Raiders Face Another Test Soon
Raiders executives often complain about the “conspiracy” among NFL execs and I usually scoff at their complaints, but they have a legitimate gripe about the game in New England. It was natural for ABC to want to put the Patriots on for this game, but why pick an opponent who had to make a cross-country trip for an early game? There is no natural rivalry; the Raiders and their fans are probably the only ones who remember the infamous “tuck game.” It wasn’t exactly a clash of titans, since the Raiders have won only nine games in the last two seasons. Frankly, the only reason I can see is that the league wanted to stick it to the Raiders.
The game was fairly entertaining, but it was seldom in doubt after the Patriots defense clamped down on the Raiders early in the second half. The Patriots have had some notable coach and player losses from the team that has won three Super Bowls in four years, but they’re still in the top tier of NFL teams.
The Raiders are fighting to get there.
The much vaunted “vertical offense” was on display last night, especially in the highlight film 73-yard pass play on which Randy Moss blew by New England safety Rodney Harrison to take the deep throw from Kerry Collins.
Collins may be the Raiders best deep passer since Daryle Lamonica, though Jim Plunkett wasn’t exactly chopped liver. But the game has changed dramatically since Lamonica’s time. The AFL defenses Lamonica mostly faced were almost entirely man-to-man, and when Lamonica was throwing to receivers like Fred Biletnikoff, Warren Wells and Billy Cannon, as well as backs like Hewritt Dixon (who had been a tight end at Denver) and Charley Smith, he had a distinct advantage. Significantly, Lamonica’s career declined when the AFL and NFL combined to form one league, with separate conferences, and he had to face the zone coverage that was prevalent in the old NFL.
Now, defenses are much more complex. Zone coverage is widespread, and when teams do use man-to-man, they’ll double up against receivers like Moss. There are multiple blitz packages, which even veteran quarterbacks have trouble recognizing.
Is Collins capable of meeting that kind of challenge? Perhaps, against lesser competition than he faced last night. The Patriots showed how he can be rattled by a hard pass rush and confused by shifting defenses.
The comparison between quarterbacks could not have been more dramatic. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady can’t match Collins on deep throws, but he makes all the throws and he manages the game very well. He does not get flustered or confused. He moves the ball around beautifully and, most of all, he wins consistently. It’s not a one-man game and Brady has a great supporting cast, but he’s still obviously superior to Collins.
THE RAIDERS have also changed since the Lamonica era.
Those teams had great defenses; the 1967 team, first Raiders team to go to the Super Bowl, set an NFL record with 67 sacks for 667 yards, 11 of them coming in one game, against Buffalo and Jack Kemp.
This year’s defense is only marginally improved over last year’s. In today’s NFL, with the salary cap limitations, teams seldom have the luxury of improving on both sides of the ball. The Raiders chose to improve their offense, with the acquisitions of Moss and running back Lamont Jordan. Their only concession to defense was to draft two cornerbacks, Fabian Washington (a disappointment so far) and Stanford Routt, who was on the field most of the game in nickel and dime formations.
In Lamonica’s time, a 50 per cent completion average, with roughly as many touchdowns as interceptions, was considered good. Now, teams talk of “moving the chains” with a consistent passing attack. The bar has been raised to 60 per cent for good quarterbacks, who are also expected to throw about half again as many touchdown passes as interceptions.
Again, the comparison of quarterbacks shows where the Raiders are in trouble. Brady completed 24 of 38 passes, 63 per cent, for 308 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Collins had an excellent touchdown-to-interception ratio, 3-1, but completed less than half of his passes, 18 of 40.
And, once again, the Raiders lost the time of possession battle, with the Patriots having an almost five-minute edge. That’s not as bad as last year, when the Raiders had games when their opponent had the ball 10 minutes longer – all of which they lost, not coincidentally – but it has to be improved.
Keeping the defense off the field has to be a paramount goal for this team. Having a running threat in Lamont Jordan will help, but Collins also has to be much more consistent. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in his playing history to suggest he can be that type of quarterback.
THE EARLY schedule is tough for the Raiders, with their third game in Philadelphia against the Eagles, but the real key will be how well they play against the Chiefs in their home opener.
The AFC West looks wide open this season. Kansas City, San Diego and Denver all look like better-than-average teams, but there doesn’t appear to be a great team among them.
If the Raiders can beat the Chiefs, they’ll show that they should be in the battle all season. If they don’t, it could be another long year.
NOTE: I’m a panelist on “The Last Honest Sports Show,” which airs at 6:30 and 10 p.m. Saturday on KHBK (44).
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