With one brusque stroke of his powerful left leg--and some
well-timed trash talk toward his coach--Sebastian Janikowski
persuaded his teammates that he can help them kick a very
annoying habit. More than two hours into a hot July workout in
Napa, Calif., coach Jon Gruden put the bald-headed rookie into
the ultimate pressure cooker: Make a 53-yard field goal, and the
full-pads practice will be over; miss it, and the entire team
will run gassers, a series of wind sprints known to bring
300-pound men to tears.
Long-term ramifications loomed as well. Missed field goals played
a key role in seven of Oakland's eight losses last season, and
owner Al Davis's bold response was to draft Janikowski with the
17th pick. After starring at Florida State and blowing minds at
the NFL scouting combine, Janikowski was being given a chance to
validate the hype. "I know he played in national championship
games in college and had a lot of big kicks, but I guarantee
that's as much pressure as he's ever faced," Gruden says. "He had
guys like [offensive tackle] Lincoln Kennedy and [defensive
tackles] Grady Jackson and Darrell Russell threatening to kill
him, and I took a timeout to ice him and called him a lot of foul
words for good measure."
Janikowski defiantly slammed the ball through the uprights with
yards to spare, then began ragging on Gruden while being mobbed
by relieved teammates.
A kicker with an attitude? Only in Oakland, where this renegade
and reeling franchise is perpetually trying to recapture its
pride. In the wake of last year's shameful showing in all phases
of the kicking game, Davis--the man who shocked the football world
27 years ago by using a No. 1 pick on punter Ray Guy--made the
6'2", 255-pound Janikowski the first kicker selected in the
opening round since the Saints took Russell Erxleben in 1979. The
Raiders also spent a fifth-round pick on Shane Lechler, who set
the NCAA record for career punting average (44.7 yards) at Texas
August 27, 2000
Janikowski and Lechler are kindred spirits, young men of girth
and mirth who defy the stereotype of the detached, eccentric
kicking specialist. "We're not the kind who go off to the side
and do their own thing," Janikowski says. "We hang out with
everyone, even the linebackers, and we give out as much as we
Janikowski, a native of Poland whose off-field carousing has
triggered a few legal scrapes, has been forced to take plenty of
good-natured grief from Gruden. "He claims to be a very romantic
guy with lots of class and culture, but I'm not buying it,"
Gruden says. "I tell him, 'That's a fake accent, and your name's
not really Sebastian Janikowski. You're just a guy named Sam
Smith from Vero Beach who's got us all conned.'"
Gruden got hooked on Janikowski at last February's combine in
Indianapolis, where the kicker put on a show that had coaches and
scouts buzzing. "Everyone was just amazed at his leg," recalls
Ted Sundquist, the Broncos' director of college scouting.
"There's this one drill where they have to try to clear the
crossbar from five yards back, and I've never seen a guy get the
ball up and over as easily as he did."
After being selected by the Raiders, Lechler, a 6'2" 230-pounder
with a quick release, got a call from Guy, who is considered the
greatest punter in NFL history. "Don't make people forget about
me," Guy said. The Raiders would settle for Lechler making people
forget about Leo Araguz, who ranked near the bottom of the league
in gross and net average last season. Similarly they hope
Janikowski can obliterate the memory of the past three seasons,
none of which has ended with the Raiders ranked better than 28th
in field goal accuracy.
"Last year there was a feeling of learned helplessness and
hopelessness, and that messes with your mind," says fullback Jon
Ritchie. "Kickers have a stigma of being head cases, but
'Seabass' and Shane were incredibly successful in college.
They're big guys who have that little tinge of aggression in
them, and there are times they seem to be taking it out on the
After a second consecutive 8-8 season under Gruden, the Raiders,
who haven't made the playoffs since '93, resisted the urge to
make major changes. Instead they settled for a special-teams
overhaul that extended to the coaching ranks, with Michigan
State's Bob Casullo replacing assistant Frank Gansz Jr. Casullo
has plenty of repair work to do--Oakland was second-to-last in
kickoff-return average--and the combination of Janikowski's
booming kickoffs, Lechler's prodigious hang time and fast
newcomers such as safety Anthony Dorsett could make a huge
Will that be enough to propel the Raiders to prominence? "Special
teams can set the tempo for an entire team," Lechler says. "I
think that Sebastian and I can make a big difference."
Adds Janikowski, "I know we can."
SEPT. 3 SAN DIEGO
10 at Indianapolis
OCT. 1 Open date
8 at San Francisco
15 at Kansas City
29 at San Diego
NOV. 5 KANSAS CITY
13 at Denver (Mon.)
19 at New Orleans
DEC. 3 at Pittsburgh
10 N.Y. JETS
16 at Seattle (Sat.)
1999 Record 8-8 (tied for 3rd in AFC West)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 3/11/5; defense 12/12/10
2000 Schedule strength
NFL rank: 28 (tie)
Opponents' 1999 winning percentage: .441
Games against playoff teams: 3
PLAYER TO WATCH
With 34-year-old Eric Allen having slowed considerably, the
Raiders might vault Tory James into the starting lineup at right
cornerback. Because most teams tend to throw away from Charles
Woodson, playing opposite him is a tall order--but don't tell
that to the fifth-year James. When he was 15, he used to measure
himself every day to make sure he hadn't grown too tall to play
the position he loves. "The thing back then was short, quick
corners, and some people wanted me to switch positions, but I
always felt like I could run with those guys," says James, who
prefers to be listed at 6'1" despite being nearly an inch
taller. "Then the trend shifted, and they needed someone to
cover the big wide receivers. I hit the NFL at the perfect time."
PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1999 STATISTICS
Coach: Jon Gruden
Third season with Raiders (16-16 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Rich Gannon 23 515 att. 304 comp. 59.0% 3,840 yds.
24 TDs 14 int. 86.5 rtg.
RB Tyrone Wheatley 47 242 att. 936 yds. 3.9 avg. 21 rec.
196 yds. 9.3 avg. 11 TDs
RB Napoleon Kaufman 113 138 att. 714 yds. 5.2 avg. 18 rec.
181 yds. 10.1 avg. 3 TDs
FB Jon Ritchie 287 5 att. 12 yds. 2.4 avg. 45 rec.
408 yds. 9.1 avg. 1 TD
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Tim Brown 32 90 rec. 1,344 yds. 6 TDs
WR James Jett 138 39 rec. 552 yds. 2 TDs
WR Andre Rison 247 21 rec. 218 yds. 0 TDs
TE Rickey Dudley 104 39 rec. 555 yds. 9 TDs
K S. Janikowski (R)154 47/47 XPs 23/30 FGs 116 pts.
PR Darrien Gordon 339 42 ret. 9.5 avg. 0 TDs
KR Napoleon Kaufman 113 42 ret. 19.8 avg. 0 TDs
LT Matt Stinchcomb 6'6" 300 lbs. 0 games 0 starts
LG Steve Wisniewski 6'4" 305 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Barret Robbins 6'3" 315 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Mo Collins 6'4" 330 lbs. 13 games 12 starts
RT Lincoln Kennedy 6'6" 335 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
LE Tony Bryant 16 tackles 4 sacks
LT Grady Jackson 33 tackles 4 sacks
RT Darrell Russell 43 tackles 9 sacks
RE Lance Johnstone 51 tackles 10 sacks
OLB Eric Barton 29 tackles 3 sacks
MLB Greg Biekert 136 tackles 2 sacks
OLB Elijah Alexander[**] 66 tackles 1 int.
CB Eric Allen 64 tackles 3 int.
SS Marquez Pope 93 tackles 2 int.
FS Anthony Dorsett 20 tackles 1 int.
CB Charles Woodson 61 tackles 1 int.
P Shane Lechler (R) 60 punts 46.5 avg.
 New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 139)
THE BOOK an opposing team's scout sizes up the Raiders
"They're like a sleek Ferrari whose timing is off. I know a lot
of people think this team's good, but I'll believe it when I see
it. Jon Gruden has the tools to accomplish what he's trying to
do, and they've gotten better about the penalties, but it still
seems like something's missing.... They've slipped a little on
defense, and offensively I don't think they can run the ball
down your throat. Their line isn't very mobile and has trouble
with angles.... Rich Gannon has a real good arm and moves
around; he's fine for that system.... Napoleon Kaufman is either
going all the way, or he's going right down.... Tim Brown has
lost a step, but he's still a force. James Jett is no threat.
Keep him from beating you deep and you've done your job. Maybe
Jerry Porter will be a playmaker; the guy is a physical freak
with a 44-inch vertical leap.... Darrell Russell's combination
of quickness and power is like Warren Sapp's. But when he gets
angry, he gets distracted.... Gruden has brought a new level of
focus. But when you think of the Raiders, you think 8-8."