Halfway through the 2016 season, the Raiders were on a roll.
With a 30-20 victory over the Broncos, Oakland had a three-game winning streak and victories in six of seven games. The offense was electric and the defense was steadily improving.
But special teams, too, played a starring role. Punter Marquette King, returner Jalen Richard, place-kicker Sebastian Janikowski and kick-coverage standouts such as Andre Holmes, Darren Bates, Johnny Holton and Brynden Trawick were making big plays. Time and again in the Denver game, the Raiders pinned the Broncos deep in their own territory with punts and kickoffs.
At the heart of it, said Bates, was special teams coordinator Brad Seely, who has molded terrific special teams units all over the league in a long NFL career.
“We started off as kind of a patchwork group, but from Game 1, we molded, and we worked with him (Seely), and he worked with us, each day, each week, and getting better, making it a real special teams unit, and not just individuals,” said Bates.
Now, as the Raiders head toward what they hope is a successful offseason of roster additions, they know they go into 2017 with a solid core of kickoff, kickoff-return, punting, punt-return and place-kicking units.
In fact, in the annual review of all NFL special teams done by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, the Raiders came in at No. 9 among the league’s 32 teams.
In those ratings, the Raiders punting unit ranked No. 1 with a 48.6 yard average. Oakland also was No. 5 in punts downed inside the 20. The Raiders allowed the sixth-fewest kick-return yards and were 11th in punt-return average.
Levi Damien of SB Nation, in reviewing Gosselin’s rankings, noted the Raiders’ Trawick was fourth in the NFL with 15 combined special teams tackles and sixth in solo tackles, with 11 (tied with Holton).
This past season, Seely loved having so many veterans on his units. Established players such as Trawick, Holmes and Bates, long snapper Jon Condo and kicker Sebastian Janikowski add both tangible and intangible qualities.
“Veteran guys, they do two things for you,” Seely said. “They come out to practice, they have a better idea of what you’re looking for and those guys have understood why they’ve been on football teams. And pressure, the best pressure in the world is peer pressure. Those guys want to be good, they want to be good in the kicking game, so they’re trying to get everybody else to raise their game.”
In 2016, they did just that.