Looking back: The running game, or so it was believed, would flourish, with head coach Norv Turner’s hiring but failed miserably. Injuries had something to do with it but, still, being the NFL’s least productive rushing attack (80.9 yards per game) was not what the Raiders envisioned.
In fact, ten NFL running backs, on their own, rushed for more than the Oakland Raiders’ team total of 1,209 yards. Falling behind in many games – keep in mind that Oakland scored just two first quarter touchdowns – also played a key role in the ground game’s struggles but it was seldom productive when the Raiders had the lead.
The Raiders simply do not have a back that can be counted on for at least 15 carries game-after-game. Tyrone Wheatley looked like that player but injuries caused him to miss eight games and part of another. Wheatley is a quality veteran leader but has struggled to make through a full season without injury since 1999. Amos Zereoue was the team’s leading rusher with 425 yards but that’s not saying much considering how horrible the ground game was.
Zereoue (39 catches) and J.R. Redmond (32 catches) had good years on the receiving end. Justin Fargas, however, continues to be a disappointment along with too brittle and fumble prone to be an every down back.
Zack Crockett finished the season with a bang by rushing for 134 yards on 21 carries in the season finale against Jacksonville. Crockett, however, is best-suited when utilized as a short-yardage guru who is versatile enough to play fullback. The Raiders resigned Chris Hetherington, who is more of a true blocking fullback.
Looking ahead: The Raiders badly need help at this position and, since they have the seventh pick in the draft, they will be able to draft a top-flight runner. However, since the needs are so glaring on defense, Oakland might go the free agent route at running back and use the No. 7 pick for a defensive player. Unless, of course, there is a running back at No. 7 that Oakland feels strongly in taking.
Regardless, if the Raiders are to improve on their 5-11 record in 2004, they at least need a dependable back who can supply, minimally, 15 carries per game and get consistent gains in the process.
The running backs currently on the Raiders roster have done nothing to indicate they can be workhorses. Wheatley is 32 and has had difficulty staying healthy. Plus, running backs rarely blossom into stars late in their career.
Speed is Fargas’ strength but he is clearly not the every-down back the Raiders envisioned when they drafted him in the third-round out of Southern California. Crockett is under contract for two more years but the Raiders can exercise an option with him. Crockett, however, is too versatile and reliable so the Raiders figure to make him a high priority to keep.
Zereoue, Redmond and Hetherington are free agents with Redmond being the most likely for Oakland to keep. Zereoue expressed frustration over playing time late in the season but besides a couple of bright spots was not consistent enough. He is likely to go elsewhere because he is an every-down back in his mind. Oakland, however, does not view him as such.
Redmond had success as a receiver, can play fullback and special teams. He also won’t cost a lot of money to keep so he is likely to return. Hetherington is probably not huge on the priority list but is possible to return.
Vince D’Adamo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org