Gradkowski enters homecoming game in backup role
Bruce Gradkowski is finally fully healed from a separated throwing shoulder just in time for the Oakland Raiders to make another trip to his hometown of Pittsburgh - the site of his greatest NFL victory.
The only problem for Gradkowski is that since he went down with the right shoulder injury Oct. 10, Jason Campbell has come on and taken back the starting quarterback job by leading the first-place Raiders (5-4) to their first three-game winning streak in eight years.
So even though Gradkowski was supposed to regain his starting spot as soon as he was healthy, he heads into this week's game against his hometown Steelers (6-3) backing up Campbell.
''It's tough, because you always want to play, especially in the big games, and this is a big game for us,'' Gradkowski said Thursday. ''We're playing a good football team and you want to be part of that. But it fell at the wrong time.''
Gradkowski talked about the possibility of facing the Steelers again in the playoffs, hopeful that he could once again be the starter if that happened in January. But his job this week is to prepare as if he's going to play even though the Raiders are hoping that won't be necessary.
Oakland made quarterback changes twice in wins already this season. Gradkowski replaced an ineffective Campbell at halftime of the home opener against St. Louis and led the Raiders to a 16-14 victory. Gradkowski then got hurt three weeks later against the Chargers and Campbell came on and rallied Oakland to the 35-27 win.
''It's tough to go into the game and you want to be the starter, but the toughest part is to stay focused mentally throughout the week, because you are the backup, but you also know you could play,'' he said. ''You could very easily play. But knowing you're not starting, you could get lazy a little bit on film, and that's where you've really got to focus. That's where I really try to stay focused mentally and have to grind it out just like I'm starting, and that's the only way I'll stay prepared.''
Gradkowski's greatest moment as a Raider came in the fourth quarter last December in Pittsburgh in just his third start with Oakland. He threw three go-ahead touchdown passes, including an 11-yarder to Louis Murphy with 9 seconds remaining to cap the 88-yard drive that gave Oakland the 27-24 victory.
Gradkowski became the first Raiders quarterback to throw three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter since Ken Stabler did it against New Orleans in 1979. He also is the only quarterback in the league since at least 1991 to throw three go-ahead touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, according to STATS LLC.
But he got hurt the following week against Washington and did not play the rest of the season. He was hurt again in the offseason and did not have a chance to compete with Campbell for the starting job in training camp but got it early in the season.
He lost the job because of an injury once again and Campbell earned it back with strong play during the three-game winning streak. He has completed 58 percent of his passes for 743 yards, five touchdowns and one interception as Oakland has put up 115 points in the wins over Denver, Seattle and Kansas City.
''Of course I want to be out there playing and be a part of it and I feel like I am a part of it,'' Gradkowski said. ''We started this last year, and we kind of brought it over to this year. There were some great games early on in the year, but it's good to see us just growing as a football team and like you guys have seen all year is someone's got to step up. This guy may down, this guy, so I know there's going to be a point again when I play this year, so that's what I'll be ready for.''
Coach Tom Cable said he is impressed with the way Gradkowski has handled the situation and has talked with him about his decision to stick with Campbell instead of going back to Gradkowski as was originally planned.
Cable also said that even though he has a healthy and proven backup in Gradkowski, that doesn't mean he will have a quick hook on Campbell if the offense struggles early against the Steelers.
''To make the decision like I did with the fact that we've had the success that we've had lately, he's earned that,'' Cable said. ''I think when someone earns something, they deserve to go out there and give it everything they've got. And if things don't go right or whatever happens, we have an answer to go to.''
Notes: CB Nnamdi Asomugha (sprained right ankle), TE Zach Miller (arch) and DT John Henderson (right foot) are still limited at practice but are on track to play Sunday, Cable said. ... Cable expects to have a better idea Friday on the status of WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, who has been slowed by a hamstring injury.