Raiders Napoleon Kaufman and Tyrone Wheatley

Oakland, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas Raiders legacy of great players is long, with Napoleon Kaufman and Tyrone Wheatley among the best
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The Oakland Raiders wished running backs Napoleon Kaufman and Tyrone Wheatley both could have been with them longer, but Kaufman left early and Wheatley came late.

However, when they were together, the Silver and Black—known as a passing team from their earliest days in the American Football League in 1960—had one of the most powerful running games in football.

And they still moved the ball through the air with quarterback Rich Gannon, who had a multitude of offensive weapons at his command.

“I guess the kind of game we’re playing right now is good for the fans,” Wheatley said at the time. “But not good for them (the other team’s) defense.”

When they were together under Coach Jon Gruden some 20 years ago, Kaufman and Wheatley were known as “Thunder and Lightning,” and in 2000 the Raiders rushed for 2,470 yards or nearly 1,000 more yards than their opponents.

However, after that season, in which he was slowed by leg injuries, Kaufman announced his retirement to devote full-time to his other occupation as an ordained minister.

“For no other reason but to spend more time with his wife, their children, the community, and his ministry, Napoleon Kaufman ... has decided to hang up his cleats and move on to the next chapter in his life,” the statement released by his agent, Cameron Foster.

Only a year earlier, Kaufman signed a $6-million contract extension that included a $2.5 million signing bonus and said he was happy to be with the Raiders.

Kaufman still had $2.5 million left on his contract when he retired.

“The thought process has been in his mind for a good year,” Foster said. “He loves football, but I guess he loves ministering more.”

The 5-9, 185-pound Kaufman was selected by the Raiders in the first round (No. 18 overall) out of Washington in the 1995 NFL Draft and spent six seasons with the Silver and Black.

Kaufman is the fourth-leading rusher in Raiders history with 4,792 yards and 12 touchdowns, in addition to catching 127 passes for 1,107 yards and five scores. He also returned a kickoff 84 yards for a touchdown as a rookie in 1995.

His best season came when he rushed for 1,294 yards and six touchdowns in 1997, and he added 921 yards the next year.

“Kaufman provides big acceleration,” said Gruden, who was in his first stint as coach of the Raiders then and had both backs together. “Wheatley gives us a physical presence as a ballcarrier.”

The 6-foot, 235-pound Wheatley was selected in the first round (No. 17 overall) of the 1995 NFL Draft by the New York Giants, but was something of a disappointment, rushing for 1,280 yards and eight touchdowns while catching 33 passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns in four seasons.

Wheatley’s best season in New York came when he rushed for 583 yards and four touchdowns in 1997, and the Giants traded him to the Miami Dolphins in 1999, but he was released during training camp and signed as a free agent with the Raiders.

The Raiders brought out the best in Wheatley.

With running back Zack Crockett sidelined by a broken foot, Wheatley stepped in and rushed for 936 yards and eight touchdowns while catching 21 passes for 196 yards and three scores that season.

Wheatley was even better in 2000 when he rushed for 1,046 yards and nine touchdowns while making 20 receptions for 156 yards and one TD.

“'He’s really made our offense more varied because if you try to shut down our passing game, Tyrone can make some big runs,” Gannon said.

Hampered by shoulder and leg injuries, Wheatley had only one more big year with the Raiders, rushing for 678 yards and four touchdowns in 2003, before he retired after the 2004 season because of a severely torn hamstring.

However, he played a big role from 2000-02, when the Raiders went 33-15 during the regular season while winning three AFC West titles and were 7-3 in the playoffs, including a 48-21 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII to cap the 2002 season.

Two years earlier, the Raiders beat the Bucs, 45-0, at the Oakland Coliseum as Wheatley and Kaufman both rushed for more than 100 yards.

Unfortunately, in the Super Bowl, it was too late for both Wheatley and Kaufman—not to mention the Raiders.

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