Home > NFL > Raiders’ Playoff Hopes Will Hinge on Ability to Overcome Schedule, Themselves

Raiders’ Playoff Hopes Will Hinge on Ability to Overcome Schedule, Themselves

PITTSBURGH - NOVEMBER 21: Bruce Gradkowski  of the Oakland Raiders drops back to pass during the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 21, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

The 5-5 Oakland Raiders are right where they need to be in order to make a push to win the AFC West this year.  They are tied for second place with the San Diego Chargers, temporarily holding a tiebreaker over them with a head to head victory.  Both teams trail the Kansas City Chiefs by a single game, and the Raiders hold a head to head tiebreaker with the Chiefs while the Chargers do not.  That puts the Raiders in excellent position compared to the Chargers and in position to overtake the Chiefs with a head to head win on January 2.

For the Raiders, the next five weeks will be all about treading water as not to fall too far back in the division.  They have winnable games tomorrow against Miami, in two weeks at Jacksonville, and then home the next week against Denver.  The following week against the Colts isn’t the juggernaut match-up that it once seemed to be with the Colts struggling.  In the middle of that, they have a preposterously difficult match-up in San Diego, where the Raiders last won in 2002.

But again, the goal for the Raiders is just to get three victories in the next five weeks, stay afloat and alive in the division at 8-6, and set up a situation where they can make the playoffs with a road victory at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, where the Raiders have had great success even during the franchises’ dark ages.

This is a task that will get a lot more difficult with the Raiders choosing the vastly inferior Bruce Gradkowski to quarterback their team this Sunday, in one of those games that a playoff caliber Raiders team probably should win.  The Raiders really like Gradkowski’s energy in the huddle and his desire to do anything short of completing his throws and moving the ball to win.

This is a critical decision, and one that could decide the AFC West.  I agreed with the team’s decision to bench an ineffective Jason Campbell in the third quarter of their game with the Pittsburgh Steelers and try Gradkowski’s hand at the position just to confirm that the lack of production in the passing game was due to factors the quarterback couldn’t control.  When that was confirmed by ineffective (or expected) play from Gradkowski, and then confirmed in the post game presser that Campbell would start the next week, one might have figured that the Raiders had their quarterback conundrum answered.

No one is suggesting that the Raiders should release Bruce Gradkowski because he doesn’t make much and the Raiders team believe he can lead them in a pinch.  But do the Raiders really want to play the rest of this season “in a pinch” or as underdogs?  With Gradkowski leading them earlier this year, the Raiders went 1-2.  Even if we assume that Gradkowski is capable of winning two of the team’s final six games without the assistance of Campbell against a much more difficult slate of opponents than he has ever had to play as QB of the Raiders, that’s a 7-9 finish, and the Raiders miss the postseason.

That would seem to be the ceiling on what Gradkowski can accomplish with this opportunity.  If he beats the Dolphins at home, he probably earns the right to take on the Chargers in San Diego as the Raiders starting QB.  But the consistent trend here is that the Raiders have simply been unwilling to admit what the rest of the NFL world already knows: Gradkowski is not really an NFL caliber quarterback, and was merely able to look like one in the presence of JaMarcus Russell.  I don’t think the Raiders are missing something on Jason Campbell here: Campbell isn’t really a caretaker, as he’ll play well when his team’s playing well and he’s getting a lot of opportunities, and he will play poorly when pass protection is struggling and his receivers are making poor reads and dropping the ball.  I liked Campbell’s sense of timing as a west coast QB much more than I like him as a vertical passer, but at least he has the accuracy to throw those deep passes that Gradkowski lacks.

Ultimately, the Raiders still don’t have much of a passing attack.  That was true in 2009 under Russell, and though Gradkowski was able to provide a momentary spark, the Raiders are overrating the value of his 3-2 record in that timeframe in 2009.  One of Gradkowski’s two losses last year came in a blowout to the Redskins at home in Oakland when Campbell lit up the porous Raiders secondary, throwing for 2 TDs with 0 INTs and a 106.5 QB rating.  Gradkowski was 10 of 18 in that game against an equally porous Redskins pass defense.

It is neither the fault of Campbell nor Gradkowski that the Raiders have a weakness in terms of throwing the football.  That weakness predates the both of them.  The fact that neither have been overwhelmingly effective is not an argument in favor of playing a smoke and mirrors offense that plays the weaker player who seems to enjoy himself more out there than the consummate professional who struggles when his team struggles.  If the Raiders are going to act the part of a losing franchise, then they have no one to blame but themselves if and when they fail to make it back to .500 this season.

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This post is dedicated to Thoughts From the Dark Side lead-writer Patrick Patterson, who passed away at age 38 due to complications of a blood clot in his lung.  Patrick was a colleague of mine when we were both staff writers for the NFL at the old Most Valuable Network.  MVN is under new management now, but working there with Patrick and everyone was a valuable experience in terms of internet sportswriting, and Patrick was a large part of that experience.  He will be missed by the staff of this blog, and everyone who had the pleasure of knowing him and working with him.

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