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Inside The NFL

Dec. 03, 2001
Dec. 03, 2001

Table of Contents
Dec. 3, 2001

Si Adventure

Inside The NFL

Giving Ground
The Raiders must show they can stop the run if they expect to
win a championship

This is an article from the Dec. 3, 2001 issue Original Layout

Minutes after his team's 28-10 win over the Giants on Sunday,
subdued Raiders defensive tackle Darrell Russell sat alone in a
corner of the visitors' locker room, peeling his soaked uniform
from his body. While the monsoonlike conditions in Giants
Stadium could have sapped the joy from even the most satisfying
of victories--this was Oakland's 10th straight win over an NFC
opponent and left the Raiders (8-2) tied with Pittsburgh for the
AFC's best record--the weather had little to do with Russell's
mood. After New York running back Tiki Barber had rushed for 124
yards on only 19 carries, and two weeks after Seattle's Shaun
Alexander had torched Oakland for 266 yards, Russell was loath
to discuss the Raiders' chief cause for concern these days: the
defense's inability to stop the run.

"There's not much we can do, other than fill the gaps," Russell
said with a shrug. "We don't really have time to think about it.
We can't be scared out there. We're not perfect, but we're
taking baby steps. We're improving."

Not exactly the most inspiring of rallying cries, but no matter.
Although Oakland came in with the NFL's 21st-ranked rushing
defense and had been surrendering 21.2 points per game, the
Raiders raced to a 21-3 halftime lead against the Giants and
were never seriously challenged. Still, the game didn't feel
like a blowout, due largely to Oakland's defensive lapses. Blown
coverages, ineffective early blitzes and shoddy tackling
abounded. "Our defense needs to stop playing to the level of the
competition," Raiders free safety Anthony Dorsett said before
the game. "We do what we need to do to win instead of
dominating. Everybody's talked about [playing tougher], but I
don't think we've committed to it."

If Sunday's third quarter was any indication, Oakland still has
a way to go. Instead of putting the clamps on a defeated
opponent, the Raiders allowed New York to retain possession for
more than 10 minutes. Running the ball at will, the Giants
briefly made a game of it, narrowing the gap to 21-10 with 4:10
left in the quarter. It was the sort of uninspired stretch that
has critics questioning the focus and urgency of an Oakland unit
that too often in recent weeks has forced its offense to be
nearly perfect.

The Raiders especially need more consistent play from the
complicated Russell, a nimble, line-plugging force as talented
as he is mercurial. After four rocky seasons in which he was
twice named to the Pro Bowl while being tagged as a sometimes
pouty underachiever, Russell, the second pick in the 1997 draft,
was suspended by the NFL for this season's first four games for
a second violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. He
was not permitted to practice with the team--the Raiders tried
to trade him to the Jets in October--and Oakland coach Jon
Gruden didn't start him against the Colts upon his Oct. 14
return, which, Russell says, hurt him deeply.

A meeting on Nov. 13, two days after the Seattle debacle,
cleared the air. "I asked him what I had to do to start, and he
told me I had to practice harder, make fewer mistakes, make my
weight," Russell says. "He didn't disrespect me, so I was open
to hearing it."

"To do what we want to do," says Gruden, "we need guys like
Darrell Russell to step up big."

Injuries and a lack of depth along the line make a focused
Russell more important than ever for Oakland. Team leader Trace
Armstrong, who had 16 1/2 sacks for the Dolphins a year ago,
ruptured his Achilles tendon on Sept. 30 and is lost for the
season. In addition, All-Pro cornerback Charles Woodson, the
only bright spot in a suspect secondary, has played in obvious
pain with turf toe since early November.

The offense, led by the ageless Rich Gannon, has shown few signs
of slippage. If Oakland is to survive into late January, though,
it will be because Russell--and the rest of his unit--followed
the offense's lead. "I look at it this way," Russell said on
Sunday as the locker room emptied into the rain-swept night. "We
aren't peaking yet. That's good, because we will. You know we
will."

--Josh Elliott

Chandler Rocks on Road
Home Away From Home

The first couple of boos for Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler
typically come after his second or third incompletion in a home
game, and they grow into a smattering if he throws an
interception. When he turns in a performance like the
three-interception day he had against the Bears on Oct. 7, the
boos multiply wildly and bounce off the walls and ceiling of the
Georgia Dome. If you think a tough home crowd doesn't affect
hardened pros, check the numbers: At home Chandler is 1-3 and
has completed 55% of his passes, with five touchdowns and six
interceptions. On the road he's 4-1 and has completed 62% of his
throws, with seven scores and three interceptions.

"On the road you expect to be booed," Chandler, in his fifth
year at Atlanta's helm, says. "At home it's become pretty
convenient to boo me. I think I'm going to start getting blamed
for bad officiating. It's been tough to overcome."

The past 12 months have been tumultuous for the well-traveled
Chandler, an efficient but brittle player for most of his 14 NFL
seasons. Late last year Chandler landed in coach Dan Reeves's
doghouse, getting benched for a pair of starts because of poor
performance and lackluster preparation. "It reminded me what a
privilege it is to play in the NFL," says Chandler, "and
rekindled my love for the game."

Chandler adopted his most aggressive off-season regimen in
years. Still, when the Falcons traded up to select quarterback
Michael Vick with the first pick in last April's draft, Chandler
was reminded that no matter how hard he worked, his days as a
starter in Atlanta were numbered. Following a good training
camp, Chandler was told by Reeves that Vick would play portions
of games. It was a smart way to give the kid seasoning, yet it
was weird nonetheless: In September, Chandler was getting pulled
despite being the league's top-rated quarterback at the time.

Then came the November ups and downs. During a Nov. 4 loss to
the Patriots, Chandler's wife, Diane, took exception when fans
in the players' family section at the Georgia Dome cheered after
Chris was injured. (He suffered a rib injury and missed one
game.) Two weeks later Chris played one of the best games of his
career, at Lambeau Field, throwing for 352 yards and two
touchdowns in leading Atlanta to a 23-20 upset of the heavily
favored Packers.

"What happened in the New England game has been misinterpreted,"
says Chandler. "The people causing problems were not family
members of Falcons' players, as far as we could determine. Diane
turned around and told them not to cheer for an injury. Now a
big part of me is against Diane going to the games. It makes it
hard. Shouldn't the safest and most supportive place in the
stadium be the players' family section? I'd rather not be
thinking about what's going on in the stands, but when something
like that happens, you can't avoid it."

Thus Chandler now enjoys life on the road, even in a tough place
to win like Lambeau. "For a football player, playing there's
like a golfer playing the British Open," says Chandler. "I was
very, very proud of the win, but I've been in the league long
enough to know that next week is the only thing that matters."

In Chandler's case the next game was another road game, a 10-7
win over the Panthers on Sunday that improved the Falcons'
record to 6-4 and left them in the thick of the NFC playoff
chase. Chandler completed 14 passes in 27 attempts and didn't
turn the ball over. "The road," Chandler says, "has become a
safe haven."

Dolphins' Deep Threat
Chambers Gives Offense a Lift

It's amazing to see Dolphins rookie wideout Chris Chambers
listed at 5'11" and 210 pounds. Watch him play, and he looks
6'2" and 220. He plays big--not as big as Terrell Owens, but
Michael Irvin big--and he's bulkier than the former Cowboys
star. In fact, after watching Chambers, a second-round draft
pick out of Wisconsin, speed down the sideline and pluck balls
out of the air during training camp, coach Dave Wannstedt said,
"He reminds me of Michael Irvin--with really good speed."

When his number has been called of late, Chambers has been
flashing that speed. He had touchdown catches of 74 and 29 yards
in a win at Indianapolis on Nov. 11, and on Sunday in Buffalo he
and quarterback Jay Fiedler rallied the Dolphins from a 10-point
deficit in the final five minutes, hooking up on touchdowns of
22 and 32 yards in a 34-27 Miami win. For the season he has
caught 28 passes for 569 yards.

Chambers gives the Dolphins the field-stretching threat they
have lacked over the last few years. "Chris wants the ball,"
Fiedler said after the game, "and as long as he keeps proving he
deserves it, I'll give it to him."

My Two Cents
Wake-up Calls for Moss, Manning

1. Vikings wideout Randy Moss looked as if he had turned things
around with his spectacular performance in the Monday-night
spotlight against the Giants on Nov. 19. But I hope his peers
saw his listless effort against the Bears on Sunday night. It
will be a joke if he gets voted into the Pro Bowl.

2. Kudos to Colts coach Jim Mora for criticizing Peyton
Manning--albeit indirectly--for his four-interception afternoon
in a 40-21 loss to the Niners on Sunday. Manning's mechanics
appear to be messed up, and he's floating the ball too often
instead of cutting it loose.

Send your pro football questions for Peter King's mailbag and
read more from Paul Zimmerman at cnnsi.com/football.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Slingin' in the rain Giants quarterback Kerry Collins loses his grip because Raiders Rod Coleman and William Thomas don't lose theirs in Oakland's 28-10 win (page 78). [Leading Off]COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER Russell (96) bottled up Barber at times, but the Giants' back still ran for 124 yards and a touchdown.COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKESCOLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Chandler enjoyed his finest hour while leading Atlanta to victory at Lambeau Field.

the football Beat

WORD ASSOCIATION
With Titans offensive lineman Bruce Matthews (left), the NFL
record holder for games played by a nonkicker

SI: Longevity.

Matthews: Lou Gehrig. Cal Ripken. I admire their commitment. God
gave me the health and ability to play a long time.

SI: Playing at 40.

Matthews: I look at our roster and see some guys who were born
my senior year in high school. I tell guys I played with our
coach [Jeff Fisher] in college at USC, and they're amazed. They
can't believe Jeff played DB in college. They don't picture
that, at some point of his life, Jeff was a normal person.

SI: Houston Oilers.

Matthews: Glory days. So much fun to come to work every day. I
still enjoy the game, but it's different. I think: Not playing
anymore wouldn't be too bad.

SI: Toughest guy to block.

Matthews: My brother. [Clay, a former Browns linebacker, faced
Bruce 23 times.] I was playing left tackle in '86, and he beat
me for a sack of Warren Moon and fell on the back of [running
back] Mike Rozier's leg, knocking him out with a knee injury the
rest of the year.

SI: Retirement.

Matthews: After this season? I don't know. For a long time I had
a sense of panic about not playing. Now I'm at peace about it. I
want to spend time with my six kids. I think I'd like to
coach--high school, nothing higher.

SI: What you'll miss.

Matthews: Going into a hostile environment against great
competition. And conquering everything to win. There is nothing
like it in any other line of work I know of.

SI: Football epitaph.

Matthews: Played hard. Played fair.

MATCH GAME
Patriots-Jets: The NFL's cousin to Red Sox-Yankees is renewed

Five years after Bill Parcells abandoned the Patriots to coach
the Jets, three years after Bill Belichick resigned his day-old
job as Jets coach to jump to the Patriots and 10 weeks after
Jets linebacker Mo Lewis hospitalized New England quarterback
Drew Bledsoe with a vicious hit, Matt Light and the Patriots
journey down I-95 for their annual lovefest in the Meadowlands.
Why highlight Light? During last April's draft New England
player-personnel director Scott Pioli--the son-in-law of
Parcells and a former Jets front-office exec--discovered his old
team was hot for the Iowa guard. So the Patriots traded one spot
ahead of New York and grabbed him.

HISTORY BOOK
Nov. 28, 1948: A remarkable road trip keys a perfect season

Cleveland coach Paul Brown wanted a perfect season in the
All-America Football Conference pretty badly because no NFL or
AAFC team had finished with an unblemished record. However, the
10-0 Browns would have to navigate one tough road trip: Nov. 21
at the two-time Eastern Division champ New York Yankees; Nov. 25
at the Los Angeles Dons; and Nov. 28 at the San Francisco 49ers,
their bitter rivals. Cleveland won by 13 in New York and 17 in
Los Angeles, but star passer Otto Graham wrenched a knee in L.A.
and was limping against the Niners. "The 49ers coach told his
guys, 'Don't hit Graham below the knee. We want to beat them
with Graham so they won't have any excuses,'" Browns center
Frank Gatski recalled last week. Graham rallied Cleveland from a
21-10 deficit with three touchdown passes. The Browns, 14-0 in
the regular season, routed the Buffalo Bills 49-7 in the AAFC
title game.

Dispatches

Quarterback Tom Brady is getting most of the headlines in New
England, but running back Antowain Smith is quietly having a big
year too. Smith, a first-round pick of the Bills in 1997 who was
released in the off-season, had 111 yards on 24 carries in a win
over the Saints on Sunday, pushing his season total to 721
yards. Smith, who's playing on a one-year deal, has run for more
than 100 yards in three of his last four games.... The 49ers
have won each of the four games they've trailed at halftime this
year. The reason? "Jeff Garcia," says the glue of the Niners'
line, guard Ray Brown, speaking of his quarterback. "The way
he's playing convinces us we're never out of a game." ...Last
season Baltimore allowed 165 points, an NFL record for a 16-game
season. Through 10 games this year the Ravens had given up 166.
Then on Sunday they couldn't hold a 17-0 third-quarter lead and
had to eke out a 24-21 win over the Jaguars.... The Giants
aren't getting their money's worth out of cornerback Jason
Sehorn, signed to a $6 million-a-year deal in the off-season.
Both the Rams and the Vikings went after him instead of New
York's two rookie corners, and Sehorn is making far too many
mental errors for a veteran.... On Nov. 18 the Ravens' Shannon
Sharpe made his 663rd catch to set the NFL record for receptions
by a tight end. But watch out for the Chiefs' Tony Gonzalez, who
has caught 311 passes in his first 73 games. At the same stage
of his career Sharpe had 212 receptions. And to think Gonzalez
is only 25.... The Titans have gone from being Eddie George's
team to Steve McNair's. Over the last four games McNair has
completed 65% of his throws and looked forceful, while the
ground game has struggled. "We may have to throw first, run
second," admits coach Jeff Fisher.