The rise of rookie Jacoby Ford has at least partially obscured a problem with the Raiders' passing game that goes beyond their selection of quarterbacks.
Since the start of 2007 season, the only real consistency when the Raiders passed the ball came on those plays designed to go to tight end Zach Miller. Miller has been the Raiders' top receiver in each of the three years, with his receptions climbing from 44 to 56 to 66. A Pro Bowl alternate a year ago, Miller looked to be ready to move up another rung this year when Indianapolis fixture Dallas Clark went down for the season.
Oakland quarterbacks from Josh McCown to Daunte Culpepper to JaMarcus Russell to Bruce Gradkowski to Jason Campbell have said that Miller is the best and safest option on the field. He's been the safety blanket for Raiders quarterbacks. Unfortunately for the Raiders, Miller's fourth season has been stalled by injuries.
He still leads the team with 37 receptions for 476 yards, but since a Week 7 win over Denver, Miller has just four receptions for 20 yards and no touchdowns. Miller missed one of those games -- a 23-20 overtime win over Kansas City -- and clearly at less than 100 percent in the others.
The first issue was called an "arch" injury with Miller said was a torn plantar fascia. Just as he was recovering from that problem, Miller was injured in a 33-17 loss to Miami with a deep contusion to his right leg coach Tom Cable described as "serious." It happened following a Chris Clemons interception of a Gradkowski pass on the return, with Miller saying he had been hit both high and low by Miami blockers.
With Miller at less than 100 percent, it has taken a toll on the passing game in that the only other true tight end on the roster is Brandon Myers, as second-year player with nine catches for 69 yards and 13 over the past two seasons.
"I think it does hurt," Cable said of Miller's absence. "He's a heck of a player. Not to take anything away from Brandon Myers, he's a heck of a player. He hasn't had the opportunities Zach has had to catch the ball and he's capable, but it would sure be nice to get Zach healthy."
-- Tom Cable thinks the Raiders learned enough about themselves to get off the deck following a two-game losing streak, revert to the form that saw them climb above .500 in November for the first time seven years, and make a race of it in the AFC West. Whether they're up to the task physically is another matter.
When Cable met the media Monday, quarterback Bruce Gradkowski was getting an MRI and the quarterback wasn't expecting good news. He fears a reinjury of his right shoulder, a third-degree separation that already cost him five weeks. That would effectively end Gradkowski's season with six games remaining.
Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha was having another MRI on his right ankle, interesting in that he said following a 33-17 loss to the Miami Dolphins that doctors told him he couldn't make the sprain any worse by playing. Nickel back Chris Johnson wasn't sure if he'd be ready to play after missing the Miami game with a groin injury, necessitating a brutal trial-by-fire against rookie fifth-round pick Walter McFadden. Tight end Zach Miller, slowed by a torn plantar fascia for the past two weeks, is still dealing with that condition as well as a "severe" contusion to his right leg.
It's clear that Jason Campbell, benched twice already for performance and a third time entering the Miami game after Cable had already declared him the starter, will reassume that role. That is, unless No. 3 quarterback Kyle Boller gets a shot.
While no one expects that to happen, Cable sounded as if he hadn't ruled it out when asked if Campbell and Boller would compete for the job. "I don't think so," Cable said. "Wednesday I'll be able to give you a more definitive answer."
Cable said his message to the team was direct and to the point. "As we talked about, we got ourselves into a little mess here for two weeks," Cable said. "We can get ourselves out of it and have no doubt that we will. But we have to get back to I think doing the little things, the little things that were getting us where we wanted to go."
The players who will be available to work on those little things are still to be determined.
--Wide receiver Jacoby Ford has three touchdowns on the season, but got his first as a receiver with a 44-yard catch from QB Bruce Gradkowski in the second quarter.
Ford made a nice adjustment on a sideline route that enabled him to both stay in bounds and be headed straight for the goal line down the right sideline. It put the Raiders up 14-13 when they had done little else besides Ford's 101-yard kickoff return and receiving touchdown.
"I was really excited about the pass, to have my first reception touchdown," Ford said. "Just to go out there and make a great play, just to keep the game close, keep us alive, I was just really proud I put myself in that position."
Ford later caught a 52-yard pass from Gradkowski, essentially stealing an interception away from Chris Clemons, to set up a 30-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski.
"Jacoby continues to do things, continues to make plays," coach Tom Cable said. "He got the game started off, got a couple of nice blocks and hit a seam and finished it. He shows up on offense, too. I think you can liken him to Darren (McFadden) a little bit in that he has the ability to get us started and be explosive."
--After gaining just 16 yards on 12 carries against Miami and with 77 yards on 30 carries in the last two games, Oakland has fallen from second in the NFL in rushing at over 162 yards per game to fifth at 139.7. Most troublesome is that McFadden has essentially run into a wall. Coupled with a 10-carry, 14-yard game against Pittsburgh, McFadden has 16 yards on 18 carries in his last two games.
Part of it has been Oakland's predictability on offense. Miami defenders talked of setting the edge, denying McFadden the outside, then cleaning up in the middle. "If teams are smart, if they have good defensive coordinators, they are going to load up against the run when they play us," right tackle Langston Walker said.
--Reserve running back and special teams player Rock Cartwright was despondent after the game for failing to block a punt by Miami's Brandon Fields on the first possession of the fourth quarter. Both Cartwright and Fields thought the kick was blocked, with Fields even looking backward only to discover it traveled 41 yards and was never touched.
"I put this game on me because a blocked punt changes the whole momentum of the game and gives us momentum," Cartwright said. "I wasn't accountable to my teammates to today. I just feel I let the team down. Let the special teams coach down. They put a lot of trust in me. So put this one on me."
Said linebacker and special teamer Sam Williams: "He dove past it. He could have just tackled the punter he got there so quick."
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL PLAYER NOTES
--QB Jason Campbell has a completion percentage of 54.7 through eight games -- seven starts -- after being a 62.4 percent passer in 1,430 attempts in 45 starts with Washington from 2007 through 2009.
--RB Darren McFadden has just 16 yards on his last 18 carries over two games but caught a career-high seven passes for 63 yards against Miami and has 33 for the season, surpassing his previous high of 29 as a rookie in 2008.
--FB Marcel Reece lost a fumble after taking a handoff from Darren McFadden on a draw play out of the Wildcat formation, the first of his career.
--TE Zach Miller did not have a reception for more than eight yards in the month of November.
--WR Louis Murphy had four catches for 73 yards against Miami, his most productive game since catching five passes for 119 yards in Week 3 against Arizona.
--WR Jacoby Ford is averaging 20.0 yards per catch on 16 receptions, the most among NFL rookies with 15 or more receptions.
--LB Rolando McClain is tied for sixth among NFL rookies with 57 tackles and had a season-best eight stops (seven unassisted) against Miami.
--CB Walter McFadden, who won the job as the Raiders nickel back because of an injury to Chris Johnson and a strong week of practice, gave up six passes for 113 yards and had a holding penalty against Miami.
--SS Tyvon Branch leads the Raiders with 76 tackles and had his third sack of the season against Miami.
--DT Desmond Bryant, a second-year player and an undrafted rookie out of Harvard, had the first two sacks of his career within the last three games.
--WR Darrius Heyward-Bey did not catch a pass in the month of November in three games after having the biggest day of his career (5 receptions, 105 yards, 1 TD) on Oct. 31.
--P Shane Lechler had a net punting average of 26.8 against Miami, his lowest since a 26.8 net against the Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 16, 2007.
--PK Sebastian Janikowski has an average kickoff length of 67.9, the highest of his career, and a career-best 25 touchbacks.
REPORT CARD VS. DOLPHINS
PASSING OFFENSE: D
QB Bruce Gradkowski was 17 of 32 for 252 yards, but had two key interceptions and showed little consistency. Jacoby Ford stands in the way of a failing grade because of a 44-yard touchdown reception and a 52-yard catch that set up a field goal -- both made with remarkable adjustments to a ball in flight. Tight end Zach Miller (one catch, 6 yards) is hurting and a non-factor.
RUSHING OFFENSE: F
Take away a 13-yard run by Ford on a reverse and the Raiders ran the ball 11 times and gained three yards. Darren McFadden had eight carries for two yards and didn't get into positive yardage until the fourth quarter. Fullback Marcel Reece carried once out of the wildcat, never got hold of the ball and lost a fumble.
PASS DEFENSE: D-minus
The only hint of a pass rush came from safeties Tyvon Branch and Michael Huff on blitzes, and this was against a team with a banged-up offensive line and stationary quarterback returning from a knee injury.
Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha gave up four catches for 65 yards and had a holding penalty. Nickel back Walter McFadden had a nightmarish game, giving up six catches for 113 yards, and including a holding penalty, five third-down conversions.
RUSH DEFENSE: D-plus
Miami had no gain longer than eight yards until Ricky Williams broke free on a 45-yard touchdown run for the final points to put the game away. However, the Dolphins did continue to get positive yards, with the Raiders seldom playing on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage. The end result? Miami had 49 rushes for 186 yards and held the ball for 41:38.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C
Ford's 101-yard opening kickoff return of the game was his second touchdown return of the season, but that was about it. Miami's average drive started at the 40-yard line, in part because of turnovers but also in part because Oakland's kicking game couldn't swing things in their favor. Rock Cartwright narrowly missed a fourth-quarter blocked punt that could have provided a spark.
After the Steelers debacle, you'd expect the Raiders to hit the field with some enthusiasm and fire, especially defensively, where they had been rock solid during a three-game win streak. Instead, even with Ford's opening act on the kick return, Oakland looked a step behind all day.
Miami successfully ran a Wildcat at Oakland, while the Raiders tried one that wasn't nearly as effective in return. No great scheme issues, only a team that wasn't ready to play. The handling of the quarterback switch from Jason Campbell to Gradkowski was clumsy and confusing to all involved.