Barber: Matt McCrane rescues Raiders in NFL debut

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OAKLAND

After 68 minutes, 10 seconds of game time and more than four hours of earth time, the Raiders lined up for the play that would either deliver their first win of the season after three failures or, most likely, result in an unsavory tie against a team that has recently been the laughingstock of the NFL.

The play in question was a 29-yard field goal. For this crucial task, the Raiders put their fate in the hands of a long snapper whom they had signed 18 days earlier to fill an emergency gap, and a rookie punter who was serving as holder. And in the foot of Matt McCrane.

McCrane was even newer to the scene than Trent Sieg, the snapper. He joined the Raiders on Wednesday, the day they placed kicker Mike Nugent (himself a stopgap replacement for another damaged kicker) on injured reserve with a hip injury.

McCrane had been jeered earlier in the game Sunday, having pushed two field-goal attempts wide left. This time he was true, though, and the Raiders were sudden-death winners. They are 1-3. No more zeroes in any of the important columns.

“For him to go make that kick and for us to be able to celebrate, he’s the real man,” quarterback Derek Carr said. “Our kicker, he’s the hero. He battled, he fought through getting booed, battled through people looking at him funny on the sidelines. All that stuff.”

Carr may or may not have known McCrane’s name.

After the game, the hero sat in front of his locker, looking trim and preppy. He was doing a phone interview with one of the sports shows on Sirius XM Radio. McCrane, facing the locker, didn’t realize that a small gaggle of reporters was assembling behind him. Hey, he’s new at this.

How new? Before he booted the final field goal, he turned to Sieg and asked, “Is this to win it?” The long snapper nodded in affirmation. Alrighty then, might as well go ahead and win it.

How strange that the “real man” of Sunday’s win hadn’t even been on the roster a week earlier. McCrane was at Kansas State last year, cementing his place as the program’s all-time leader in field goals (57) and field-goal percentage (86.4). He signed with the Arizona Cardinals as an undrafted free agent and made all four of his field-goal tries this summer, including a couple of 50-plus-yarders. But the Cardinals cut him and went with 43-year-old wonder Phil Dawson.

McCrane went back to Kansas State to stay sharp, and was basically waiting by the phone until the Raiders called him out for a tryout last Monday. He joined the team Wednesday and got his first chance to kick off of the infamous Oakland Coliseum infield on Friday.

“West Texas dirt is about all I’ve kicked off of,” McCrane said. “A baseball field is completely different.”

When the fourth quarter started, McCrane was 0 for 1 as an NFL kicker. His first pro attempt, a 47-yarder early in the second quarter, was a low knuckler that drifted off to the left. The fourth quarter was busy, though. McCrane connected from 29 yards to get the Raiders within 28-24 with 14:14 to play, and from 44 yards to build a 34-28 lead with 10:46 remaining.

When Oakland forced overtime on a dramatic touchdown and 2-point conversion with 30 seconds left in regulation, a lot of people in the stands were probably thinking the same thought: Please let us score a touchdown so our newbie kicker doesn’t have to save us.

Fat chance. When the Raiders’ first drive of overtime bogged down at the Cleveland 32-yard line, coach Jon Gruden initially sent his punting team onto the field.

“We can’t kick a 48-yard field goal, Gruden?” a fan yelled from the west stands, loud enough to be heard over the rumble of voices.

Well, technically it was a 50-yarder. Gruden then called time out to think it over. Carr came up to him and special teams coach Rich Bisaccia and lobbied for McCrane to attempt the field goal.

My guess is that McCrane had earned his teammates’ respect, in part, by diving into a pile to recover a fumble on a fourth-quarter kickoff. The turnover was overturned after a replay review. But McCrane had made a point. He said he weighs 160 pounds, but he looks smaller. He’s one of the few NFL players I’ve met who don’t seem to weigh a lot more than I do.

“I usually wear a mouthpiece,” McCrane said. “I know a lot of kickers don’t do that. But I like to get in there. If I can make a hit, I make a hit.”

Oh, but that 50-yard attempt 3:46 into overtime? He missed it. That one, too, was off of the dirt.

“I’m not sure what the issue was,” McCrane said. “I don’t believe that it was the dirt.”

He got another chance, of course. The Raiders defense forced the Browns to go three-and-out, and passes to Jared Cook, Seth Roberts and Amari Cooper, plus a good run by Marshawn Lynch, soon had the team in what Raider Nation now likes to refer to as “McCrane Range.”

Actually, Gruden admitted that with rookies at all three positions in the snap-hold-kick chain, he was trying to get as far downfield as possible. “Tried to,” he said. “Obviously, you try to do that in any situation. But put the ball on the left hash, where Coach Bisaccia wanted it. Gave him a great look.”

Yet, people were, shall we say, nervous on the Raiders sidelines.

“Man, I felt that way,” Cooper said. “It was awkward to be kicking that field goal. We wanted to kick it on second down but kicked it on third down (to force the Browns to burn their last timeout). I was looking at Coach Gruden. He didn’t even look to see if he made the field goal. I guess when he heard the crowd, that was his acknowledgement.”

McCrane got the hero’s reception he had earned.

If asking a rookie kicker to nail a field goal for you deep into overtime seems to be a precarious way to win a football game, get used to it. The Raiders are fit to be tied — by everyone. The first four weeks of the season have shown us that Gruden’s team isn’t truly better, or worse, than anyone other than the Rams, who look like the class of the NFL. The Raiders will win some more games, but there’s no reason to believe any of them will come easy.

Perhaps Matt McCrane will be involved in other decisive kicks. As we saw, they can go true or they can list to one side.

“I think that’s the way kicking goes sometimes,” McCrane said. “And probably the way life goes, too, you know? You just learn from things.”

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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