2 touchdowns. While these may be pedestrian for say, someone who wore the same #81 for the Raiders a few years ago, they are impressive for a seventh round rookie on a lackluster offense. Not only that but if you actually saw some of those catches he made, you would see the degree of difficulty was tremendous. He has fantastic hands and leaping ability, not to mention he is a nice big target. He may have staked his case to be a starter next season. It looks like Walker, Curry, and Carter better step up their games because the Raiders have found themselves a gem in Schilens.
Speaking of late round rookie gems, how about this guy drafted in the sixth round and leading the team in sacks with 5? Yet again, five sacks may not be a big number but he did it in very limited spot duty (Kalimba Edwards also had 5 sacks but Edwards started nearly the entire season). Think what he could do with some more playing time? I dared to use the name Jared Allen in reference to Scott when the Raiders drafted him and I am delighted to see that he could live up to that billing. He was a former tight end converted to defensive end just like Allen was and he plays with the same tenacity and hunger that Allen does as well. Sometimes he looked like the only Raider lineman that was really trying out there. Burgess was hurt most of the season and while Edwards did an admirable job, Trevor Scott had that Howie Long quality to him that this team desperately needs. And with Burgess’ upcoming contract negotiations, he may just make Burgess expendable. Although I would like to keep both but that is just me being selfish. Hey, why not though? The Giants proved that stockpiling pass rushers is a recipe for success. Scott, Edwards, and Burgess is a nice start to the pile I would say.
Brian Schneider/Special Teams–
A lot of attention is given to those guys that can return a punt or a kickoff for a Touchdown. And those return specialists deserve some credit. But when a team has FIVE return touchdowns in a season by two different guys, the credit needs to go to the special teams coach and the guys that are out there blocking for the returner. Brian Schneider is the best coach on this team. And while the only coach that has a contract past this season is James Lofton, whomever the new coach ends up being, they would be a complete idiot to not retain Brian Schneider on staff. The Special teams was the only thing on this team that was superb, game in and game out. Whether it be kicking, punting, kick coverage or returning. Any success this team had during the season was thanks in large part to the play of the special teamers. Special teamers like Isaiah Ekejiuba, Jon Alston, Sam Williams, Trevor Scott, and Hiram Eugene deserve mentioning in particular for their contributions in coverage and blocking on returns.
After his years of floundering as a left tackle and a right tackle under three different coaches, the past two years he has really made a home at left guard. I truly believe that if he had been drafted as a left guard, he would be in the probowl this year. Perhaps even for a few years now. But unfortunately he was a high, “can’t miss” draft pick that has the infamous word “Bust” that hangs over him so he is overlooked. Not only does he keep the lineman he is assigned to out of the backfield, he has his way with them in run blocking as well. Most recently in the Tampa Bay game to finish the season, he made their supposed stellar defensive front look weak and malleable. Most notably when he took the nose tackle from the middle and pushed him clear to the right side of the field. which allowed Michael Bush to break off that huge touchdown run. In the two matchups with the Chiefs he made Glenn Dorsey look like a bust, especially when he opened up a hole that allowed McFadden to burst through for a 51 yard run in the first matchup. And though he only made the Baller list a couple of times, he was solid all season long. And as is the case with most Olineman, his efforts often went unnoticed (Especially when the man to his left was so often a revolving door for defensive ends). As fantastic as he has played at guard, he could probably play tackle a damn sight better than a couple of the schmoes that have filled those positions this year. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. He is a probowl calibre guard and that is where he should probably stay. Why mess with a great thing?