Last Thursday night Oakland Raiders guards Mo Collins and Frank
Middleton relaxed at The End Zone, a dimly lit bar wedged into a
narrow strip mall near Network Associates Coliseum. It's an
intimate place, owned by former Raiders running back Clem
Daniels, where the waitresses chide patrons, hip-hop music blares
from the jukebox, and the gregarious players never have to worry
about being treated like stars. They affectionately refer to The
End Zone as "the black Cheers," and it's the type of haven any
Raider would appreciate these days. As Middleton says, "There's a
lot of tension around this team."
Apparently still trying to come to grips with a 48-21 loss to the
Tampa Bay Buccaneers in last January's Super Bowl, Oakland fell
to 2-4 on Sunday with a 13-7 loss to the Cleveland Browns. "It
doesn't seem like it's the same team," says Denver Broncos
defensive end Bert Berry, whose team rolled over the Raiders
31-10 in Week 3. "It's one thing to lose a Super Bowl, it's
another thing to be destroyed. And they were really destroyed."
The NFL's top-rated offense in 2002 is now one of the league's
worst. Oakland came out of the game against Cleveland ranked 26th
in total offense, 31st in third-down efficiency (26.0%) and 32nd
in time of possession (25:57). On Sunday the Raiders' offense
gained only 254 yards, converted 3 of 12 third downs and
committed 11 of the team's 19 penalties. (Oakland leads the NFL
in penalties, with 67.) The defense, ranked 28th in the league,
isn't any better.
"There's no camaraderie on this team," says Middleton. "We have
too many vets who go their separate ways and too many people who
don't know each other outside of football. [Quarterback Rich]
Gannon is trying. Tim Brown is trying. Jerry Rice is trying. But
we need more of a family concept. When times get hard, we need to
be fighting for each other."
October 19, 2003
Instead, they're fighting with each other. In the game against
the Broncos, on Monday Night Football, Gannon went to the
sideline after one series and ripped into offensive coordinator
Marc Trestman as a national television audience looked on.
Many critics trace the Raiders' troubles to age. (They are the
league's oldest team, with an average age of 28.4.) But there are
other factors at play, primarily injuries. Right tackle Lincoln
Kennedy missed Sunday's game with a torn calf, and Collins sat
out with an injured knee. Middleton tore his right quadriceps in
the first quarter and could be lost for the season. The offense
also misses wide receiver Jerry Porter (sidelined since the
season opener with a hernia and the ensuing surgery), whose deep
speed creates space for Brown and Rice to run crossing routes.
Furthermore, Gannon's timing in the short-passing game has been
disrupted by speed rushers and constant blitzing. In fact, Rice
says opponents have become so familiar with the Oakland offense
that they're calling out plays before the snap.
Raiders coach Bill Callahan has responded by revising his
playbook and making a greater commitment to the running game, but
as the loss to Cleveland showed, the meltdown continues. "Every
other team has put a star by us on their schedule, and we're just
going through the motions," Middleton says. "Until we get mad and
completely frustrated, it will continue to be a slaughter for us
out there." --Jeffri Chadiha
"Until we get mad and frustrated," Middleton says, "it will
continue to be a slaughter for us."