Dickey: Raiders may have found their QB

Soon Raiders fans will start asking: What if Bruce Gradkowski had been the quarterback at the start of the season? Instead, JaMarcus Russell was the quarterback through a 2-7 start before coach Tom Cable, with Al Davis’ blessing, made the change to Gradkowski.

Last week, a San Francisco columnist suggested that, because the season was already lost, Russell should be given a second chance. I don’t think so. That would be sending the wrong message to the team, which has been energized by
Gradkowski.

Players respond to a quarterback who is dedicated to his craft and to winning. Ken Stabler and Rich Gannon were like that. Stabler was a party guy, but he was also a student of the game. On the field, he found a way to win. Gannon watched so many game videos it’s a wonder he didn’t go blind, and he, too, found a way to win. Gradkowski is in that mold.

Jeff George was only interested in his own stats, and his teammates hated him, so his teams, including the Raiders, had little success. Like George, Russell has little team concept.

Gradkowski had bounced around the league and, when the Raiders picked him up, he was battling Charlie Frye to be the No. 3 quarterback. He moved up to No. 2 when Jeff Garcia was released but was almost an afterthought with Russell as the starter.

But he continued to work hard in practice and study the game videos, a dedication that Russell has always lacked. When he got his chance, he made the most of it. He is 2-1 as a starter and his three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers hadn’t been done by a Raiders quarterback since Stabler, three decades earlier.

And he invoked comparison with Gannon with his scrambling to avoid the Steelers’ pass rush. He even threw a sidearm pass for one completion, the only way he could get the ball past a Pittsburgh defensive lineman. That was vintage Gannon, who never worried about form, just results.

There are times when a quarterback is successful for a short period because teams don’t know much about him, but Gradkowski isn’t an unknown quantity: He had made 12 starts in NFL games, 11 with Tampa Bay, before this year.

And he’s not a quarterback with limited skills. He can throw every kind of pass, including the deep ball that Davis loves.

He was helped in Sunday’s game by the fact that Darrius Heyward-Bey, another first-round mistake, was out with a foot injury.

That opened up playing time for Louis Murphy, who caught two touchdown passes in the wild fourth quarter and had 128 yards receiving, four more than DHB has had all year.

Heyward-Bey should stay on the bench when he returns and work on catching passes in practice, not dropping them. Right now, the Raiders have three young receivers who are better — Murphy, Chaz Schillens and Johnnie Lee Higgins — and they’re the ones who have earned playing time.

For most of the season, the Raiders’ defense has kept the team in the game but the offense, averaging only 10.5 points a game, hadn’t responded. With Gradkowski at quarterback, the offense is finally in gear. Nobody can say what their record would be if he’d always been there, but he gives the Raiders something to build on now.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at glenndickey@hotmail.com.

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