Just Winning, Baby With a last-minute victory over the archrival Chiefs, the surprising 5-1 Raiders showed that they are once again a force to be reckoned with

October 22, 2000

You take off your shoes upon entering Andre Rison's penthouse
apartment along the Oakland waterfront, depositing your kicks
into an assemblage of spanking fresh Jordans, Doc Marten
sandals, suede Oakley uppers and spit-shined Bruno Maglis. Then
you follow the Oakland Raiders' large-living wideout to his
killer balcony, from which you can spot the coolest sights of
the East Bay: Lake Merritt, the Bay and Golden Gate bridges, the
Berkeley Hills and the Oakland Coliseum. Peering down on his
seventh NFL city in 12 seasons, shouting out to the assortment
of homies, musicians and teammates in his apartment, Rison
serves up a taste of the trademark rhetoric that accompanies his
every move. "Man, other teams have problems," he says
emphatically. "Every year you hear how the Raiders have so much
talent, but they don't know how to win. Well, guess what: Now we
know. If we stay focused--and we will, because Jon Gruden won't
have it any other way--we could be a dynasty in the making."

Whoa, Dre! It's only October, and the Raiders haven't been to the
playoffs since 1993. On the other hand, in Kansas City on Sunday,
Oakland took another step in a wholly unexpected direction,
defeating the Chiefs 20-17 on rookie kicker Sebastian (Seabass)
Janikowski's 43-yard field goal with 25 seconds to go. Lift your
eye patches, shamed Raiders fans, and check it out: This formerly
gutless team, which leads the AFC West with a 5-1 record, seems
to have recaptured its pride and poise.

Oakland now wins close games and never quits--and who saw this
coming? For the last half-decade the Raiders' penchant for
folding was an NFL certainty, like Jimmy Johnson's hair and the
Bengals' ineptitude. Oakland's locker room during the mid-1990s
featured such inspirational sights as a player fielding a
cell-phone call minutes before kickoff. Now, thanks to the
prodding of Gruden, the Raiders' feisty 37-year-old coach, and
Rich Gannon, their irascible 34-year-old quarterback, the men in
silver and black have filled out their uniforms in a very
significant way. "I guess we grew some balls," says cornerback
Darrien Gordon. "Guys have really bought into what Gruden's
selling."

When he hired Gruden in January 1998, Raiders managing general
partner Al Davis knew he was getting one of the league's bright
young offensive minds. What Davis couldn't have known was that
Gruden's brash, hyper, ribald and relentless leadership style
would captivate a locker room. Unlike his immediate predecessors,
Mike White and Joe Bugel, Gruden has never evinced fear of
incurring Davis's wrath, instead projecting an attitude insiders
describe as: I know I'm good, and if I get fired, someone else
will snap me up. It's hard to quantify Gruden's appeal, though
Rison comes closer than most: "He don't take no s---, and he know
his s---."

Following his first season Gruden found a kindred spirit to carry
out his program. He jettisoned strong-armed quarterback Jeff
George and pried Gannon, a lightly regarded free agent, from
Kansas City. Gruden's and Gannon's pursuit of perfection has
seeped down to the lower reaches of the Oakland food chain. While
Gannon played a near-flawless game against the Chiefs, completing
28 of 33 passes for 244 yards and scrambling for 38 more, and
high-profile performers such as Janikowski, wideout Tim Brown
(five catches, 89 yards) and cornerback Charles Woodson came up
big with the game on the line, the biggest play of all--for the
second week in a row--was made by free safety Anthony Dorsett, a
fifth-year veteran best known for his father's football exploits.

Two Sundays ago Dorsett set up the Raiders' 34-28 victory over
the San Francisco 49ers by blocking Wade Richey's 29-yard field
goal attempt in overtime. Midway through the fourth quarter of
Sunday's game, with the score tied at 17, Dorsett stripped the
ball from Kansas City rookie wideout Sylvester Morris as Morris
struggled for a first down at the Oakland 11-yard line. After the
game Dorsett, who signed with the Raiders in the off-season after
four years with the Tennessee Titans, dared to compare his
current team to his former one. The Titans, after three
consecutive 8-8 seasons, won the 1999 AFC title and nearly upset
the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV. Dorsett insisted that
Oakland, which went 8-8 in each of Gruden's first two seasons,
possesses that kind of potential. "There's no doubt this team is
equal in talent," Dorsett said. "It's just a matter of matching
the mentality we had in Tennessee, that no matter who we played
or what was going on, we'd find a way to win."

Last year Oakland suffered each of its eight defeats by a
touchdown or less. But in their season finale, against the Chiefs
at Arrowhead, the Raiders, with nothing to play for, reinvented
themselves and restored some semblance of balance to a
contentious rivalry. Kansas City, needing a victory to make the
playoffs, jumped to an early 17-0 lead. However, the Raiders, who
had lost 17 of their previous 19 games to K.C., fought back to
prevail 41-38 in overtime and haven't lost a close game since.
"The Chiefs always used to say that if they could keep the game
close, we'd fold," Oakland guard Steve Wisniewski said after
Sunday's game. "For two games in a row now we've kept it close,
and they were the ones who folded."

The Raiders' transformation is no great mystery to the Chiefs.
"It's Rich Gannon," K.C. running back Kimble Anders says. "They
had a great plan: Keep it close and let Rich win it in the last
two minutes, because he'll find a way to get it done." Esteemed
more for his intangible qualities than for his physical skills,
Gannon was an Evian-pure passer on Sunday, completing 84.8% of
his throws--the third-highest single-game percentage ever for an
NFL quarterback with at least 30 attempts.

In what was probably the best game of his 13-year career, he
spread the riches, completing at least two passes to each of
eight receivers, and saved his biggest pass for his most reliable
target. With 11:20 remaining and Oakland facing a fourth-and-one
from the K.C. 35, Gannon faked a handoff to Tyrone Wheatley and
turned to throw a short pass to fullback Jon Ritchie (seven
catches, 48 yards). Ritchie was covered, and Gannon slipped away
from defensive tackle Chester McGlockton before side-arming an
up-for-grabs pass downfield toward Brown, who outmaneuvered
rookie safety Greg Wesley to catch it at the three. Two plays
later Gannon tied the game by throwing his second touchdown pass,
a seven-yarder to Wheatley.

If Kurt Warner is the NFL's unlikeliest starting quarterback,
Gannon, who made his first Pro Bowl last season, is No. 2. After
playing at Delaware, Gannon was picked in the fourth round of the
1987 draft by the New England Patriots, who never gave him a real
shot at quarterback. He remembers a predraft visit from Oakland's
Chet Franklin, who's now a personnel executive for the Raiders
but at the time was an assistant coach. "He had me run a 40, but
when he asked me to do a couple of [backpedaling] drills, I
started to get the picture," Gannon says. When he learned that
Franklin was the Raiders' defensive backs coach, Gannon, intent
on playing quarterback, ended the session.

Now, after stints with the Minnesota Vikings, the Washington
Redskins and the Chiefs, Gannon has evolved from journeyman to
foreman. When he arrived in Oakland, he chafed at what he
considered the sloppy practice habits of some of his teammates
and wasn't shy about voicing his criticism. "Guys would walk out
to the field a couple of minutes after the whistle blew," he
says. "To me, that was shocking."

Midway through last season, after throwing several incompletions
during a red-zone drill, Gannon, upset that some receivers didn't
know their assignments, hurled his helmet across the field. That
earned him a trip to the coach's office, but Gruden could relate.
Says Gannon, "We have a lot of similarities--we're competitive,
stubborn, and we seek perfection."

Gruden, says Rison, "has the authority of a head coach, but at
times seems more like a teammate." He lets players call him
Gru--for comparison's sake, imagine a Jacksonville Jaguar
addressing his coach as Cough--and has a sense of humor. "He's a
coach you can relate to," Gordon says, "as opposed to those
fossils who make you do everything their way and won't listen to
players."

Following the Niners game, in which Janikowski, Oakland's
first-round draft pick last spring, missed a pair of late field
goals, Gru had plenty to say to Janikowski, who until Sunday had
not made a kick from 40 yards or more. While reaffirming his
faith in the strong-legged kicker from Poland, Gruden questioned
his focus. After Janikowski was wide left from 47 and 59 yards on
Sunday (the latter try, which came at the end of the first half,
had plenty of distance), it looked as though Seabass might be
cooked. But Janikowski settled down with a slower approach in the
second half and connected from 47 and 43 yards.

Like his young kicker, Gruden made big progress on Sunday. "I
only lost my wits about seven times," he said, laughing, "as
opposed to my normal count of eight." His biggest tantrum was an
expletive-filled rebuke of his wideouts in response to several
missed assignments in the second quarter. "But the great thing
is," says Rison, "he turned around later in the game, flashed
that little smirk and said, 'You know, that's just me. I don't
mean anything by it.'"

Though Rison had a quiet performance in his return to Kansas
City, catching only two passes against the team that released him
in August, he made an impact when it counted most. With 38
seconds left and the Raiders on the Chiefs' 32, Rison ran a slant
from the right side and caught the ball at the 25 to set up
Janikowski's game-winning kick. Rison is embroiled in a
much-publicized court case in Kansas City over accusations that
he bounced several checks, but at that moment the only bad check
in his vicinity was rookie cornerback Pat Dennis's futile attempt
to cover the crafty Rison. "I know there are a lot of mixed
emotions about Dre, in town and in this locker room," said Kansas
City tight end Tony Gonzalez, "but he did a lot for this team's
mentality. I have nothing but love for him, because we owe him a
lot."

For all of his troubles off the field, Rison has been a strong
presence in each of the many locker rooms he has inhabited. His
indomitable persona helped jack up the Green Bay Packers, for
whom he scored the first touchdown in their Super Bowl victory in
January 1997, and later that year he energized Kansas City, which
had a league-best 13-3 record after Rison signed on. Gonzalez is
the latest in a long list of standout receivers (Jimmy Smith,
Keenan McCardell, Antonio Freeman, Derrick Mayes, Derrick
Alexander) who consider Rison a mentor. An hour after Sunday's
game, as he made his way to the Raiders' bus in the Arrowhead
parking lot, Rison got hugs from Anders, McGlockton, quarterback
Elvis Grbac and several other former teammates before stopping to
chat with Wesley. "Yo, keep ballin' like I told you," Rison
advised the rookie. "You're gonna make it across that bridge."
One Chiefs player asked Rison how he liked being in Oakland.
"We've got a great thing going, man," he said, beaming. "We're
more potent than people know."

Then Rison said goodbye, lifted his jet-black Kenneth Coles onto
the bus and headed for home.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER COVER THE Silver & Black IS BACK Rich Gannon leads the rejuvenated Raiders COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Chief inspectors Marquez Pope and Elijah Alexander (58) put a holy hurtin' on Anders as the Raiders held K.C. to 58 yards rushing for the day. COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Out of reach Napoleon Kaufman escaped the clutches of linebacker Lew Bush while sparking Oakland's ground attack. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Near perfect Gannon completed 84.8% of his passes but did have one rude encounter with McGlockton. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Getting a leg up Atoning for two earlier misses, Janikowski kicked Sunday's game-winner with 25 seconds left.

The Raider transformation is no great mystery to the Chiefs.
"It's Rich Gannon," says Anders.

After Janikowski missed two field goals against the 49ers, Gruden
questioned his focus.

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)