Back in 2008, special teams coordinators around the NFL found it difficult to sleep during their week of preparation when they looked at the schedule and saw the Oakland Raiders waiting for them on Sunday afternoon. In 2009, those same coaches found themselves sleeping soundly all week knowing the Raiders were no more a threat in the return game than JaMarcus Russell was in the passing game.
What happened between ’08 and ’09 that turned the Raiders return specialists from feared to forgotten?
Some of the blame can be attributed to first year coordinator John Fassel. When Fassell took over for Brian Schneider, the coach’s son inherited a unit featuring two of the most deadly return men in the game – Johnnie Lee Higgins and Justin Miller.
During Fassel’s first year overseeing the unit, Higgins and Miller were MIA.
Perhaps the shoulder injury Higgins suffered on the Monday opener against the Chargers played a large role into his disappearing act. After averaging 13 yards per punt return and taking 3 to the house in ‘08, JLH posted a laughable average of 5 yards per return with a season long of just 19 yards.
You can’t overlook the inexplicable fact that Higgins went from the team’s leading receiver in 2008 to being buried on the depth chart behind two rookies (Louis Murphy and Darrius Heyward-Bey). No doubt Higgins had little motivation after getting the Ronald Curry treatment.
Miller, on the other hand, was a kick return dynamo who averaged nearly 25 yards a return with two scores in ’08. After some unimpressive showings as a cornerback during the preseason, Miller didn’t make the final 53-man roster but was later brought back to Oakland only be shown the door again. Miller suited up just once as a return man in ’08, averaging just 17 yards per return.
Louis Rankin used a stellar performance in the final preseason game to make the roster but failed miserably as the season opening return man. The speedy Nick Miller went from undrafted rookie to fan favorite with an impressive preseason but a mysterious shin injury kept him out of action – but not off the active roster – for all of ’09. Mid-season acquisition Gary Russell tried his hand at returning kicks with little to no success. The best of the bunch was Jonathan Holland, a wide receiver turned DB, who didn’t even crack the 20 yard plateau on average.
All in all, it was a year to forget as an offense already handicapped by JaMarcus Russell under center was doubly doomed thanks to terrible starting field position.
In order for the Raiders to rise from the ashes of the AFC West in 2010, the return game has to become a threat once again.
Enter return specialists Yamon Figures along with rookies Jacoby Ford and Walter McFadden.
Tom Cable values competition and the battle to gain a roster spot on special teams should be fierce in camp.
As a rookie, Figures made a name for himself as a return threat with the Baltimore Raves averaging just under 25 yards per touch including a 94-yard house call. Ford popped up on the Al Davis radar by running the fastest 40 time at the draft combine. The former Clemson Tiger is a Johnnie Lee Higgins clone with designs on taking the Johnnie Lee Higgins throne on punt returns. McFadden could be the best bet of the bunch to get the opening day nod for return duties. The recently signed 5th round pick out of Auburn might have a small frame but has some big play ability reminiscent of Phillip Buchanon (minus the mouth).
Even Fassell has been given a new helping hand with Craig Dickenson coming on board as the assistant special teams coordinator.
With Hue Jackson as the dedicated offensive coordinator and a more stable quarterback situation, the Oakland offense could actually go from non-existent to respectable. If the return game is back up to par, the offense could even climb right past respectable becoming downright deadly.