Raiders kicking their way to 1st in AFC West
AP Sports Writer
ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) – On most NFL teams, kickers and punters are little more than part-time specialists who are rarely seen, almost never heard and mostly afterthoughts until they make some crucial mistake.
That’s far from the case on the Oakland Raiders with punter Shane Lechler and kicker Sebastian Janikowski.
Following Oakland’s most recent win, coach Hue Jackson turned the locker room over to the team’s veteran kicking specialists who are the only playing ties to the three straight division titles the franchise won from 2000-02.
Lechler urged his teammates to “keep grinding” if they want to keep up the positive feelings from a 7-4 start that has them in first place in the AFC West.
“It may be a little unusual,” cornerback Stanford Routt said. “But not here. Not with what they bring to the team and the things they do on Sundays.”
The two big-legged kickers have had few days better than the one they delivered last Sunday in a 25-20 victory over the Chicago Bears that kept the Raiders in first place.
Janikowski kicked a team-record six field goals, while Lechler provided a jaw-dropping 80-yard punt and neutralized dangerous returner Devin Hester all day with his long and well-placed punts.
“They’re tremendous leaders for this football team,” Jackson said. “We’re very fortunate here to have two of the best here, doing what they do. I would take our guys over anybody. Any day, any time anywhere. They’re really that good.”
That’s what Al Davis envisioned when he used a first-round pick to take Janikowski and a fifth-rounder on Lechler in the 2000 draft in moves that were criticized at the time for reaching for part-time specialists.
Those moves look a lot better now with more than a decade of hindsight as they both are still contributing at a Pro Bowl level while most players from that draft are out of the league.
“‘Those two guys are special,” special teams standout Rock Cartwright said. “Mr. Davis knew what he was doing when he took those guys. He knew what he’d seen and they definitely were huge for us on Sunday.”
Lechler and Janikowski have seen things come full circle in Oakland since joining the Raiders in 2000. They won three straight division titles and won an AFC championship to start their careers before falling on hard times.
Oakland lost at least 11 games for an NFL-record seven straight seasons starting in 2003 before ending that stretch with an 8-8 record a year ago. Now with a one-game lead over Denver in the AFC West, the Raiders are poised to earn their first playoff berth since 2002.
“This feels awesome, being 7-4, but guess what, a season goes 16 games and we can’t even say we’re .500 yet,” Lechler said. “Seven and four feels great, but we’ve got some tough, tough games.”
While the Raiders have been up and down, Lechler has been remarkably consistent throughout his career. He has averaged at least 45 yards per punt in all but one season and is on a record-setting pace this year at a gross average of 51.5 yards per punt, ahead of Sammy Baugh’s 51.4 in 1940.
Lechler already has the single-season record for net average of 43.9 set in 2009 and is third all-time in net punting at 38.8 yards for his career – just shy of Donnie Jones’ 39.0 average.
He can flip the field with one swing of his right leg as evidenced by last week’s game, when he had a 49.2 net average on five kicks, including the 80-yarder that sailed over Hester’s head and into the end zone.
And his contributions don’t end on the field.
“He’s definitely the best punter in the league, but as far as a teammate, a leader, a veteran, a professional, he does everything right,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “He says the right things. He doesn’t act like a kicker. I wouldn’t put him in that mold. He is just a great teammate.”
Janikowski has had a remarkable season in his own right despite dealing with an injured left hamstring that forced him to miss one game and limited his performance the past four games even though he still won AFC special teams player of the month.
“I don’t think anyone has played as injured as he’s played – he is playing at about 60 percent, maybe 50 percent – that doesn’t happen,” Palmer said. “For him to suck it up and go out there, and take two steps on the kickoff and just try not to tear his hamstring in half and get his team in the right position, and get his defense set up with a longer field, for him to do that for the team, guys recognize that and appreciate that.”
Janikowski has missed just two field goals all season, a 49-yarder that was blocked in Minnesota two weeks ago and a 56-yarder against the New York Jets in September.
He opened the season by tying the NFL record with a 63-yarder in Denver and then tied another record with three field goals of at least 50 yards in a 25-20 victory at Houston the day after Davis died.
“There’s plenty more records to be broken,” Janikowski said. “I want 65, I want a 66-yarder. I want to break the record.”