Does Speed Kill?

The Raiders have a team of track stars, but can they play football?
August 08, 1993

What is Al Davis doing? He signed an undrafted kid named James Jett and is now negotiating with Rocket Ismail. Does he think that by assembling all this supersonic-sounding equipment in Los Angeles he can somehow restore the Southland's sagging aerospace industry? It has been several years since the local economy has benefited from such rocketry. And here's Davis bringing anybody with an aerodynamic name to the Raiders.

Actually, that's what Davis always does, sign fast people. This year he just happens to be interested in people who sound every bit as fast as they are. But, really, what is a Davis camp without sprint champions and Olympic medalists? Teaming Jett with Rocket, who left the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League to dicker with Davis, simply adds two more legs to what is the most extraordinary relay team ever to play pro football.

Willie Gault, an 11th-year pro who has been catching Raider passes for six seasons, is a college dash and high hurdles champion who made the 1980 Olympic team as a sprinter. Sam Graddy, in his fifth year with L.A., won a gold medal in the 4 X 100-meter relay and finished second in the 100 meters to Carl Lewis in the '84 Olympics. The list goes on. Fourth-year receiver Alexander Wright, an All-America sprinter at Auburn, has won the NFL's Fastest Man contest the last two years. Cornerback Terry McDaniel was an SEC champion dash man at Tennessee and still holds the school record for 300 meters.

To this bunch Davis has added two rookies, right off the 1992 Olympic team. The wonderfully named, if largely unnoticed, Jett was a gold medalist on the 4 X 100-meter relay team. Cornerback James Trapp, a third-round draft choice, was an alternate on that same relay team. And maybe there'll be Ismail, who can hang with any of these guys.

It's a freakish team. "There are lots of fast football players," says Gault. "It's become a speed game. But there's speed and there's elite speed. As far as elite speed, the league's got about a dozen such players. We have half of them."

This is not necessarily an advantage. Of those six, only Gault and McDaniel have made any kind of impact. But, as far as Davis is concerned, speed is the way to go.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Davis was intrigued by both the Yankees and the Dodgers. "The Yankees had power, size, and created fear," he says. "The Dodgers believed in speed and in development; they were willing to take chances. For the Raiders, I wanted both. I never could understand why you couldn't have both."

Speed means big plays and sudden strikes that demoralize opponents with their swiftness. Having speed puts tremendous pressure on defenses. Davis believes that his sprinters don't have to catch the ball to be dangerous. Their presence is electric enough to alter a game's dynamics, moving the defense off the line and creating space for an offense. "Speed," says Davis, "is an integral part of fear. As you know, we've always said we'd rather be feared than respected."

Davis was The Citadel's chief recruiter in 1955, when he landed an All-America sprinter out of Philadelphia named Angelo Coia. Coia enjoyed a seven-year career in the NFL and, not at all incidentally, is now a scout for the Raiders. The bias of the personnel department toward speed—Kent McCloughan, a former Raider cornerback, is another scout who was a high school All-America in track—is as natural as it is mandated. To this day, part of a Raider scouting report is a workup on the player's high school track experience.

This emphasis doesn't always pay off. Bo Roberson was a silver medalist in the 1960 Games in the long jump, and although Davis kept him on the Raiders for four seasons, he is not remembered as having been anything more than a "complement" to the offense. Jimmy Hines, one of those sensational sprinters that came out of Texas in the '60s, was picked up by Davis even though his nickname was Ooops! and two other teams had dropped him. In the end, Davis could find no better use for Hines than to fly him to camp every Wednesday, dress him, report him to the league as being there for a try-out and use him during one practice to challenge his cornerbacks. "You could do that back then," says Al LoCasale, Davis's longtime assistant. Well, the Raiders could.

But what do you say then of Cliff Branch? He was an Olympic-level sprinter who languished until the fourth round of the 1972 draft before Davis's scouts finally pulled the trigger. "Took two years to get him ready," says Davis. Branch ended his career with 501 catches, second only in Raider history to Fred Biletnikoff, a more stolid receiver, something that Davis was always sure to have as well.

Gault was not a project. Despite his track credentials he was first and foremost a football player. His first year out of Tennessee was one of his best as a pro. He caught 40 passes for 836 yards for the Chicago Bears, who had drafted him in the first round.

McDaniel, an All-Pro cornerback, is another player who was never much of an experiment. Initially a wide receiver, he was converted to defense his sophomore season at Tennessee. He ended up becoming an All-America and the Raiders' first-round draft choice in 1988.

Others, though, either by their nature or their experience, are track men who are under development. Graddy, yet another Vol, insists he is a football person but admits the sheer lack of repetitions has handicapped him. In fact, he only made the Tennessee team as a walk-on. And despite subsequently breaking the world record in the 60-yard dash, he couldn't shake loose for more than three catches his senior year. The Denver Broncos signed him, but the Raiders got him on the rebound and tried to shape him into another Branch. The project is in its fifth year, and it appeared to be nearing a payoff last season when Graddy became a starter. But almost immediately he broke his arm.

Graddy, who has never caught more than 10 passes in a season as a pro, is determined to make the most of his opportunity. He works before and after practice with Biletnikoff, who's now the Raiders' receivers coach, on his pass catching. "I accomplished all my track and field goals," says Graddy. "Now it's time to play football, to do the thing I've always felt I'm best at. I think I've become smart enough, I can beat guys, I know how to score." This could be the year Graddy finds out if he's nearing the finish line or the finished line.

Another wideout doesn't protest so much about his pedigree. Wright admits that he was almost always a novelty item. He caught only three or four passes in high school. His true worth, which got him a scholarship to Auburn, was that he could cover anybody one-on-one. So Auburn recruited him as a defensive back, and the fun began.

"You see," says Wright, "I don't have that hitting ability. One-on-one [with a receiver], fine. But a big back comes up? I'd give him the 'olè.' I mean, [Auburn teammate] Bo Jackson's coming up on me, and what do you think my instinct is? Move! Bo smashed over me a few times. All the good ones did."

The conversion to wide receiver took some years. Wright didn't show anybody anything until his senior season. But he showed enough that the Dallas Cowboys drafted him in the second round, and he became a threat returning kickoffs, two for TDs in each of his first two seasons. He believes, as does Graddy, that Davis's patience is about to return dividends. "I'm controlling that speed; I'm harnessing it," says Wright. "Oh, I'm looking to have a big year."

Davis is especially fascinated with Jett, a 5'10", 165-pounder from West Virginia who dropped clean through the draft. Davis can't believe he's alone in his fascination, but being alone in his beliefs has never caused Davis self-doubt. Jett had a little of it, though. His college career began with a few dropped passes, and he admits he "let the criticism get into my helmet." That was unfortunate, because he thought of himself more as a football player than as a track star. "Track," he says, "is not something you like. Who likes to run? Practice for football is totally different. It's fun."

Of course, all the warp speed in the world doesn't matter if the offensive threat is just a blurry bluff. These guys have to catch the ball, cover their man. In last Saturday's Hall of Fame game with the Green Bay Packers, this was not always done. Trapp, the rookie cornerback, was pleased with his performance but somewhat stunned by the size of the backs he was asked to bring down. "I'm just 183 pounds," he said, explaining his sudden discovery of the shoestring tackle. "I can't bring that much funk to the job."

As for Jett, he dropped a pair of catchable balls over the middle, at that inevitable point of impact, and was ushered off the field by a consoling Jeff Hostetler, the team's new quarterback.

Neither the Olympians nor the Fastest Man in the NFL altered the game, which the Raiders won 19-13. Gault had somehow dipped to third in the depth chart, although he grabbed a couple of passes. Jett caught none. Graddy made a pair of tough catches. Wright made one. Nine other Raiders caught passes.

The most interesting of these receivers turned out to be wideout Charles Jordan, who not only was not an Olympian but also was barely a collegian. Out of football since 1988, when he dropped out of Long Beach City College his freshman season, Jordan was known principally as a cook at 'Lil Rascals, a soul food restaurant in South Central Los Angeles. But, for some reason, at age 23, Jordan began paying his way to scout camps. He went to three last year, shelling out $95 for each one, and then got the Raiders' pro scouting director, George Karras, to offer him a contract.

So there Jordan was last Saturday, making the game's biggest reception, bouncing off a defender and into the end zone for a 24-yard score. Suddenly everyone wanted to know more about Charles Jordan. You could overhear him telling his story, about how back at Morningside High School he was the Los Angeles schoolboy champion in both the 200 meters and the 100....

Somewhere, you supposed, Davis was smirking.

PHOTOCARL SKALAKGault has fast feet, but they didn't always land where he wanted them to against Green Bay. PHOTOCARL SKALAKWright, the NFL's Fastest Man, and Jett (below), a gold medalist, didn't find many open lanes. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above.] PHOTOJOHN BIEVERRaider Daryl Hobbs may not be an Olympian, but he showed Hall of Fame form in Canton.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)