Winning no secret in Raiders mystique

Football: As Oakland returns to the NFL playoffs, success and a commitment to excellence again have assumed a commanding position.

Pro Football

January 03, 2001|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND, Calif. - Planes land and take off in the background of the practice facility and offices that the Oakland Raiders have used since moving from Los Angeles. Ferries float to San Francisco from a pier set behind pricey homes.

To get the idea that the Raiders are the Raiders again - the AFC West champion Raiders - one must leave the effete digs on Harbor Bay Parkway in Alameda and head east to the industrial area surrounding the hulking Network Associates Coliseum.

As the 34-year old facility greets you, there's not enough California sunshine in the world to distract from a welcome consisting of train tracks, shacks with corrugated steel roofs and fans voted the NFL's scariest by players in a recent Sports Illustrated survey.

These wrinkles make up much of the alleged Raiders mystique. The other part of the team's mystique is victory, with three Super Bowl titles and pro football's best winning percentage since 1963, when Al Davis took over the team.

After a decade of frustration, the winning ways are back. The evidence is this season's record, a 12-4 mark good enough for a No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs and this weekend's home game against Miami.

Head coach Jon Gruden appears to be embracing the franchise's tradition for bucking the establishment. While most coaches would envision only a Gatorade shower for winning, Gruden told receiver Andre Rison he would consider getting a tattoo to mimic Rison if the Raiders won the division title.

Gruden gets much of the credit, coming to Oakland in 1998 after three seasons in Philadelphia as offensive coordinator. Gruden, like San Francisco coach Steve Mariucci, was a protM-igM-i of current Seattle coach Mike Holmgren, having served under him in Green Bay before moving to the Eagles.

Oakland attracted Gruden with the chance to become an NFL head coach on a team that still had the high standards that come with three Super Bowl rings. Gruden's youth was attractive to the Raiders. At 37, he's the NFL's youngest head coach, and Raiders players are likely to bring up age when explaining why they like him so much.

"He's a young guy who knows how to deal with the young guys," said defensive end Regan Upshaw, a fifth-year player who came to Oakland this year from Jacksonville, partly because of Gruden.

Free agents and draftees account for nearly half of the roster. Rookie place-kicker Sebastian Janikowski has made a difference, but so has Rison, who has caught passes and scored just as he had done before at six other NFL stops before he wore out his welcome.

Quarterback Rich Gannon and tailback Tyrone Wheatley, underused with a combined six teams before coming to Oakland, have passed for 3,400 yards and run for 1,000 yards, respectively.

Gruden doesn't want to head too far toward the notion that the Raiders are somehow revamped. Several players remember the team's 4-12 season in 1997. Tim Brown, Steve Wisniewski and Greg Biekert are three players who were with the Raiders in Los Angeles. (The team played as the L.A. Raiders from 1982 to 1994.) And all three are producing now.

"We have some tremendous veteran football players here, guys who have been here for a while," Gruden said. "We are what we are: 53 men who basically make the Oakland Raiders."

Brown has been with the franchise since 1988 and had his eighth straight 1,000-yard receiving season in 2000. Wisniewski, a left guard and Raider since 1989, earned his eighth Pro Bowl trip by anchoring an offensive line that helped the team lead the league in rushing at 154.4 yards a game.

The offensive line is another group that has reinvented itself. This is the group that gave up 67 sacks - more than four a game - in 1998 and 48 the following season. In 2000, the Raiders offensive line limited opponents to 28 sacks. Gannon says, "I'm appreciative of that."

On Christmas Eve against Carolina, with the AFC West title at stake, the line gave Gannon time again and again to find an open man, usually a back or tight end. He completed 26 of 32 passes for 230 yards and five touchdowns.

He was doing what Brown says Gannon does best: "He's going to take the easy way out."

It was a compliment for the quarterback, who passed through New England, Minnesota, Washington and Kansas City before Gruden handed the offense over to him in Oakland.

It was a switch for Gannon, who has been a starter in half of his 13 NFL seasons, but never as the undisputed leader of the offense. Gannon, a short-range thrower who runs well, also represented change for the Raiders. Normally, Oakland would go for big-armed quarterbacks like Marc Wilson, Jay Schroeder or Jeff George.

More importantly, Davis would have liked to have kept George, but went along with Gruden's decision to shuck him in favor of Gannon. This is the same Davis who made sure his coaches limited the playing time of an in-his-prime tailback Marcus Allen - with whom he was feuding - and who had quarterback Steve Beuerlein cut after a bitter contract dispute.

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