Snap Judgment Oakland, which has the most intriguing battle in an off- season marked by quarterback flux

June 20, 2004

When the Oakland Raiders signed free-agent quarterback Kerry
Collins to a three-year, $16.8 million contract last month, many
assumed that incumbent starter Rich Gannon's days with the Silver
and Black were numbered. The 38-year-old Gannon was coming off
surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, an
injury that sidelined him for the last nine games in 2003, and
rumors had surfaced that Gannon was asked to take a pay cut from
the $7 million he is due this season. ¶ Normally a reticent
interview subject, Gannon almost jumped

through the phone during a conversation last Thursday, wanting to
get his story out. "Can I address those things?" he said. "First
of all, the Raiders have never asked me to reduce my salary. The
only time it's come up was in my end-of-the-year [talk with the]
press, when I was asked if I would take a pay cut. I said no. I
signed my contract in good faith. What am I supposed to do, run
upstairs [to the front office] and volunteer to take a pay cut?

"As far as my health goes, I don't know what to say other than
I've never felt this good throwing the ball at this stage of the
off-season. I'm stronger. I'm throwing around 100-pound dumbbells
in the weight room. What's frustrating is that the media and
football people seem to think I can't make the throws I need to
make in this offense. Show me one throw I can't make. I've got
plenty of arm.

"The fact is," Gannon continued, "I've played in a system that
didn't exploit that part of my game. I was asked to throw mostly
crosses and short stuff, but I've been at Pro Bowl practices with
Peyton Manning for three years and made the same throws as him. I
was the MVP of this league two years ago, and I believe if I'm
healthy we'll win 11, 12 games and make the playoffs--and I'll
make the Pro Bowl again."

At this stage he won't get any argument from new coach Norv
Turner, who assumed Gannon would still be throwing cautiously
this soon after rehab. Instead, in minicamps and voluntary
workouts, Turner has seen a quarterback who appears to be in
midseason form. "You're like Tommy John," Turner told Gannon
earlier this spring, referring to the former major league pitcher
who resurrected his career after undergoing groundbreaking
reconstructive surgery on his pitching arm in 1974. "It looks
like you're throwing better now than you were before."

Meanwhile, Collins, 31, is playing catch-up as he gets familiar
with Turner's system, but the coach knows he is getting a
quarterback who will run his offense efficiently. "There's not
going to be any controversy," says David Dunn, the agent for
Collins. "Kerry wasn't promised anything. They've been very
straight with him the whole way."

Oakland isn't the only team that will go into training camp next
month with its quarterback situation in limbo: The Dallas
Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, New York Giants and San Diego Chargers
are in the same boat (box, page 70). What's more, the sudden
release of almost any veteran quarterback could create a
training-camp battle elsewhere in the league, beginning with last
week's waiving of Tim Couch, the first pick in the 1999 draft, by
the Cleveland Browns. Couch is expected to land in Green Bay as
Brett Favre's understudy--unless he gets a big offer from the
Arizona Cardinals or the Chicago Bears. Arizona (Josh McCown),
Chicago (Rex Grossman) and the Baltimore Ravens (Kyle Boller)
have unproven young passers and could shake things up before the
leaves turn. Possibly available for the right price is the
Cincinnati Bengals' Jon Kitna, who was unceremoniously demoted in
March to make way for Carson Palmer, the first selection in the
2003 draft. Last season Kitna had a better completion percentage,
more touchdown passes and a higher passer rating than the New
England Patriots' Tom Brady, who won his second Super Bowl MVP
award.

Yet a most intriguing situation will play out in Oakland, where
the losing quarterbacks in the Super Bowls of 2002 (Gannon) and
2001 (Collins) will battle it out. In April, Collins was waived
by the Giants to make room for No. 1 draft choice Eli Manning,
but Collins has a strong deep arm that makes him a bona fide NFL
starter.

Gannon thinks he'll win out. "There's a chip on my shoulder," he
says. "I feel I've got something to prove. Whoever they bring in
here--whether it's Kerry or anyone else--is fine with me. I
believe I'll play for the Raiders, start for the Raiders, this
year."

No matter who's running the offense, it's sorely in need of
rejuvenation after Oakland's yards per pass attempt fell from
second in the league in 2002 (7.58 yards) to 29th last year
(5.74) under Gannon and then Rick Mirer, Marques Tuiasosopo, Tee
Martin and Rob Johnson. One reason Turner got the job was his
ability to take disparate pieces and turn them into a prolific
unit. In 1999, his last full season as coach of the Washington
Redskins, he had a quarterback with a questionable deep arm, Brad
Johnson, and a wideout corps, led by Michael Westbrook and Albert
Connell, that was devoid of a deep threat; Johnson threw for
4,005 yards, and Westbrook and Connell finished among the top
five in the league in average yards per catch.

Turner faces the same challenge in Oakland. With Jerry Porter,
Jerry Rice and Doug Gabriel, a fifth-round draft choice in 2003
out of Central Florida, likely to be the top three receivers--Tim
Brown, 38 next month, might not make the team--Oakland doesn't
have a consistent deep threat. Not to worry, says Turner, who
prefers to run more deep crosses than the intermediate routes
favored by predecessors Jon Gruden and Bill Callahan. "We don't
have to throw 40-and 50-yard bombs," he says. "I'm talking 18-,
20-, 27-yard passes, thrown with feel. I'm seeing Rich do that."

If Gannon continues to do everything Turner diagrams, he'll be
the starter for the opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers. But
if Collins gets the nod, a controversy could flare. The Raiders
aren't going to pay their backup quarterback $7 million. (Collins
got a reported $1.5 million signing bonus and has a $660,000
salary this year.) If Gannon is relegated to that role, the
Raiders almost certainly will ask him to take about a 50% salary
cut and might even release him if he balks. (At which point
Gruden, Gannon's former coach, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers,
would most likely not hesitate to stir up his own quarterback
situation by signing him.)

Collins is keeping a low profile. He knows his place in the
locker room and that this is Gannon's team until he is told
otherwise. Associates say Collins is thinking that even if he
doesn't play this year, the job will be his in 2005 and beyond.
"Coming here made sense for Kerry," Gannon says. "I'm not 28,
obviously. He sees the future."

But with Oakland owner Al Davis, the future is always now. That's
why the Raiders have found a way to make their salary cap work
with Gannon on the books at $7 million. And that's why, as Turner
said last Thursday, "the best man will play."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SHAUN BEST/REUTERS; BACKGROUND EXTENDED BY SI IMAGING WHAT HAVE YOU DONE LATELY? Gannon was the league MVP just two seasons ago, yet he must prove himself all over again in camp. COLOR PHOTO: BILL KOSTROUN/AP UP-AND-DOWN PASSER The strong-armed Collins threw for 4,073 yards in '02, but his numbers dropped off last season. COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY COLOR PHOTO: EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES COLOR PHOTO: J. PAT CARTER/AP COLOR PHOTO: JOHN CORDES/ICON SMI COLOR PHOTO: JAMES D. SMITH/ICON SMI COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT MARTIN/AP

ARM WRESTLING

The Raiders aren't the only team that is unsettled at
quarterback. With the start of camp about a month away, here are
five others.

TEAM
GIANTS
Eli Manning
Kurt Warner

THE SETUP
Truth is, no one knows if Warner (above right), a two-time league
MVP, can play anymore. Word is that Eli (above left) is not the
student his brother Peyton is, so it could take him until
November to get comfortable in Tom Coughlin's
system.

PROJECTED STARTER
Warner

[TEAM]
DOLPHINS
A.J. Feeley
Jay Fiedler

[THE SETUP]
People who have watched workouts say Fiedler is throwing the ball
better than Feeley. Smoke out of owner Wayne Huizenga's ears says
that if the Dolphins gave up a second-round pick to acquire
Feeley and Fiedler winds up starting, heads will roll. And
soon.

[PROJECTED STARTER]
Feeley

[TEAM]
CHARGERS
Drew Brees
Philip Rivers

[THE SETUP]
Say what you want about the importance of NFL experience, but the
Chargers have had the rookie Rivers, with a Division I-record 51
starts, in their sights for too long to stick with Brees, the
29th-rated passer in the league last season.

[PROJECTED STARTER]
Rivers

[TEAM]
COWBOYS
Quincy Carter
Drew Henson
Vinny Testaverde

[THE SETUP]
"I go by what I see" is a mantra of coach Bill Parcells, which
could spell trouble for Carter if he doesn't have a superb camp.
Testaverde, 40, still has an excellent arm, with good accuracy
deep. Henson, the 24-year-old rookie? He's a year away, at
least.

[PROJECTED STARTER]
Testaverde

[TEAM]
BUCS
Brad Johnson
Chris Simms

[THE SETUP]
Simms may not be ready, but don't believe Johnson's the man until
you see him step into the huddle for the opener. Coach Jon Gruden
flirted with Mark Brunell and Jeff Garcia, among others, and
he'll be keeping one eye on the waiver wire.

[PROJECTED STARTER]
Johnson

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)