Raiders midseason review and awards

Raiders midseason review and awards
November 9, 2012, 2:52 pm
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ALAMEDA -- It was not a popular opinion back in training camp to refer to the Raiders as an "expansion" franchise. It infuriated many fans who looked at the roster and saw so many front-liners returning from a team that was coming off consecutive 8-8 seasons, had swept the AFC West in 2010 an was one play away from winning the division in 2011.But with a new owner in Mark Davis, a new general manager in Reggie McKenzie, a new coach in Dennis Allen and a new philosophy permeating throughout the entire franchise, an expansion franchise, albeit with better players, is exactly what the Raiders are this year. So, at 3-5, they are exactly where they should be, boasting breathtaking come-from-behind victories against Pittsburgh and Jacksonville, wearing crushing losses to Denver and Tampa Bay.RELATED: Raiders stats Roster Transactions Injuries Depth chart
The Raiders took a punch to the gut with the recent loss to the Buccaneers and sit in third place, two games behind the Broncos and one game back of San Diego. So while we look ahead to the second hall of the Raiders New Regime's first season, a glance back at Oakland's first eight gamesBest offensive player: Carson Palmer. Go ahead, blame the quarterback for everything that ails the Raiders and, to a certain extent, your life. That's what "PalmersFault is all about, right? But on a serious note, sans Palmer, the Raiders are probably 1-7. Because with Darren McFadden's vanishing act behind the returning zone-blocking scheme, Palmer has carried the offense. Consider: he is on pace to pass for a franchise record 4,710 yards, with 26 touchdowns and 16 interceptions and his passer rating of 85.6 would be his highest since 2007. Yes, there are many problems with the Raiders, but Palmer is the least of them. In fact, he's been a bright spot. Oakland's offensive inconsistency is far from PalmersFault. Besides, according to Pro Football Focus, he has only 2.57 seconds to throw, to a young group of receivers.RELATED: Carson Palmer 2012 game logs
Best defensive player: Philip Wheeler. Sure, outspoken CSN California analyst Bill Romanowski has referred to Wheeler as a strongside linebacker as being a little "light in the (behind)," but what he lacks in relative size he more than makes up for in pure hustle. After four years playing a more reactionary role in Indianapolis' famed "Tampa-2" defense, Wheeler has thrived in the Raiders' hybrid 'D' that has used a lot of man-to-man principles. His 65 tackles leads the team and he is only 15 stops away from his career high of 80 tackles, set last year. As Dennis Allen put it, Wheeler makes mistakes, but he's usually going 100 mph when he makes them. And you can't fault him for the effort.

Best special-teams player: Sebastian Janikowski. Hobbled by a strained left groin since training camp, the man known in the streets of Silver and Blackdom simply as SeaBass has kept on keeping on. He was the AFC's special teams player of the month for October after making 10 of 11 field-goal attempts and his 40-yarder to beat Jacksonville in overtime was his 13th career game winner. He has converted 19 of his 20 FGA and all 14 PATs. How dependable has he become? It was somewhat of a shock when he was actually short and missed a 64-yarder against the Jaguars. The Raiders' 2000 first-round draft pick is still under contract for 2013, unlike his running mate, punter Shane Lechler, who is in the final year of his contract.RELATED: Sebastian Janikowski 2012 game logsBest offensive play: Already trailing Pittsburgh, 7-0, before Darren McFadden had a chance to touch the ball, the Raiders sat on their own 36-yard line on first-and-10. Palmer sensed a blitz coming from the left side and audibled into a run to the right. It was a case study in the zone-blocking scheme working with aplomb. With the entire line shifting to the right, a huge hole was opened between left guard Cooper Carlisle and center Stefen Wisniewski. McFadden ran through it untouched, faked safety Ryan Mundy out of his jockstrap, picked up a big block from receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey and outran cornerback Keenan Lewis, who had the angle, to the right pylon. McFadden's 64-yard touchdown run was a thing of beauty that seemed the norm in 2011 but has been the exception, thus far, in 2012. That Raiders Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen was in the house made the play all the sweeter.Best defensive play: Lamarr Houston made quite an impression for himself as a hustler in Denver when he ran near the length of the field chasing a play and his hustle paid off when he was in position to pick up Demaryius Thomas' fumble at the 4-yard line. But that came in a blowout loss. Houston's stripping of Jacksonville receiver Cecil Shorts III was bigger as it came in overtime, and set up a victory. Shorts had just taken a pass across the middle on 3rd and 20 from the Jaguars' 9-yard line when Houston, appearing seemingly out of nowhere, reached up and ripped the ball free. Joselio Hanson recovered at the 21-yard line and two snaps later, Sebastian Janikowski kicked the game-winner. Raiders 26, Jaguars 23. The play helped Houston garner AFC player of the week honors.Best special-teams play: It seemed like your run-of-the-mill 43-yard field goal to win a game with no time on the clock, but the fact that it came against the rival Steelers, in front of prodigal son Marcus Allen returning to Raider Nation, made the kick all the better. Plus, Sebastian Janikowski had to navigate around the lip of the baseball infield, which made the kick not so run-of-the-mill, if you catch my drift. But Janikowski split the uprights, six-and-a-half minutes after his 32-yarder tied the game. Raiders 34, Steelers 31.Biggest surprise: A year after setting single-season records for penalties (163) and penalty yardage (1,358) and leading the NFL in penalties for a record 17th time, the yellow flags have eased up. The Raiders were on pace for a relatively mere 102 penalties and 812 penalty yards. After eight games (keep in mind, several teams had played nine times) the Raiders were in a four-way tie for 18th with the New York Jets, Denver and San Diego in penalties and 22nd in penalty yards. Fixed? Not quite, but the new regime has made a pleasantly surprising difference.Biggest disappointment: This was to be the year Darren McFadden took that next step, the one to the Pro Bowl and league MVP consideration and yes, a full healthy season. Especially since he was healthyuntil last weekend, anyway, when he suffered a high ankle sprain. Before going down to a season-ending Lisfranc injury in '11, he was averaging 5.4 yards per carry. This year, granted, in a new offense and behind a zone-blocking scheme, McFadden is averaging a career-low 3.3 yards. Take away his two longest runs of the season, the 64-yard TD sprint against the Steelers and a 28-yard jaunt at Kansas City, and his average falls to an unsightly 2.7 yards. No, it's not all his fault, but with such lofty expectations coming into the season, the lack of production from McFadden is Oakland's biggest disappointment. And now, the game breaker who has never played more than 13 games in a season is hurt. Again.Biggest question answered: That old adage -- if it ain't broke, don't fix it -- was put to to the ultimate test when Dennis Allen decided against keeping Al Saunders on as offensive coordinator, instead giving him the nebulous title of senior offensive assistant, and moving away from an offense that was the team's strong suit a year ago and bringing back Greg Knapp to implement a zone-blocking scheme and west coast offense. Through eight games, the answer isno, it has not worked. At least, not in the running game and not through eight games. We've already gone through Darren McFadden's struggles. But as a team, the Raiders are averaging 77.3 yards per game on the ground, compared to the 151.9 rushing yards they had at the midway point last year. Any more questions?Biggest upgrade: Call it addition by subtraction. When the Raiders started taking underperforming middle linebacker Rolando McClain off the field in nickel packages after their bye week and kept Philip Wheeler and rookie Miles Burris on the field, Oakland's defense became faster, more explosive and, ultimately, more effective. Plus, it kept McClain fresher to man the middle in the Raiders' base 4-3 defense. Of course, it all went away in the second half of the Raiders' epic meltdown against Tampa Bay, in which rookie Doug Martin had scoring runs of 45, 67 and 70 yards. But for a three-game stretch, taking McClain off the field in nickel packages was an upgrade.Biggest drop-off: Who knew the importance of having a capable, competent backup long snapper? Neither did the Raiders, until Pro Bowler long snapper Jon Condo was knocked out of the season opener against San Diego. The drop-off from Condo to Travis Goethel was as spectacular as it was unreal. And none of it, really, was Goethel's fault, so to speak. He last long-snapped in high school and was asked, on the stage of Monday Night Football, to pull it off. So kudos to him for at least trying. But two of his snaps to punter Shane Lechler were botched, rolling across the dirt infield like a baseball grounder, and a third resulted in a blocked punt. Many surmised that with less of a drop-off in long-snappers, the Raiders would have beaten the Chargers that night. Instead, San Diego walked away with the 22-14 victory, and every other team in the NFL ramped up its efforts to get a capable backup long snapper ready.Best newcomer: Philip Wheeler was expected to shore up the defense, sure, but who saw the former Indianapolis Colt, who signed as a free agent for a relative pittance of 700,000, being such a force? The strongside linebacker flies to the ball, is a force against both the pass and the run, leads the team in tackles with 65, and has taken the "green sticker," the on-field mic to communicate with the sidelines, from middle linebacker Rolando McClain. Wheeler has been on the field for 509 of 511 defensive snaps this season. Only Michael Huff (511) and Tyvon Branch (510) have more. Yeah, it's time to talk extension with Wheeler and his long braids.Best rookie: While undrafted rookie receiver Rod Streater has flashed -- he has two touchdowns among his 18 receptions -- fourth-round draft pick Miles Burris appeared in every snap over a two-game stretch (he has appeared in 379 snaps total), and started every game at weakside linebacker. Burris' speed and high motor -- code words, I know, but they apply to the San Diego State and Granite Bay High product -- have been a refreshing sight for fans used to the Raiders linebacker corps being a slow-to-react weak link. Burris has 38 tackles and his sack of Jacksonville's Chad Henne was a thing of textbook beauty.Key to the second half: The same as it was coming into the season -- getting the running game going on offense and stopping the run on defense. The Raiders have not been able to do either with much consistency thus far. And if Darren McFadden is gone for any extended length of time, would it really matter? Heresy perhaps, I know, but it's not like last season, when he was running wild before suffering the Lisfranc to his right foot. He has hardly been a factor, though his game-breaking potential is oh so teasing. Otherwise, Carson Palmer will continue to put up awe-inspiring numbers, but in losing causes.
On the other side of the ball, Oakland did have a nice three-game run against Atlanta, Jacksonville and Kansas City, limiting that trio to just over 200 rushing yards total. But Tampa Bay's Doug Martin shredded that theory with his 251-yard day. It puts a lot of question marks over the heads of high-priced veteran defensive tackles Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly. And if they do not produce over these last eight games, not only would it be tough to see the Raiders having defensive success the last eight games, it would also be hard to imagine either one of them returning to Oakland in 2013. And more pressure on the quarterback, i.e., more sacks, will also result in more interceptions.