- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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OAKLAND, Calif. -- A piece of Shane Lechler's helmet rocketed onto the field after the superstar punter smashed it on the sideline. He could no longer control his emotions moments after yet another meltdown by an inexperienced long-snapper forced into duty.
As pieces of Lechler’s helmet exploded into the Oakland air, yet another snapping adventure gone bad sullied an AFC West team on "Monday Night Football."
Parents, you might want to send your kids to long-snapping camp (if they exist). The Oakland Raiders showed a national audience there is a premium at the position. Yes, the start of the Reggie McKenzie-Dennis Allen era in Oakland was undone by a series of bad snaps. Crazy, huh?
Yes, but the beneficiary of the horrors feels Travis Goethel's pain. Like Goethel did Monday night, San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers fueled a loss on ESPN’s "Monday Night Football" with a snapping issue on Halloween last year.
Monday, though, Rivers stayed far away from the gaffe department and that is a great sign for the San Diego Chargers, who began a crucial season for coach Norv Turner with a 22-14 win at Oakland.
The headline of this inartistic game will be Goethel’s three bad snaps that resulted in nine points for the Chargers in the second half. The reserve linebacker -- who instantly goes into the annals of "Monday Night Football" infamy -- was forced into the game because of a head injury suffered by Pro Bowl snapper Jon Condo.
Condo is valued by the Raiders because we never hear his name. I’ve only written the words “Jon Condo” to write about him punching a ticket to Hawaii. Had he stayed in the game, the Chargers surely would not have been given nine free points.
But the underlying story was that the Chargers won. And if they are going to snap a two-year playoff drought, they are going to have to continue to win the way they did at Oakland -- with clean, gutsy play by Rivers and a suffocating, tough defense.
Goethel will surely be vilified by Raider Nation for his snapping woes. But the truth is, the San Diego defense shut down Oakland quarterback Carson Palmer when it needed to. Oakland had just 29 yards of offense in the third quarter as the Chargers pulled away from the Raiders.
Had Palmer and Oakland’s offense not been forced to punt three times in the third quarter, Goethel’s problems wouldn’t have been an issue.
In the end, Rivers was better than Palmer. And the Chargers won the game.
This was an important game for Rivers, who played it without left tackle Jared Gaither, running back Ryan Mathews and promising receiver Vincent Brown. With undrafted rookie Mike Harris protecting his blind side, Rivers (who was sacked just once) was sharp, showing that his often-troublesome 2011 season may be behind him.
Rivers’ numbers weren’t explosive. He completed 24 of 33 passes for 231 yards. Yes, the Chargers were able to punch the ball into the end zone one time and they had to settle for five field goals.
But Rivers did his job. Most importantly, he played a clean game. Even without three crucial pieces of the offense, Rivers never came close to making a mistake.
“He got us in and out of bad plays,” Turner said of his quarterback. “I thought he was disciplined in the red zone.”
That wasn’t always the case last season. Rivers threw 20 interceptions last year and he was picked off four times this preseason. Although he improved in the final six games of last season, Rivers made a crucial mistake in virtually all of the Chargers’ first 10 games.
The grandest of all Rivers’ 2011 mistakes was a botched snap from center with the Chargers preparing to end the game with a chip-shot field goal on Oct. 31 at Kansas City. The Chiefs ended up winning. Had Rivers handled that snap, the Chargers, who finished 8-8 with Denver and Oakland, would have ended up winning the AFC West.
Now, Rivers is in charge of pushing another San Diego playoff march. If he plays the way he did Monday night and keeps the mistakes to a minimum, I wouldn’t bet against him.
The Chargers’ offense will get healthy and a strong defensive showing by the Chargers on Monday has to make Turner, who will surely be fired if he doesn’t lead San Diego to the playoffs, encouraged. This team has talent, and strong play by Rivers and the defense will go a long way.
But all is not lost for the Raiders. The Oakland defense -- which lost starting cornerback Ronald Bartell for at least six weeks with a shoulder blade injury -- looked improved and it showed a strong personality by forcing the Chargers into the five field goals in distressing situations.
The biggest problem, other than the special-teams woes, was Oakland’s offense stalled in key moments. Its only touchdown came in garbage time. According to ESPN Stats & Information, San Diego’s defense stifled Palmer downfield. He was just 3-of-8 for 58 yards on passes that traveled 15 yards or more.
Yes, Palmer was playing without receivers Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore. But the Raiders simply couldn’t get enough offense going and that falls on Palmer, who still has to show the organization he was worth the two premium draft picks the former regime gave up to get him from Cincinnati last October.
Monday, Rivers and the Chargers answered the call, while Palmer and the Raiders didn’t. But in the AFC West, we know everything can change in a snap.
5dEric D. Williams
5dEric D. Williams