Saturday, April 29, 2006

Curbing My Enthusiasm

And with the first selection of the 2006 NFL Draft, the Oakland Raiders select Michael Huff, DS, Texas.

With Leinart still on the board, this was the way we went. It's hard not to feel underwhelmed. A DB has been our first pick in four of the last five years. We also selected a DB in the second round last year and in the third round the year before. It's becoming, I must say, a bit of a fetish with Oakland, and sadly, it's not one that's paid off handsomely on the field. I was hoping for Leinart not only because he's Leinart and should have a great career--especially if he manages to escape the abyss that is the Arizona Cardinals, but also because it would have meant that the Raiders had kicked what looks more and more like a bad habit.

Let's lay things out. It's helpful to have a talented, athletic secondary. There's no question there. But considering the rule changes and the emphasis on enforcing the illegal contact rules, shutdown corners aren't what they once were. The days of Lester Hayes and Michael Haynes (or Deion Sanders, for that matter) are over. Defensively, it's more important now to get a good rush with your front four and force the opposing QB to make bad decisions. (We ought to know. Teams did it to Kerry Collins for two nightmarish years.) This to some degree explains the popularity of two gap defenses, where speedy linebackers shoot the gap a half second faster than a 4-3 DE would.

Consider the 2002 Oakland Raiders, as I like to do when times are hard. Charles Woodson didn't last long that season, breaking his leg against Pittsburgh in Week 2. Philip Buchanon, the Raiders 1st round pick that year, busted out against the Chargers in Week 5. A lot of people saw disaster looming. Beneath Buchanon and Woodson were, well, some guys. We still had Rod Woodson to keep heads together and Tory James was a solid-but-not-spectacular RCB (both, it should be noted came to us as free agents), but perpetual backup Anthony Dorsett lined up on the strong side for most of the year, and our other corners were practice squad guys like Clarence Love. Did disaster happen?

Well, almost. We lost four consecutive games. But we rebounded in Denver and won nine of our next eleven with a beat up secondary. How? Trace Armstrong, Rod Coleman, John Parella, Sam Adams, Bill Romanowski, and Eric Barton. They shut down the run (3rd overall vs. the run), combined for 43 sacks, kept the passer in danger, and had among them four interceptions (the 2005 Raiders, with all those first-day picks in the secondary, had five). True, the offense scored loads of points (which to some degree kept running backs from getting started), but the Raiders defense was able, in 2002, to keep teams like the Steelers from employing their hand-it-to-Bettis-hold-the-ball-for-ten-minutes tactic. Our ability to stop the run with the front seven allowed the safeties and corners to keep the receivers in front of them and watch the QBs eyes. Rod Woodson in particular feasted because of this, intercepting eight passes that year, including a 98-yarder that started us off against Denver during the Monday night game. We seldom had anything to fear from play action. We could run the ball, we could stop the run, and once we discovered that Rich Gannon really could throw the ball sixty times in a game that was it.

Would we have done even better with a healthy C-wood on the field all year? We might have, but as it turned out he wasn't needed. (Indeed, by trying to come back too soon, he was actually a liability in the playoffs.)

Calling the defensive backs on a team by the collective name of secondary is appropriate, not just because they're behind the front seven, but because in relative importance they are, well, secondary. With this year's 7th overall pick, there were no front-seven players worthy of that high a selection, but there was one offensive player who was: Leinart. And QB trumps DB. Don't believe me? Think of it. We lost two first round corners in 2002 and went to the Super Bowl. How close would we have gotten to the big day if Rich Gannon had broken his leg during that game in Pittsburgh? Perhaps two good follow up questions would be, how high a draft pick would we have gotten in 2003, and would Al Davis have spent it on a DB?

Update 4/30: Thanks for the link Raider Take. Here's hoping you're right and Huff makes an impact, but when you brought up the way Roethlisberger slipped past us two years ago, it hurt me. It really hurt me. That guy is playing excellent football and still has lots room to grow. Oh, the pain! The pain of it all!

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