COMMENTARY | Goodbye Shane Lechler. Raider Nation weeps.
While Marquette King seems to have enough skill to non-insultingly replace the best punter of all time, losing a superstar (on special teams) will considerably worsen the unit's play.
Lechler departs with countless accolades, including seven Pro Bowl nominations, nine All Pro selections, and a seat on the NFL's 2000s All Decade Team. The 36 year old is the NFL's all-time leader in career gross average yards per punt (47.5) and ranks seventh in career net average punting yards (38.8) according to ESPN.
But Lechler's greatness went beyond records. He was an outstanding placekick holder and an upbeat locker room personality.
Hardly intimidated by Ray Guy's legacy, Lechler carved his own Hall of Fame-worthy storyline, raising awareness and respect for NFL punters. He became "Mr. Raider" (Tim Brown's former title) through his local charity work and loyalty to the organization.
Unfortunately, Oakland chose to cut ties following a season where Lechler's yards per punt dropped more than three yards (50.8 to 47.2) from the year before. In addition, his pins inside the 20 (21) were his lowest total since 2006-07.
Lechler's "down year" was still a stellar campaign most punters wish they could replicate, but the Raiders, with so many other needs, could not afford to commit a deserving salary to the specialist.
Lechler's game will likely bounce back with the Texans, because he cites offseason surgery for his slump, and he now has the luxury of playing eight matches under Reliant Stadium's closed ceiling. The Texas A&M graduate is ecstatic to suit up in his home state, and make a probable playoff appearance for the first time since 2002-03 (the blessed/cursed Super Bowl season).
"Words can't describe this, getting to come home and play football, man, this is a dream come true," Lechler told the media on March 23. "I always followed the Texans since they brought the franchise here. It's just something that I've been looking forward to (for) a while."
Houston tried to sign Lechler when he was a free agent in 2009, but the Raiders re-signed their star to a four year, $16 million deal, making him the highest paid punter in NFL history. This time around, his destination was clear.
What is not straightforward is the extent of how Lechler's departure will impact Oakland's performance. The tattered defense will most definitely suffer, as the veteran's booming kicks gave the unit an extra first down or two of leeway. The Raiders will need a new holder to build chemistry with Sebastian Janikowski, a rare left-footed kicker (and the punter's longtime partner in crime). They will also need a new special teams captain, being that was Lechler's old role.
King is Lechler's replacement, and his athleticism is desired for the job. But consistency is a practiced trait in the punting business, and King has yet to prove this in the regular season. (Raiders fans can expect to see a shanked punt or two.) Special teams coach Bobby April will need patience with the raw talent.
King should be serviceable, but a new era has dawned in the Oakland organization. Lechler, the steady force arguably the Raiders' best football player for several seasons, will no longer represent the Silver and Black shield in the All-Star exhibition.
For many people (including myself), the All Pro was the sole reason to turn on the tube to watch a JaMarcus Russell-led offense. Without his stellar punting, my loyalty as a fan may be tested.
Please rise. Here's a toast to a true legend, a beacon of hope in a decade of darkness.
Rui Thomas is a freelance sports writer who is published by Goldengatesports.com and Radiosurvivor.com. Follow his tweets @MrRuiThomas.
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