Sure, it was another rough season for the Raiders. But that is not what we are here to discuss right now. Today we recognize those players that thoroughly outplayed the Raiders’ 5-11 record. Those players that manned their positions with honor and distinction. Without them, the Raiders would not have even won those five games. And with a few more like them, this team would be among the NFL elite.
So whether it is excusing certain players from blame for the losses or giving credit to those players whose efforts were monumental in the wins, here are the Raiders’ 2009 season…
He was the Raiders leading receiver again for the second year in a row. And it earned him Baller status nine times during the season. There is no tight end in the NFL that has done more with less than Zach Miller. That could be why, despite the voters being clueless to his talents, he has been named as a Pro Bowl alternate this year. The players that are Pro Bowlers ahead of him are Antonio Gates and Dallas Clark. And why wouldn’t those two be in the Pro Bowl? Afterall they have some pretty awesome numbers. They also happen to play on the two most potent offenses in the AFC and have two Pro Bowl quarterbacks joining them. One of them is the NFL MVP. I am sure there is no coincidence there. Zach is third in yards by a tight end behind those two. But he has a higher yards per catch average than Dallas Clark and in the head to head matchup with Gates in the first game of the season, Zach outplayed Gates considerably. Zach had six catches in that game for 96 yards. And every one of those catches helped move the Raiders into scoring position to give them a chance to win. He would also outplay Gates in the Raiders second game against the Chargers. A game in which he had more catches and more yards. He had his biggest game in week six that helped the Raiders win their second game of the season against the heavily favored Eagles. He had 135 yards receiving that day which included the biggest play of the game. It was just a simple short pass but Miller caught it and rumbled 86 yards for a touchdown. The play made the rounds of highlight reels for two days. It also happened to be the longest pass play for the Raiders since 1983! Now back to present day. After that win, the Raiders wouldn’t get another until week 11 over the Bengals. And of course, Zach was monumental in that game as well. He led the team in receptions (5) and receiving yards (65) and a touchdown. He would lead the team in catches several more times during the season. This culminated in a 9 catch 110 yard day in week 16 against the Browns. On that day he had as many catches as the entire Raider wide receiver corp combined. And he alone had more catches than the entire Browns TEAM. The final week of the season he would catch the only Raider touchdown of the day in a loss to the Ravens.
What can you say about a guy who had the kind of season he did this year? He had an historic year for sure. The Raiders as a team would score 197 points on the season and 95 of those points came off of his foot. Which means he scored almost half of all the points the Raiders scored during the season. He was a Baller 7 times but when a guy misses just one field goal inside 50 yards during the season, he could very well be a Baller just about every game. Heck, he has only missed two field goals over 50 yards despite attempting 8 of them. That is the most in the NFL. He was a huge factor is every one of the 5 wins this season and was a Baller in four of them. But even after a tremendous season, he seemed to just keep getting more amazing as the season went on. Week 13 in Pittsburgh was one such performance. The Raiders called upon him to make two field goals and he made both of them. The first one was from 48 yards out– nailed it. The second one was from 43 yards out and was even more impressive. Mainly because a wind had picked up that he compensated for. When the ball left his foot it looked like a sure miss right but it suddenly made a left turn and split the uprights perfectly. It looked like a bird (or angel?) had swooped in and corrected it’s trajectory. If you needed any further proof of that wind, Jeff Reed lined up for a 53 yarder that he kicked straight only to have it sail left and miss. Yes, Janikowski kicked better in Pittsburgh than the Steelers own kicker. After that game he just seemed to get better. In week 15 in Denver he was at it again. Again the Raiders needed two field goals and that’s what he gave them. The Raiders’ weak kick coverage teams needed touchbacks and that’s what he gave them. One of his field goals was from 54 yards to tie his longest of the season. And he made it look like a 34 yarder as per usual. He had five kickoffs on the day; four of which were touchbacks and three of those went out of the back of the end zone. So what does he do for another encore? The Raiders traveled to Cleveland and he was top Baller after an historic day. His first job was to keep the ball out of the hands of the most dangerous return man in the NFL, Joshua Cribbs, at all costs– Mission accomplished. As for his field goals; he was a perfect 3 for 3. One of those field goals was from 61 yards out for the fourth longest field goal of all time. He has a Pro Bowl season just like Zach Miller. And also like Miller, he was passed up for a player from a the high powered Chargers, Nate Kaeding. Even though Janikowski has superior numbers in every single category except sheer number of field goals. A stat that is completely out of his control.
Now here is a guy that finally has no such problem as not being selected for the Pro Bowl. He is now making his second trip to the game. It took a few years into his career but now the Raiders’ “invisible man” is getting recognized for making his receivers invisible. He was a Baller six times this season. The first time he made the list, he was playing with a chipped bone in his wrist. Not a lot can be said about him statistically because he rarely sees the ball come to his side of the field. But when that rare sighting of the ball or ball carrier comes his way, he will just amaze you all over again. He flawlessly executes almost every facet of the game from coverage to playing the run. In the week 2 win over the Chiefs, he had one of the biggest plays of the game when he came up to tackle the KC receiver for a short gain IN-BOUNDS to keep the clock moving and send the Chiefs into half time without scoring. That 3 points was the final margin of victory. Oh yeah, and he didn’t give up a single catch all day. In the week 15 win in Denver, he was all over the field making plays. He blanketed Brandon Marshall all day, making his life miserable. Also, on five instances he came up in run support– three sutffs were for no gain and two were for a loss. On one of them he fought through blockers and nailed a tackle eligible Ryan Clady in the backfield for a three yard loss. In the final minutes of the game, the Broncos had driven to the Raider 2 yard line and were threatening to score. But on third down Nnamdi had Marshall locked down which caused Orton to throw the ball away. They would be held out of the end zone and settled for a field goal. With the Raiders winning 20-19, holding them out of the end zone proved to be the difference in the game.
Undoubtedly the Raiders rookie of the year winner. He got started right away too. He was a Baller in week one against the Chargers after catching four passes for 87 yards and a touchdown. He actually caught two touchdowns in the game but the refs screwed him out of one of them. He would later catch a 57 yard bomb in the fourth quarter that the refs couldn’t dispute. He would be a Baller four more times after that too. In week 6, the big highlight of the day was the 86 yard Zach Miller touchdown catch and run. A highlight that saw Murphy nail a would-be tackler to free Miller for big yards. But Murphy wasn’t done yet. When Zach got down to the ten yard line, he looked to stopped there but who should come running into the picture but Louis Murphy to lay the final block that allowed Zach to take it to the house. In the week 11 win in Pittsburgh, Murphy had just one catch but It was a big one. He ran a great route that faked out the defender. Then he sealed off the pass and caught in right in front of him. He was hit immediately upon catching the ball at the 3 yard line but he wouldn’t be denied. He pushed past his defender and when he turned toward the goal line, he reached the ball out and stuck it in for a touchdown. In week 13 he would be top Baller without having a single catch until the fourth quarter. But when he showed up, he made his presence felt. His first catch was one in which he burned his man to get wide open on a slant pattern and took the pass 75 yards for a touchdown. The catch gave the Raiders a 20-17 lead. Then after the Steelers regained the lead, he had a brilliant drive. He caught three passes on the drive. The first went for 19 yards to put the Raiders in Steeler territory. The second was a wobbling duck thrown by Gradkowski that Murphy came back to and high pointed the ball to keep it from the defender and pick up 23 yards and keep the drive going. His third catch, he got open in the end zone and caught it for the final touchdown to seal Raider victory. Those four catches were good enough for 128 yards and 2 touchdowns to lead all Raider receivers. He would finish the season as the Raiders leader among wide receivers with 34 catches for 521 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Another historic year for the greates punter in NFL history. He would be a Baller six times on the season and top the list twice. Most teams would think it odd that their best player is the punter. But most teams are not graced with the rocket launcher that is the leg of Shane Lechler. He got things started off with a bang when the Raiders faced the Chiefs in week 2 with punts of 66, 70, 53, and 59 yards. In week 5 he was top Baller for a game in win which he had seven punts. Of those seven, 3 were downed inside the 20 yard line. He also had three 59 yard punts. He put so much air under one of his punts that the returner muffed it and the Raiders recovered to set up their only touchdown of the day. In week 7 he was one of the few bright spots in a loss to the Jets. He had 5 punts in the game and the Jets would only even attempt one return all day which went for 4 yards. In the game he would boot two 61 yarders. His shortest punt (43 yards) was one of his best as it was downed by the Raiders at the 7 yard line. The one time the Jets fair caught a punt at the 25 yard line was their best field position of the day off of punts. In week 10 he punted 11 times with 5 of them stopped inside the 20 yard line. His first punt was fair caught at the 9 yard line. His second punt was muffed and recovered by the Raiders. His third punt traveled 52 yards. His fourth and fifth punts went for 55 and 57 yards and in both cases the returner was tackled immediately. His next punt was fair caught at the 11 yard line. In the final game of the season against the Ravens, Lechler had four punts over 50 yards with his longest traveling 59 yards. His shortest punt traveled 45 yards, but It was a towering shot that the returner stayed well away from. It landed at the ONE yard line with a backspin and bounced away from the end zone to be downed at the 5 yard line. Lechler was in line to possibly overtake Sammy Baugh with the all-time leading single season punting average. Baugh set the mark at 51.4 and Lechler just missed it with a 51.1 average this season. He is still ridiculously good though.
He got his first significant carries until week 6 when Darren McFadden was out with an injury. The result was a surprising win over the Eagles. He carried the ball 23 times for 87 yards. It was the best the Raiders running game had looked all season. He also had the longest rush by any Raider all season up to that point when he broke off a 20 yarder. And he also had a couple of 14 yard runs in the game. One of his 14 yard runs ended with him laying the wood to Eagles safety Quintin Mikell, knocking Mikell out of the game. He would be given only 8 carries the next week but still managed to get 67 yards including a 35 yard run and a 17 yarder. Combined with the 20 yard run he had the week before gave him the three longest runs from scrimmage up to that point. He would be a Baller 5 times during the season and topped the list in week 12 when he had 49 yards in the first quarter alone. 33 of those yards were on two carries in the Raiders only touchdown drive of the game. He was also a key factor in the week 13 win over the Steelers. His longest gain was just 13 yards but he consistently kept the Raiders out of third an long situations with hard fought runs between the tackles. He finished the game with 63 yard on 15 carries. He would go down with injury two weeks later in Denver. Earning Baller status 5 out of the the 8 games despite never officially getting a start is really nice work.
Bruce, like Fargas, had to wait a while to get his chance. But Gradkowski had to wait until week 11 for Cable to bench JaMarcus Russell. The result was the same as with Fargas replacing McFadden though– a win. He stepped in and led the Raiders to a victory over the Bengals. All the team wanted from Gradkowski was for him to manage the game. In the process he had two touchdown passes to just one interception. Even the interception was not his fault as his arm was hit by an oncoming rusher causing it to be a wobbly duck. He went 17-34 on the day and of his 17 incompletions, only three were due to inaccuracy. Gradkowski’s biggest throw was his 17 and final throw of the game. It was a strike to Louis Murphy at the goal line in which Murphy bulled into the end zone to tie the game at 17. Gradkowski, in one game, would tie JaMarcus Russell’s entire 10 game season total with 2 touchdown passes. In week 13 he would lead them to another win over his hometown Steelers, in Pittsburgh. And he did most of his damage in the fourth quarter. He would drive the Raiders down the field three times for touchdowns in the waning minutes including a 75 yard TD strike to Murphy. He would throw 3 touchdowns and become the first Raider to throw for over 300 yards since Kerry Collins did it back in ‘07. Bruce would lead the Raiders to two wins in the three full games he started. He would get injured to end the first half of the Washington game in week 14. When he left the game the Raiders were within one score 10-17. Without him the Raiders would score just one more field goal and the ‘Skins would run away with a 34-13 victory. This team needs him. There is no doubt about that.
Bush is a streaky player. He has good days and not so good days. But when he is good, he is really good. He has had the last three 100 yard rushing performances for this Raider team. Two of them came this season and both were against rivals. He racked up 119 yards against the Chiefs in week 10. It was the first time a Raiders running back has gone over hundred yards since…Michael Bush had 177 yards against the Bucs at the end of last season. His big run was a 60 yarder that occurred on the second play of the game. Then he was workmanlike until the third quarter when Tom Cable finally decided he would just run the ball. Bush carried the ball five straight times for 36 yards and three first downs. Then for whatever reason Cable decided to have Russell throw the ball. Bush was the only good thing the Raiders had going on offense but unfortunately he wasn’t enough. His next big game came at the most important time for the Raiders– Against the Broncos IN Denver. In that game he relentlessly picked up large chunks of yardage. The first time he put his hands on the ball he ran it 23 yards for a touchdown. That Bush TD gave the Raiders the lead 7-6 and instantly shifted the momentum. Two drives later with the Raiders up 10-6, he had 27 yards and three first downs. The Raiders would finish the drive with another field goal to build the lead to 13-6 heading into halftime. In the third quarter he took the handoff for 18 yards. The next play he ran for 40 yards to put the Raiders in scoring position. He had completely demoralized the Denver defense on the day with 18 carries for 133 yards (7.4 ypc) and a touchdown. The next week against the Browns he had 50 yards on 9 carries in the first half and for some reason he was only given the ball one more time the rest of the game. But clearly he was still in rare form.
The Raiders didn’t know what they had in Branch this season. Which is probably that main reason for the team draft Mike Mitchell in the second round of the draft. Afterall, he was drafted in a fourth round of the 08 draft and was put behind the big free agent acquisition Gibril Wilson. Then he got hurt and would play in only half the games his rookie season. Then Wilson was released and the starting strong safety job was Branch’s to lose. And it didn’t take long to see that the Raiders had a gem in their hands. He led the team in tackles in week one– the very first start of his career. He would be named a Baller in week 3 when he led the Raiders in tackles for the second time in 3 games. He had 6 run stuffs and 2 of those were tackles for loss. He also had a pass defended. He would lead the team in tackles several more times during the season. But what made his tackles special was that most of them were run stuffs at the line. Those efforts would earn him Baller status 6 times as a result. His best game came in the week 11 win over the Bengals. He would be named top baller in that game. He led the team in tackles with 11 solo tackles and an assist which was 5 more tackles than the next guy. He also had one of the biggest plays of the game in which he came shooting in on a safety blitz to sack Carson Palmer and knock the ball out for a fumble that the Raiders would recover. Five of his tackles were run stuffs; 3 of which were tackles for loss and one was sack. In the passing game he had a coverage incompletion in which he blanketed the tightend so completely that he couldn’t even finish his route. He also had a pass defended in the end zone on a drive that ended a few plays later with a sack and a missed field goal. I think it is time to start talking about Branch as a Pro Bowl safety. Especially with the injuries to Bob Sanders and Troy Polamalu. But with him being the fifth leading tackler in the AFC and his 124 combined tackles being more than any other safety in the entire NFL, it is a mockery that he is not a Pro Bowler.
The Raiders expected big things from this second year pro after he finished off last season brilliantly and was looking great in the training camp. But he would break his foot in the preseason and didn’t return until week 11. Then the week 15 game in Denver, he had 5 catches in the game including two clutch catches on the Raiders final drive were what helped give them the win. The final game of the season he would lead all receivers with 8 catches for 99 yards to share the title of top Baller. All in all he would be named a Baller in 3 of the 7 games in which he played. He would finish third on the team in receiving with 29 catches for 365 yards and 2 touchdowns.
He came out of the gates looking like a brilliant off-season acquision. He was named a Baller in the first two weeks, which included the win over the Chiefs. He displayed leadership and poise in those games. And in the Chiefs game, he also showed his ability to get after the quarterback with 2 sacks. He also came up big in two other Raider wins– week 11 over the Bengals and week 15 over the Broncos. In those two games he had 3 sacks a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He finished the season tied for the team lead with 7 sacks. It also became clear that for the Raiders to succeed, he needed to have a good game.