RAIDERS 41, TITANS 24
He spends hour after hour breaking down film and drawing up
plays, immersing himself in the minutiae of offensive strategy
like a microbiologist trying to cure cancer. Yet as a 15-year
NFL veteran with an uncanny knack for survival, Oakland Raiders
quarterback Rich Gannon understands there are times when X's and
O's become secondary and the game evolves into a test of will
and vehemence. So it was that on Sunday night, with the
Tennessee Titans closing in and nearly two decades' worth of
frustration weighing heavily on a nerve-racked Raider Nation,
Gannon stared hard into the eyes of his linemen and appealed to
their basic instincts. "If we're really the Number 1 offense in
the NFL," he barked into the huddle, "we need to do something
right here, right now."
There was nothing subtle about Gannon's command. Twenty-four
seconds remained in the third quarter of the AFC Championship
Game, and like the 62,544 fans at Network Associates Coliseum,
the Raiders appeared to have lost their swagger. A 13yard
touchdown run by Tennessee's magnificent quarterback, Steve
McNair, had cut Oakland's lead to 27--24, and the prospect of a
third consecutive January meltdown loomed. Suddenly the cloudless
sky grew darker, and San Diego, site of Super Bowl XXXVII, seemed
much farther away than 450 miles to the south. To get there, to
win a conference title for the first time since January 1984 and
set up a sexy showdown with their former coach, the Raiders would
have to maul their way out of a crisis. As Oakland guard Frank
Middleton explained, "We had to take over the game."
So Gannon laid it on the line, and over the next four minutes his
burly blockers unleashed 1,600 pounds of collective fury,
spurring a nine-play, 66yard drive that reverberated across the
Hayward Fault and could be felt all the way to Tampa. By the time
Gannon cruised two yards into the end zone for the touchdown that
secured the 41-24 victory, even the vaunted defense of the NFC
champion Buccaneers had to marvel at Gannon's quintet of
protectors. "This line has been the strength of our team," said
Raiders coach Bill Callahan, a fact that Bucs counterpart Jon
Gruden--his mentor and predecessor--knows all too well.
A year ago Gruden was Oakland's highly visible leader while
Callahan, his nominal offensive coordinator, toiled in the
shadows as the line coach--football's version of the drill
sergeant. Callahan, who grew up as the son of a cop on Chicago's
gritty South Side, set the tone for the unit that in 2000
produced the NFL's top-ranked rushing attack. That season the
Raiders hosted the AFC Championship Game but got pounded by the
eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. The next year a
controversial replay reversal doomed Oakland in an AFC
divisional playoff game against the New England Patriots, who
went on to win it all. Tampa Bay then pried Gruden from the
Raiders for $8 million and four high draft picks, and Oakland
owner Al Davis gave Callahan, 46, his first head coaching job.
By midseason Callahan committed to a pass-first philosophy that
reached its apex on Sunday, when, discounting Gannon's
improvisational scrambles, the Raiders ran once in the first
three quarters. Conventional wisdom suggests a team must be able
to run to win in the playoffs, but as Middleton said, "That
wisdom is a bunch of bulls---."
Eighth-year center Barret Robbins, who earned his first Pro Bowl
trip this season, is the key to the line's success. So surly that
some teammates avoid speaking to him in the locker room for fear
of incurring his wrath, Robbins is nonetheless a schematic savant
who makes the blocking calls before each snap. "He's like Rain
Man with pads," says fullback Jon Ritchie. "He must have 10
eyes--I don't know how he sees it all. He may be the ideal
creation for that position."
Ritchie would get no argument from Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher.
"As soon as he snaps the ball, Robbins bursts out and seals off
one defensive tackle, and one of those big guards [Middleton or
Mo Collins] pushes the other tackle outside," Fisher said last
Saturday. "Then, even if your outside rushers get around their
tackles [Lincoln Kennedy, a Pro Bowl starter, and Barry Sims],
Gannon can step up in the pocket and have a bubble around him.
It's like they put up a giant wall that can't be budged."
On Sunday, with apologies to the costumed freaks in the
Coliseum's south end zone, the protective layer around Gannon was
like a black hole. As the Raiders drove for touchdowns on their
first two possessions, Gannon (29 for 41, 286 yards, three
touchdowns) typically had time to go through his reads, decide on
his wardrobe for San Diego and tabulate his weekly calorie
intake. He completed his first 12 passes, prompting the Titans to
revert to the blitz-happy style they employed to upset the
Jacksonville Jaguars in the '99 AFC title game. But the Raiders
After making a point of running the ball in a Nov. 3 overtime
loss to the San Francisco 49ers (Oakland's fourth straight
setback after opening the season 4-0), Callahan abandoned any
semblance of balance. Now, when the Raiders do run, it catches
opponents off guard. On Sunday scatback Charlie Garner's 18-yard
dash on the first play of the fourth quarter helped set up
Gannon's scoring scramble, and fullback Zack Crockett provided
the final touchdown on a seven-yard blast with 3:25 to go.
Then it was celebration time, and the chance to look ahead to a
Super Bowl showdown that should delight the Southern California
show-biz crowd. Yet while the Coliseum crazies rejoiced, the
Raiders exuded all the excitement of a team that had just
squeezed out a win in early October. "We haven't accomplished our
goal," Gannon said, frowning. "There's work to be done. It's
weird how it worked out, but it's not about him [Gruden], it's
about two teams."
For the Raiders, it's all about time--if Gannon continues to get
some, an intricate game becomes pretty damn simple.