Sunday, August 24, 2008

Raiders take a pass on scoring

Raiders coach Lane Kiffin said he wanted to see what his offense could do if he opened up the playbook Saturday night against the Arizona Cardinals and let quarterback JaMarcus Russell drop back and fire at will.

Well, he saw. And you couldn’t have blamed Kiffin if he had requested a blindfold long before the first half ended in the Raiders’ 24-0 loss.
And I’m not even talking about the knee injuries to wide receiver Drew Carter, one of the Raiders’ key free-agent pickups, and fullback Oren O’Neal, a cog in the running game and on special teams.

With Russell throwing pass after pass after pass for three quarters, the Raiders came up empty.

“Unfortunately, I think I saw what I already knew,” Kiffin said. “And that’s if we try to just throw the ball around, you’re going to get penalties, you’re going to get your quarterback hit. He’s going to start running around a lot and you’re going to be in trouble.

“I think you saw what would have happened last year and what would have happened this year if we tried to be one-dimensional.”
Kiffin didn’t storm out of the post-game interview room. He kept his cool. But he seemed to be channeling Denny Green. He as much as said, “We are who we thought we were.”

In other words, get ready for another season of grind-it-out Raiders football.

Russell completed 14 of 28 passes for 140 yards with one interception. His passer rating was 49.7. He was sacked four times. Ouch.

Want the good Raiders news? The defense looked sharp in the first half, intercepting three of Arizona quarterback Matt Leinart’s passes and holding the Cardinals to a mere field goal. And Javon Walker finally caught a pass. Four, in fact.

Then there’s this. When the Raiders face Denver in two weeks in their first game that counts in the standings, Kiffin will be dialing up plays from his entire playbook with a heavy emphasis on the ground game.
Russell has a big arm and has shown considerable poise for a second-year pro with one regular-season NFL start on his resume. But he’s not ready to carry a huge load. And neither, apparently, is his receiving corps, especially now that Drew Carter is out.

Russell should be better when Kiffin asks him to play a supporting role to what promises to be a dominant running game.

Russell’s best drive was his first. The Raiders opened with an empty backfield and Russell in shotgun formation. Russell hit tight end Zach Miller over the middle for five yards. Then he fired three more passes. Twelve yards to Miller over the middle. Thirteen yards to Walker on a deep in. Seven yards to Carter on a quick out – he was hurt on the play.

On the first drive, Russell dropped back to pass eight times. He completed five of seven passes for 44 yards and was sacked once in a drive that stalled at the Arizona 36 when Russell misfired on fourth-and-8.

If there was one Raider other than Russell under Kiffin’s microscope it was Walker. Kiffin has been riding Walker hard almost from the minute he reported for the Raiders first offseason workout. He was too heavy, Kiffin said then. He needed to slim down and speed up.

Then there was the whole incident in Vegas that didn’t stay in Vegas. Walker spent a night partying and spraying champagne on people at a nightclub. Then early that morning he was assaulted and wound up in a Las Vegas hospital.

When camp opened, Walker struggled so badly that he contemplated retiring and giving his multimillion-dollar signing bonus back to the Raiders. Al Davis had to talk him out of it.

At times, though, Kiffin has sounded as if he wished Davis had kept quiet and Walker had moved on. During camp, Kiffin has been relentless, reminding Walker and everyone else that someone with such a big contract needed to earn his money. Approaching Saturday night’s game, Kiffin said he wanted to see Walker DO SOMETHING, already. Wanted to see him get open and catch the ball.

So how did Walker do? Not bad at all. He caught four passes for 60 yards with a long of 27.

“I know what type of player I am,” Walker said. “When I’m in the zone out there, I feel like I can’t be stopped. That’s the only thing you can think of and motivate yourself as a player. To get out there, get some opportunities and catch some balls going into the regular season feels good. I know what I can do. I know what I can bring to the table.”

Walker bristled when a questioner mentioned that he had dropped “a couple balls” in previous games.

“Not drop a couple balls,” Walker said. “It was one ball. I dropped one ball, which I should have caught. I had three attempts in two games.”

One man’s one drop is another man’s two or three. Hey, it’s preseason. In the grand scheme, it doesn’t matter. The key is that Walker is looking more like the 100-catch Walker of old.

“It was good to see him with the ball in his hands,” Kiffin said. “He looked more comfortable as the game went along. … He looked good. He had good energy about himself.

"Even though a guy has had two big seasons throughout his career, a guy’s confidence can get shaken, having no catching coming into this game. Watching him catch a couple balls, he looked more confident as the game went along.”

Walker didn’t buy Kiffin’s take about newfound confidence. He said he never lost confidence. He just lacked opportunities.

“I know everybody’s been making a big deal about a dropped ball,” Walker said. “A dropped ball in two games. All any receiver asks for is just opportunity. This game I had more opportunity, and you see what happens when more opportunities come. You get in a groove, you start making plays.

“One thing I take a lot of pride in is making catches, and I don’t drop balls. Look in my history. But when you get one ball thrown to you and it’s one drop, then obviously that’s a lasting effect. I know what kind of player I am. When I’m in a groove and everything, I catch everything that’s coming my way. … Like I said, they ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Actually, maybe they have. Listening to Kiffin, you get the idea Walker had better work on his blocking.

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