Raiders playing game for the aged

With 9 starters 30 or older, team is wise, experienced

January 08, 2003|By Laura Price-Brown | Laura Price-Brown,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ALAMEDA, Calif. - There is a place on the other side of San Francisco's Bay Bridge where flecks of silver glimmer as beguilingly on heads of hair as in the team's menacing crest. Here, NFL players cast aside because of salary caps, injuries and depth charts toss away their afghans and feel the spring return to their weary legs.

Forget searching for eternal youth in Florida. Did Ponce de Leon ever do away with shoulder pads in January?

"Seeing what they had accomplished in the past and knowing what type of team they are, they were going to be competitive and have a chance to win a ring," said Oakland Raiders safety Rod Woodson. "That's the reason I came here."

Woodson, 37, is a proud member of Al Davis' Not Yet Over the Hill Gang. He signed with the Raiders this season and had eight interceptions in the 16th year of a career that includes stops in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Baltimore. He won a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens. Now he wants another.

Bill Romanowski, another new member, craves his third ring so badly he called Davis himself only days after asking for, and receiving, his release from the Denver Broncos. Davis' secretary returned the call.

"She said, `Mr. Davis thinks you would look good in silver and black,' " said Romanowski, 36. "I said, `Tell him I would do anything to be a Raider.' "

The excitable linebacker signed a long-term deal in March without even knowing who the coach would be. "I knew, bottom line, there's enough veterans on this team that want to win," he said.

Jerry Rice, 40, still is generating gasps two years after leaving the 49ers as their most decorated receiver. He complements career Raider Tim Brown, 36, who celebrated his 1,000th catch Dec. 2 against the Jets.

Don't forget defensive end Trace Armstrong, 37, the former Miami Dolphin who stepped in for Tony Bryant after he was lost for the season. Rich Gannon, who will turn 37 later this month, won just about every quarterback award this season in addition to being named the league's Most Valuable Player.

The Raiders are a safe haven when everyone else says the end is near. Only one rule applies to join: Bring your "A" game with your B vitamins.

"Al Davis has never shied away from veteran players, especially if they're playing good football," Brown said.

This veteran team is no start-up group. Lyle Alzado, Greg Pruitt, Jim Plunkett and James Lofton took turns dipping into Oakland's revitalization pool in the 1970s and '80s.

"The Raiders have never discriminated for any reason," Raiders senior assistant Bruce Allen said. "That's what it is: race, gender, religion, age. We look for people who are productive, who have a passion to play the game. That's it. That's what we judge them on."

Allen's father, Hall of Famer George Allen, coached the original Over the Hill Gang, the Washington Redskins, to an NFC championship in 1972. Bruce Allen said his father loved coaching veterans, who bring stability and knowledge.

When the Raiders lost four in a row to fall to 4-4, coach Bill Callahan said his seasoned players took control. The team went 7-1 thereafter. "That was a pivotal time in our season where those guys stepped up and really never panicked," Callahan said. "They never wavered."

This team designs its plans with veterans in mind. Callahan eliminated padded practices in the second half of the season and has cut back on the number of play repetitions in practice.

Guard Frank Middleton said the decision to ease practices was vital. Players were able to heal and refresh, and that's no small thing when nine starters are at least 30. "We've gone through great lengths to monitor our veteran players to ensure they were ready for these types of conditions," Callahan said.

Maybe not as closely as the athletes have done themselves. Rice's fitness regimen is famous. Woodson said he started cutting back on track work later in his career and seldom runs long distances anymore.

"Now I'm more swimming, cycling, doing spin classes and stuff like that," Woodson said. "The older you get, we all know your skills diminish as an athlete. But if you can keep those skills, whatever you do have left, honed a little bit in the offseason, once the season starts it's easier."

The drive never diminishes. Inside the Raiders' locker room, rebuilding is a four-letter word. This season, like every season in Raider Nation, is about winning the Super Bowl. The three-time champions have won the most AFC playoff games (23). Their 33-15 record over three seasons also leads the conference.

"They understand the opportunity and the window they have as players to be in this situation," said coach Herman Edwards, whose Jets visit the Raiders in an AFC divisional playoff game Sunday. "They play with a different mind-set because ... they know their window is closing in. They are trying to make a run."

Last year's playoff loss to the New England Patriots still stings. Quarterback Tom Brady's apparent fumble was called an incomplete pass because of the now-infamous "Tuck Rule." That distressed even the younger Raiders, and spurred them all to ensure it would never happen again.

"Yes, we're old," offensive tackle Lincoln Kennedy said of the Raiders' urgency to win it all. "It's not so much that, it's no one likes the way we felt in the offseason. We added old guys, right? That was some of the weaknesses that got attention. We're better off for it.

"The old guys can pass on to the younger guys the seriousness of how this doesn't come along too often."

Laura Price-Brown is a reporter for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Ken Berger contributed to this article.

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