A lasting commitment to excellence
From TSN,June 17, 2003.
When Super Bowl 37 ended, it seemed to signal more than the conclusion of another missed postseason opportunity for the Raiders. It seemed to symbolize the end of the Raiders' run as a top AFC contender.
Or so we thought.
Three straight playoff berths, which culminated with the 48-21 loss to the Buccaneers in San Diego, were all anyone reasonably could expect. The Raiders were old, very old, and Bucs coach Jon Gruden, who assembled many of the parts while coaching four seasons in Oakland, took advantage of a team with too much age and not enough speed. Salary-cap problems added to the Raiders' challenges. Just like the great 49ers and Cowboys franchises, the Raiders wouldn't be able simply to reload. Oakland had to unload and rebuild.
Or so we thought.
But a strange thing happened on the way to the funeral.
Waving his salary-cap wand, senior assistant Bruce Allen cut aging fringe players, renegotiated contracts of aging stars and managed to keep the core talent intact. The most notable cuts were cornerback Tory James and defensive tackle Sam Adams. Significantly more talented Phillip Buchanon will replace James in the lineup. To replace Adams, the Raiders signed free agent Dana Stubblefield, who has more focus and is in better condition.
The Raiders aren't dead. Far from it. In fact, there are some good reasons to think they can repeat as AFC champs.
1. The NFL's most creative offense. Except for Gruden's Bucs, no team does a better job than the Raiders of putting receivers, running backs and tight ends in motion to find favorable matchups in the passing game. Gruden installed the offense and mentored quarterback Rich Gannon, but even without Gruden, the Raiders have carried on because they have the skill-position players and experience to successfully operate the system.
Jerry Rice remains very effective as a No. 1 wideout, and Jerry Porter is an emerging star that is expected to start opposite Rice. Tim Brown has lost a step but will be a solid No. 3, giving the Raiders a legitimate three-receiver set to spread opposing defenses. Tight end Doug Jolley, who showed good athletic ability and potential as a rookie, will make a significant contribution this year. Charlie Garner doesn't carry a heavy load as a runner, but he is arguably the league's best pass-catching running back.
Almost unnoticed is a consistent and efficient line, which returns intact. The Raiders re-signed right guard Mo Collins and allowed center Barret Robbins to return despite a pre-Super Bowl meltdown.
2. Two shutdown cornerbacks. With Charles Woodson and the rookie Buchanon, the 2002 Raiders thought the defense would feature two first-rate cover corners. But that didn't materialize because both missed a big chunk of the season with injuries. Assuming both remain healthy this year, coordinator Chuck Bresnahan can be aggressive with his schemes.
Woodson and Buchanon will provide tight man-to-man coverage, allowing Bresnahan to turn up the heat on quarterbacks with more blitzing from linebackers and safeties.
3. Infusion of young talent. Because of the Gruden deal, the Raiders had extra picks in the last two drafts and collected seven players in the top two rounds, adding much-needed youth and athleticism. They quietly are rebuilding without paying a price in the standings. A year ago, Oakland picked up three players who will have key roles this season: Buchanon, starting middle linebacker Napoleon Harris and Jolley. They also snapped up Langston Walker, a future starter at offensive tackle.
This year, the Raiders were criticized for some of their picks, but we think they did a nice job addressing their need for a young pass rusher by selecting a trio of versatile ends: Tyler Brayton, Sam Williams and Shurron Pierson.
Nnamdi Asomugha was a bit of a reach in the first round, but he has a terrific combination of size and speed. Eventually, he could become the third corner behind Woodson and Buchanon.
4. Experience in just the right places. At almost every key position, the Raiders have at least one veteran to complement -- and help develop -- young players. What the team lacks in speed with outside linebacker Bill Romanowski, free safety Rod Woodson and receivers Rice and Brown, it gets back with the leadership these players provide for Harris, strong safety Derrick Gibson and Porter.
The Raiders also have veterans in key positions -- Gannon, Garner, right tackle Lincoln Kennedy, left tackle Barry Sims, defensive tackle John Parrella and defensive end Trace Armstrong -- who can be counted on to deliver.
5. Stronger special teams. Buchanon's good health instantly makes the Raiders a greater threat on punt returns. Ronney Jenkins and rookie Justin Fargas should be upgrades on kickoff returns.
The poor rankings of the coverage units last season -- the Raiders were last in the NFL in kickoff coverage and 31st in punt coverage -- don't reflect the talents of punter Shane Lechler and kicker Sebastian Janikowski, who led the league with 22 touchbacks. Lechler and Janikowski will get more help this year, as the coverage units will be fortified by speedy, young bodies added in the last two drafts.
Rather than blow up the Raiders and start from scratch, Allen and owner Al Davis found a way to keep the talent that matters most. They added to it and got younger, too. The veterans are grateful for one more shot at a championship ring with a franchise that appeared to be done after Super Bowl loss.
Or so we thought.