Friday, December 16, 2011

Why Dalton Is Better Than Palmer

In a word, pocket presence (I guess that's two words).

It seems so long ago when we used to call Palmer elite that I barely remember that player. I recall him moving around better in the pocket and even showing some straight-line speed once he decided to run with it, but all of that seemed to die after Kimo Von Oelhoffen obliterated his knee and destroyed his confidence. Since that fateful moment, Carson has been sacked 130 times and suffered through many injuries and pains. From '06-10, he never gained back the instinctual third eye needed to avoid sacks, turnovers, injury and ultimately losses. Any comfort in the pocket was, and still is, a very tenuous sense of safety for him. When things get hairy, most times his eyes come off the receivers and he goes down for a loss on the play; escape ability is not on his scouting report.

That isn't to say the man is completely devoid of such skills. As hard-edged as we Bengal fans might be toward old No. 9, he is still an adequate NFL quarterback. I think Raider Nation got a little tipsy from the kool-aid when the native son first returned to California—they were positively bathing in the stuff—but his arrival did instill a heavy dose of credibility to Oakland's season once Jason Campbell went down.
Since his donning of a silver helmet, though, Carson has been fair at best. Sure, he's in a new system with new receivers a new offensive line and so on, but watching him play, he's the same quarterback as last year. I think fans on both sides of the trade wondered aloud if the change of scenery would kick-start the magic for him again; if Palmer really was the shackled phoenix waiting for another chance to burn, or just another QB in the later portion of an okay career. He still makes some good throws and occasionally surprises me with his play-making ability, but he also still frequently has his what-were-you-thinking moments and has not yet led his new team to a comfortable position within their division.

On the other hand, the force is strong with Andy Dalton. When the pocket breaks down behind him he can feel it. It isn't something that can be taught—you either have it or you don't—and Red's got it. His calmness has guided an offense through seas that should have been stormier for a rookie Bengal quarterback. His play has been nowhere near perfect—he must improve on his accuracy—but his intangibles are what excites the onlookers.

What I like so much is his balance between playing wily yet careful football. He plays with a backyard style, allowing his instincts to guide him into the right position to make a play, but then if he isn't satisfied with the coverage he sees as he moves around, he lofts the ball out of bounds and lives another day. His game-management skills are more consistent and trustworthy than are Palmer's and he knows his limitations on his throws.

As for his throws, I feel that while Palmer can throw farther, Dalton can throw faster. Dalton's delivery is shorter and he can really zing it on close-range throws. His deep balls are not yet amazing—Jeff Blake remains the best in that category in Bengal lore—but he gets a lot of help by his tall and supremely talented outside receivers (mostly AJ Green) when he just hucks it up there for them.

I also like his leadership skills more. While Carson always said the right things, from the outside, he never seemed to embrace the one-of-the-guys mentality. There was Mike Brown, Marvin Lewis, Carson Palmer and everyone else. The Bengals may have thrust this persona on the guy and demanded he conduct himself as more than just another player, but Dalton goes about his business in a humble and unassuming way. He shrugs off the negative and laughs easily. He's comfortable around large groups of fans; he's big when he needs to be and small when he needs to be, and that's not easy for everyone. The city loves him, the media loves him, and his future is solid gold as of now.

It wouldn't be fair to omit the fact that Dalton is playing under a much more sensible playcaller than what Carson was subjected to for his entire Bengal tenure. Perhaps Jay Gruden could have revived No. 9's career and put up the same kind of wins, but Hue Jackson had a sterling reputation as a playcaller before Palmer arrived. Once Carson was a Raider, Hue said he would install some Bengal stuff in the playbook to ease the transition, but I think that has been part of the problem for CP3. The old Bratkowski way never came to any success, yet Oakland looks like Bengal West with the likes of Palmer, Jackson, Chuck Bresnahan and even T.J. Houshmanzadeh. Once Chad Ochocinco hits the market again would anyone be surprised to see him as a Raider? I think Rudi Johnson is available too if they're interested.

When Palmer "retired" and Dalton was drafted, we figured it would take some time to get back to watching a competitive quarterback in Stripes, but the kid dazzled from the get-go. By Week 14, Dalton underwent a winning streak, a losing streak, some squeak-out wins and heartbreak losses. He has displayed a ton of heart, poise and composure, a stronger arm than most had thought, solid mobility, and most importantly, innate pocket presence.

Since Palmer has begun to play football again, he has displayed everything he was last year: a turnover machine who does not excel at improvising and consequently has trouble winning games.

I'll take the ginger, please.

Mojokong—and I still can't believe what they traded for him.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Carson's Debut: Raid or Shine

Alright, now that Carson Palmer been delivered by a silver chariot to Oakland and got everybody jazzed up with Super Bowl talk, it's time to look at the day-to-day part of the job, and specifically his first game on Sunday.

It's true that he's donned a Raider helmet and red practice jersey, and reports indicate that his arm still works and he has even made a few football throws. There should be two types of throws he should start with in practice this week: the screen pass and the deep ball.

As good as Carson is at reading defenses and changing stuff at the line, Hue Jackson should reinforce the basics before moving too far ahead with thick playbook pages. I know that there are a lot of similarities and familiarities with the systems the two men have worked together in before, but it's still new to Carson and will take time to learn the finer details nonetheless. The Raider offense is perhaps the most unique in football with its collective skill set, and is able to gadget-play a defense into confusion and fatigued resignation by the end of the game. Even when Jason Campbell was at his healthiest, he wasn't necessarily airing it out on his opponents this year; Hue and his staff have used creativity to move the ball down field. With all the speed around him, Carson should learn to rely on his skill players to make the play, rather than try to force the impossible to happen.

The Raiders screen well. Jacoby Ford and Darren McFadden are open-field phenoms, ready to explode when fully charged. DMC is a one-of-a-kind type of runner that charges through running lanes no one else even knew were there. Ford is just a flat out burner that takes big hits but gets up from most. Tight end Kevin Boss has been a pleasant addition to the offense and can couple with the agile fullback, Marcel Reece, as a heavier screen combination (if only Reece could get healthy that is). I've even seen the big rumbler Michael Bush pick up nice yards on screens. The Raiders have the components to be a successful short passing game, predicated on delays, draws, and screens.

Of course, you can't go short forever. Eventually even the dumbest defenders will get the gist at some point and creep up. That's when Mr. Palmer should just throw it down the sideline for another specialized tandem, receivers Darirus Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore. DHB has blossomed this season and looks like a developing Ochocinco-type with his sideline work and clutch catches (and number). Moore has seized his opportunity made possible by injury to other players, and is making a name for himself with his deep-threat ability. Carson can throw long, but his long-pass accuracy has been an issue for him since his elbow problems in 2008. With the duel threat of a short screen game, and a capable vertical game, Palmer's assignments could be reduced to a bare-bones passing attack: screen or bomb.

Be afraid.
As for the Chiefs, Tamba Hali is the man Carson should meditate on before facing him Sunday. KC has only five sacks as a team, but Hali has four of them, and he's a physical specimen that gives offensive tackles headaches. A rather legitimate knock on Palmer is his pocket presence—he doesn't sense pressure well—and when he's knocked down and sacked, he panics and the offense suffers as a result. After giving up big draft picks to land Palmer, protecting him should become the short-term obsession of this franchise and it starts this week against Hali.

One weird quirk about Palmer is that he seems to play best when he's trying a frantic comeback attempt. If you're down 13 points in the fourth quarter and your defense helps him out, Carson will usually make the game at least interesting by the end. But if you're ahead with under four minutes left, just run the ball because he's prone to throw a costly pick in that scenario. Of course, you don't want to play from behind in games, but Hue and the skill players must take pressure off of Carson once attaining a lead. The Raiders have been good at this so far in their first six games, but you don't want Palmer flinging it around when trying to preserve the win. Don't get cute, is what I'm saying.

So now, we all get to watch the grand experiment unfold. Was Carson really a star quarterback shackled by an inept organization in Cincinnati, or is he just a guy destined for a mediocre career? Can Hue Jackson repair him into the Six-Million Dollar Man? Does he have the technology? Will Bengal fans rage inside but stay cool on the outside if the Raiders take the league by storm? Will Oakland fans toss garbage in his yard if Carson fails them? Stay tuned.

I think this is a tough game for the Raiders. I think there is simply too much change and hype swirling around the team right now. KC is coming off of a bye, they've beaten two bad teams in a row to resuscitate their season, and they're relatively healthy. I think the Raiders and Carson will grow into one another over the course of the season, but the love fest will tone down a few notches after this week.

Chiefs 20, Raiders 13

Mojokong—be gentle with him, Oakland.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Week 16 Preview: A Look Back, Then Ahead

The Raider offense is like Jed Clampett's truck; it's big and wonky with a bunch of stuff hanging off the back, but it makes it all the way to California, or in this case, the end zone. In a reversal of common trends, the Raiders have found a unique ability to score points in bunches by keeping the ball on the ground, even becoming a big-play running team which is typically reserved for the college ranks. This team has made the end-around, the pitch play, and the fullback screen, really dangerous plays. Bring back Rocket Ismail!

The best part of the offense is how distinct each player is in regards to their ability and skill set. Darren McFadden is an absolute monster who is quietly one of the most exciting players in the game. The man plays like a Tron character, only trapped in Madden instead of weird gray guys racing bookends around the inside of an oven. I feel McFadden can bust one for a score on every play; he is an open-field nightmare. And strong too. I was surprised to see how willingly he lowers his head when taking on defenders. When this person is healthy, he is worth a ridiculous amount of money.

The other player that's hard not to gush about is Marcel Reece. Arguably more impressive than his 73-yard touchdown (what?!?), was when Reece flexed out to wide-out, ran a nine-yard come-back route, made a nice catch and got two feet in along the sideline. How many fullbacks can do that? And if that isn't fullback enough for the old curmudgeonly-side of you, he picked up the first-down with two smashes up the gut on the next two ensuing plays. I see Keith Byars in Marcell Reece, and I see a coordinator who is maximizing the versatile player's potential with his play-calling style.

Then there's Michael Bush. When it's sheer north-south running you need with no frills and lots of beef, then Bush is your man. Here is a man who softens up the defense for those long runs by faster players with his physically-wearing running style and general bigness—he's the tenderizer. Those offensive drives where Bush is the feature-back really brings down the energy level of the opposing defense. He's a head-of-steam runner who has quick feet and a wide frame; a gem in a two-back system.

As for the passing threats, they too have their unique attributes. Zach Miller is a go-to guy who runs well after the catch and is reliable on key downs. Louis Murphy seems like something of a clutch player who makes key catches on third-downs and late in the game. Darrius Heyward-Bey stretches the field and is beginning to look like a real-life NFL wide receiver, and Jacoby Ford is faster than light itself and has manifested his big-play ability with, well, big plays.

Of course, the linemen are obviously enjoying this offense too. I think most linemen prefer to run block and they especially like to get down-field and make key blocks to spring runners for big gains. This line pulls well on pitch plays and end-arounds and Samson Satele is a large yet nimble man who is an ideal snowplow for Raider runners to move in behind once in the open field.

If anything is really missing from this side of the ball, it's hard to pinpoint the deficiency. I wouldn't mind seeing them acquire a large, bruising fullback to go to the complete power end of the offensive spectrum when they really need it, and I still feel a smallish slot receiver who runs good routes and has great hands but isn't the fastest guy on the playground could make this a complete team, but as it is now, Hue Jackson has his men charging full steam ahead.

If the defense can learn to prevent long rushes—especially on third down—and continue to put solid pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the Raiders will be a true force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, the big-play bug surfaced at the worst of times against Jacksonville and really setback Oakland's playoff aspirations so late in the season, but there are some quality components to this organization that should provide Raider Nation with some genuine hope for its future—both immediate and long-term.

Once the season is over, there will be still be some uncertainty that revolves around a few positions, but overall the foundation of this team looks good. As a new Raider fan, I'm extremely optimistic heading into the murky unknown of the offseason and beyond, but first up are some crucial last games on the schedule.

Even if the Raiders miss the playoffs, a nine-win season would still be most impressive. I know there are those out there who say anything other than a Super Bowl win is a failure, and if you're a coach or player then there is some truth to such an absolute statement, but as fans, we supporters can be proud of a winning record. For all the negative attention that the NFC West winner is sure to face this January, teams that play well and don't get in should receive as much attention only in a positive light. It's been a long time since Oakland was even a blip on the postseason radar, and while this season's chances of such a thing now seem doubtful at best, to be in the discussion at all is thoroughly welcomed. As we move forward into years to come, expectations should be raised and anything other than continual success will not be tolerated, but for now, I am satisfied with the growing roots I see supporting this franchise, and I have very much enjoyed the performances I have witnessed in the second half of this season.

And if these upbeat musings still haven't made you more aware of the silver (and black) lining of this Oakland Raider cloud, than just think of this: at least it isn't the Bengals.

As for this upcoming week, the Colts fly west decimated and on their last leg. There is always Peyton Manning and his superpowers are still great enough to win games on his own, but the Raider pass-rush should hurry his throws that typically still end up completed, but with such a beat-up cast of receivers, may end up in blue frustration for Indianapolis instead. Running back Joseph Addai returns this week and has proven with his absence that he is still their best halfback, but he can be limited by making tackles and staying in running lanes. Some backs can run over people and others can juke their way to first-downs and scores, but Addai is not special in any one category and is probably most dangerous as a check-off receiver. The weakest link to Oakland's defense is their propensity for explosive plays, which is a group defect, but it can be fixed and this limping Colts offense is uncharacteristically a perfect test-subject to gauge the Raiders improvement keeping plays in front of them. If the rash of plays where defensive backs are chasing ball carriers from behind continues, it could easily be Indy playing in Week 18 and Oakland shaking their heads in disgust while watching it on television. A better defensive showing against a mastermind quarterback, however, mixed in with a little help from the Titans, could set up the make-or-break game against the Chiefs in a contest that we are all praying comes true.

When the Raiders have the ball, it isn't necessary to throw all that often. The Raiders haven't been a killer aerial attack at all this year, and their strengths remain on the ground. For the Colts, their defensive forte rests with the ends, who use their speed and spin moves to rattle opposing quarterbacks. The philosophy this week, therefore, is a no-brainer as Oakland should look to continue its creativity in their play-calling and carry on pounding the run. If they can keep from killing themselves with turnovers and penalties, there is no reason they can't score 30 or more points again without big passing totals.

The equation is basic: stick with what you do well, sensibly prioritize what the Colts strengths are, and don't beat yourself with self-imposed set-backs. This mantra, of course, goes for every week, but against a team like Indy, there seems to be less guess-work involved. It's still the same old Sheriff, only this time he's weakened by his fellow deputies' injuries. Typically, facing Indianapolis is a predicted loss, but for various cosmic forces, the time is ripe for a glorious victory. I feel good about this game and you should too. It's time to debunk the cliché playoff picture and, if nothing else, eliminate one of the annual mainstays from this year's party. Other teams keeping the Raiders out of the playoffs is fine, but keeping the Riders themselves out is not. Seize the day, dammit!

Raiders 28, Colts 24

Mojokong—dispatching from a snowy, far-away place where there is no light, only shadow.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Week 14 Preview: The Harder They Come

The Raiders head down to the NASCAR part of Florida this week to take on the Jacksonville Jaguars in what should not be a pretty affair. These two eerily similar teams will have to slug it out with a lot of running and probably a good amount of punts as well. Both are awkwardly situated in the playoff scene—Jacksonville being a new driver in their division and Oakland crammed somewhere in the backseat of theirs—and neither can afford a loss at this stage of their season. Because of both the magnitude of the game and the physical toll each team promises to deliver to its opposition, the winner may come down to as little as which team is less nervous.

The last time the Raiders needed to primarily stop the run to preserve their playoff aspirations, they failed. The Miami Dolphins ran roughshod over Oakland and proved to be a stronger and tougher team that day. Fortunately, the big win over San Diego last week propelled the Raiders back in the hunt and gives them a second chance to prove that they are the brawlers they want to be. Jacksonville is going to be a nuisance and they won't peacefully get out of the way; it's up to the silver and black bulldozers to do their thing this weekend.

Jaguars offense vs. Raiders defense

Last week, the Jags looked comfortable running on nearly every down and used multiple ball-carriers throughout the day. We all know about Maurice Jones-Drew by now—he's as easy to tackle as a fire hydrant—but it's the others that make Jacksonville's rushing attack so formidable.

First off, their quarterback, David Gerrard, has never been shy to pick up yards with his legs. His maneuverability and general strength has always reminded me of Ben Roethlisberger, and whenever he rolls out of the pocket, there's a good chance he's going to keep the ball and run. Like Big Ben, when the Raiders get a hold of Gerrard, they have to bring him down. Arguably the best facet to the Raider defense is the pressure they get on quarterbacks; there's no reason to change that approach in this match-up either, but letting Gerrard slip through the first wave of defenders could result in key Jacksonville first-downs. Keep him in the pocket and slam him to the turf as many times as possible.

Another player worth keeping your eye on is complimentary back, Rashad Jennings. I was impressed with Jennings last week as he contributed greatly to the tiring of the Titans' defensive line with his size and tough running style. Having a good pair of legs to sub in for Mojo once his battery briefly runs down, allows the Jags to remain in their base offense without resorting to any weird formations. Jennings seems to enter the game when Del Rio feels like the defense has been adequately tenderized by Mojo, and those occasions have increased recently. Jones-Drew is difficult to stop, but Jennings far less so, and he must be properly contained once in the game. Picking poisons is what football strategy is mostly about and Jennings compared to Mojo is a very attractive poison indeed.

Finally, the Jacksonville tight ends are the last focal point worth mentioning. The giraffe-like Marcedes Lewis has blossomed into a legitimate threat this season and has big-play ability firmly within his repertoire (eight touchdowns). They also feature their very own Zach Miller who is used on screens and also end-around running plays thanks to a surprisingly effective open-field running talent. Lewis should be keyed on during third-down plays and anything close to the goal-line, while Miller should be sealed to the inside when he gets the ball in the flats.

Generally speaking, the Raiders want to arise passing downs and pressure Gerrard into dangerous throws. Allowing them to get into any rhythm running the ball will make the day that much more of a pain in the ass for the Raiders.

Raiders offense vs. Jaguars defense

Of course, another way to make the Jags pass the ball is getting an early lead and not letting up. The best way to attack Jacksonville is though the air. Their secondary is well below the NFL's curve and they have allowed some big passing days this year. The problem is, when Oakland becomes a vertical passing team, they become predictable and pretty easy to stop.

First, the Raiders should set out to establish domination at the line of scrimmage by pummeling Michael Bush up the gut on first and second down. Then, once put into a passing scenario, Hue Jackson should call for shorter routes that promote yards-after-catch first-down plays and not be shy about running screens to Darren McFadden. Watching these Raider linemen get out in space on screen passes has been a real thing of beauty the last few weeks. They're an athletic bunch of mammoths that take their man completely out of the play and move with a certain fire and determination. Not only does it create big yardage, but it really allows the o-line to have fun, and typically a lineman enjoying himself, is a lineman playing well.

If the Raiders find themselves in a hole early, they shouldn't abandon who they are. It may be tempting for Jackson to want to go after the soft Jacksonville secondary on deep pass plays to Louis Murphy and Jacoby Ford, and every now and then is fine, but running over opponents is how this team wins. Using clock, wearing out the defense, and winning field position should be the priorities for the Raider game-planners. Forcing the ball deep when a check-off pass will do is getting greedy, and, in the long run, is only cheating themselves. Jason Campbell can make the long throws, but looks better throwing the safe ones.


The Raiders must play up to the seriousness of the stage of this game, but also remember to relax and play their kind of style of football. To find that emotional happy-medium with a group of 53 men isn't easy, but necessary to venture into the hallowed ground of the postseason. Rather than concern themselves with winning the next four games, they should only be worried about this one in Jacksonville because the others might not matter much anyway if they can't be successful in the short term.

To do that, they need to do their best against Mojo, but shut down the other runners almost completely. They need to be mindful of the Jags' tight ends and worry less about their receivers. They also need to stay true to the run game and use Michael Bush often. Holding the ball and settling for field goals is better than hurrying toward desperate touchdowns. Neither team is all that fast; strength should win out in this one.

So to all of my new fellow Raider fans, hear this: tomorrow's game is a landmark one that should not be taken at all lightly. There may be no other team playing that day that has more to lose than the Oakland Raiders. In reality, the playoffs begin this week and it will now require eight wins in a row to win the Super Bowl—heavy, I know, but not entirely impossible. Here's to all the far-fetched and extremely unlikely occurrences to have unfolded in the history of the world. Without them, the Earth and its football leagues would be far more dull.

Raiders 17, Jaguars 12

Mojokong—the microscope of perspective