Those bemoaning Al Davis’ apparent “meddling” by telling Tom Cable to keep Jason Campbell at quarterback forget one thing: This time, Davis is right.
Backtrack a bit to the start of the season. Campbell, acquired in the offseason from the Washington Redskins, was a disaster. The Raiders’ offensive line couldn’t protect him, and the Oakland fans were chanting “Bruce, Bruce,” for Gradkowski, whom they got in the second half of the second game, against the Rams. Gradkowski rallied them for a win and remained the starting quarterback until he was injured in the Houston game.
For a time, Cable insisted that Gradkowski would still be the starter when he returned. But after Davis leaned on him last week, he announced that Campbell will be the starter in Pittsburgh on Sunday against the Steelers.
As he should be.
For openers, the Raiders have won three straight behind Campbell to move into a tie with Kansas City for first place in the AFC West. Equally important, the team has changed to one that can now win the division with Campbell at quarterback.
Campbell and Gradkowski are very different quarterbacks. Though Gradkowski can throw deep, he’s much more like Rich Gannon than Daryle Lamonica. His forte is moving around until he finds an open target. His style was absolutely essential when he’s played in the last two seasons.
But now, the Raiders have made significant improvements in their pass blocking. They’ve been able to seal up the left side of the line, protecting Campbell’s blind side, with Robert Gallery back and rookie Jared Veldheer playing surprisingly well at tackle. That’s given Campbell the time he needs to throw deep.
In the last game, against the Chiefs, Campbell also found an unexpected deep threat in fourth-round pick Jacoby Ford, who caught long passes to set up both the tying and game-winning field goals. Louis Murphy, another deep threat, comes off the injured list. They no longer have to pretend Darius Heyward-Bey is a deep threat. And Zach Miller, the team’s most reliable pass catcher, also returns this Sunday.
The Raiders’ surge hasn’t been all about offense. Their defense, especially against the run, has also been very sturdy.
But the offensive change has been the most compelling story, starting with the improvement in the running game.
Darren McFadden has turned into an all-purpose threat. It had seemed the Raiders might have to settle for using McFadden in a Reggie Bush-type role, getting him out into the open to catch passes or pitching out to him, so he could use his open field running ability. But McFadden has learned how to lower his head and drive for yardage between the tackles.
So, the play-action pass becomes a viable weapon, giving Campbell more time to set up and throw deep, the kind of offense Davis loves, of course. There are other ways to win, and most teams prefer the ball control type of offense that Bill Walsh pioneered. In fact, the Raiders haven’t won big with this kind of offense since Jim Plunkett was the quarterback.
But this year they have the right mix for it, so right now, Campbell is their best choice for quarterback.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.