The Lechler dilemma

A few days before the Raiders packed their bags and boarded the plane for their season-ending game at Tampa Bay, Shane Lechler cleared out the only NFL locker he has ever known. Tucked in the southwest corner of Oakland's locker room at the team's facilities in Alameda, it has served as Lechler's oasis at times and his refuge at others.

It has been the place where Lechler sat and talked golf and traded verbal jabs with NFL royalty. Jerry Rice, the NFL's all-time leading wide receiver and, in some people's minds, the greatest player to ever touch a football., was Lechler's teammate from 2001-04 and occupied the stall next to Oakland's young punter.

There has always been a Southern twang of sorts to Rice's speech pattern and it was that very same voice that would echo throughout the Raiders locker room as the legendary receiver would make his way in, screeching for his punter and golf rival. "Shaaaaayne," Rice would call out. "Come out Shaaaaayne. Let's go. Come on Shaaaaaayne."

Lechler and Rice were indeed the oddest of couples. One was a punter who otherwise lived and worked in obscurity save for those few moments he was on the field sending 70-yard punts booming down the field. The other was a wide receiver whose every move on the football field has been marveled at, a historical figure on the landscape of professional football.

Yet they were the greatest of friends because of their common love of golf. Lechler and Rice, along with former Raider wide receiver Tim Brown and current Oakland kicker Sebastian Janikowski, would regularly play local country clubs as a foursome, Rice and Brown in one cart eloquently smacking the ball down the middle of the fairway only to be upstaged by the younger, stronger pair of Lechler and Janikowski.

On days when he wasn't cutting up with Rice or Brown, Lechler could always turn to his left and chat up his other close friend on the team back then, one Rich Gannon. Whereas Rice, Brown and Lechler connected on the links, Gannon and Lechler developed a relationship based almost entirely on respect.

Gannon was the unquestioned leader of those Raiders, a fiery hothead who rubbed many people wrong but who got results on the field. The 2002 NFL MVP, Gannon often served as a mentor to Lechler much like an older brother who is looking out for his younger sibling would.

In those days the conversations were loud, the locker room boisterous and Lechler's stall seemed to be the central hub for much of it.

Now it stands silent. Silent and empty for the first time since 2000 when Oakland used a fifth-round pick on the little-known punter from Texas A&M.

Back then few people had even really heard of Lechler. That year the Raiders made big headlines when they used their first-round draft pick on kicker Sebastian Janikowski , something no other NFL team had done for years.

Lechler was the B side of that draft, if you will. Since then, however, he's been nothing short of a smash success.

Following yet another rock solid season, Lechler earned his fourth trip to the Pro Bowl. His career average of 46.7 yards is the highest in NFL history among punters with at least 250 kicks, a mark he's held for nearly five years now. He also holds just about every other conceivable punting record in the Raiders' history books as well.

Over the years Lechler has developed from a strictly power-based punter to a kicker who is as crafty as they come. His pooch punts are pulled straight from Australian Rules Football, something he picked up as a young player in the NFL while watching former San Diego punter Darren Bennett, an Australian native.

During his first three seasons in the league Lechler didn't have to do much work. The Raiders were perennial playoff contenders, with Gannon running an offense that was as efficient at getting into the end zone as any. Lechler's leg didn't get much back then, a time he fondly recalls as "the good ol' days."

Over the last five years, though, his talent has bubbled to the top. Over the past four years Oakland's offense has been more miss than hit, yet Lechler was always there to bail his teammates out. It's amazing, really, when you consider that as bad as times have been for the Raiders, they probably would have been twice as bad if not more had Lechler not been around to kick them out of trouble.

No other player has meant more to Oakland since 2002 than Lechler. No player has been more productive, been to more Pro Bowls or been more critical on a weekly basis.

Yet it's very possible, some would even say highly likely, that Lechler's locker will have a new occupant next season. On Feb. 27, Oakland's punter will become a free agent for the first time in his career and is expected to draw major interest on the open market. The Raiders believe there's enough of a risk of losing Lechler to another team that they took the extraordinary steps of signing a backup punter with about a month left in the regular season even though Lechler was as healthy as ever. Forget that it's a punter no one has heard of. Interim head coach Tom Cable said it was a precautionary move and that the Raiders intend to address Lechler's situation in the offseason.

But that's no guarantee. The team has more pressing concerns elsewhere, particularly along the offensive and defensive lines and at wide receiver. Punters and kickers are more often seen as accessories, pieces that can be dropped and added on a whim.

Lechler, however, is no accessory. For the Raiders he's been a major component and the one solid, steady source of optimism for a franchise that has been on the rocks lately. Letting him go would be a major mistake.

For now, though, his locker remains empty.

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