Gannon, Raiders looking to bounce back
A healthy Rich Gannon expects big things from himself and the Raiders this season.
NAPA, Calif. -- The storm started brewing in Raiders training camp last summer. Bill Callahan was so mad at the offense he ordered an impromptu team scrimmage during a morning practice. When a linebacker went down, Callahan tapered down the workout.
But Raiders veterans grew more heated. The Super Bowl loss to Tampa Bay was embarrassing enough, but they felt Callahan was so paranoid by losing to Jon Gruden that he instituted too many changes in strategy. On the Tuesday before the regular-season opener, quarterback Rich Gannon went to anyone in management who would hear him.
"I said we've got major problems coming down the road and if you can't see it, you are blind," Gannon said. "That's the frustrating thing for me. I think it fell on some deaf ears."
The Raiders fell from AFC champs to 4-12 and Callahan was off to Nebraska. Now, Raiders life appears to be as calm as the sunny, clear days at their training camp home in Napa, Calif. Gannon is re-energized. Norv Turner was hired as a players' coach whose specialty is offense and brought in a defensive coach, Rob Ryan, with some innovative ideas. And there is an infusion of youth that is starting to take hold.
In June, Turner let the 13 Raiders over 30-years old sit out a mini-camp. Turner looked around and saw 75 players and many of them looked promising. What was once a roster that aged like vinegar last season suddenly is being reborn. Gannon may be 38, but he has young, quick options in the passing game such as Jerry Porter (25), Doug Jolley (25), Teyo Johnson (22), Doug Gabriel (23) and Ronald Curry (25). There could be three offensive line starters who are 24 years of age or younger -- tackles Robert Gallery and Langston Walker and center Jake Grove.
Still, the success of this team will rely on the play of the older heads of state. Gannon, Warren Sapp and Tyrone Wheatley are three aging players hoping to find the fountain of youth. From the look of them on the field in training camp, they've found something. Gannon, for example, is not only re-energized, but he's playing with an attitude.
Last year angered him. Arguably, he's one of the greatest free-agent signings in NFL history, a three-time Pro Bowler who won division titles and an NFL MVP award. He sensed early that the 2003 season was headed for disaster. The coaching staff took the Super Bowl loss so personally that they changed everything. The numbering system for calling plays was adjusted. Callahan ended up confusing the Raiders offensive players more than the opponents as they headed toward their 12-loss disaster.
Gannon's production fell. He became a 55.6 percent thrower and threw only six touchdown passes before his season ended after seven weeks with an injured right shoulder that needed surgery. Dealing with the pain was one thing. Dealing with the blame was another. That hurt more than his shoulder.
"The thing that got me was that I took so much of that criticism for what happened last year," Gannon said. "It all fell on me. I had to shoulder the responsibility. Not one guy in the organization -- coach or player -- stood up to try to absorb any of that abuse. I took it for six-and-a-half weeks and then I got hurt. All of a sudden, I was a bum. For a guy who went to consecutive Pro Bowls, was league MVP, now, all of a sudden, I can't play anymore."
Following the surgery, Gannon rededicated himself. He trained harder than ever. He lifted weights more. His right shoulder was stronger than ever. His passes were thrown more over the top and with a little more zip. Gannon came to camp weighing 203, more than 10 pounds lighter than last year.
"I could run a marathon," Gannon said. "Training camp has almost been a joke for me physically. I've been getting extra throws. In fact, I have been throwing every day since March and my arm doesn't get tired or sore. I don't take any anti-inflammatories. I've been moving better and running around better."
It almost makes him laugh to hear tales of a budding quarterback controversy involving Kerry Collins. When Collins signed with the Raiders, Al Davis made it clear Collins would be the backup this season. Gannon was the starter and he says he's glad to have Collins around in case anything happens to him.
"Kerry is a good football player and he's going to help our football team," Gannon said. "When you look around the league, there is a shortage of depth at quarterback. To have two quarterbacks like this is great."
Everything Gannon is doing is aimed at trying to prevent a repeat of last season. After a 2-2 start, the Raiders lost 10 of their last 12. Marques Tuiasosopo wasn't ready to handle the backup job and couldn't stay healthy when he got a chance to play. The offensive scheme, that Gannon predicted would be disastrous, fell into the hands of third-stringer Rick Mirer.
Turner's offensive scheme is more Raider-like. Though he is known for his quick-strike passing offense, Turner is a master of getting 1,200-to-1,400-yard seasons out of running backs. The idea is to run the ball well, get one of the safeties to commit to stopping the run and then burn the defense with a long pass. Al Davis, for one, didn't particularly love the short strikes of the West Coast offense under Jon Gruden and Callahan.
The release of Tim Brown should finally give Porter the chance to utilize his skills as a starter.
"If you look at the history of Norv Turner's offense, no one receiver usually has an 80-catch season," Porter said. "They get their yards in chucks. I see myself having a pretty good year for us as long as we can establish the run. Even though Jerry Rice and Tim Brown were the starters, I still started about 14 games a year ago, and when the playoffs started, there was no secret to whom they were throwing the ball."
Porter is somewhat of a physical freak. He's 6-2 and has bulked up to 230 pounds and actually believes he's even faster now. His speed along with Jerry Rice's dependability should open some interesting options for Gannon.
But the scheme won't work if the running game isn't a threat. At the age of 32, Wheatley feels he's ready for the challenge. His five-carry, 33-yard preseason opener against the 49ers pretty well clinched the starting job. At 248 pounds, Wheatley is the pounding inside runner, but he still has some of that breakaway speed that once made him a first-round choice of the Giants.
|“||I expect to have a Pro Bowl year. I expect to help this team win 10 or 11 wins and get to the playoffs. I expect this team to win the AFC West. I don't expect anything less. ”|
|— Rich Gannon, Raiders quarterback|
"Norv runs a fun offense," Wheatley said. "He's not one of these three yards and a cloud of dust coaches. But if he gets a running play that works, he'll keep running that until defenses stop it."
It's no secret why the Raiders were so bad last year. There was a 43-yard run differential week to week. They rushed for 113.9 yards a game. They gave up 156.9. Callahan's first priority two years ago was fixing the run defense. But that unit broke like a dam last season.
Vice president Mike Lombardi fixed it with some interesting signings. First, he signed two thirds of the Super Bowl three-man line that was one of the best in stopping the run. End Bobby Hamilton and tackle Ted Washington came over from the Patriots. Joining them was new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who brings the Patriots multi-faceted 3-4, 4-3 defensive scheme.
"Mr. Davis said the Raiders needed to stop the run, and we got two guys who can do it in Bobby and Ted," Ryan said. "We were doing a good job of stopping the run without Ted last year in New England. To do that, we had to be more 4-3 and have eight-man fronts. When we picked up Ted, he gave us the luxury of playing seven man fronts out of a 3-4. He's such a dominating player."
Washington is listed at 365 pounds, but he can be anywhere between 370 and 400 and is next to impossible to block. Put Sapp next to him in a 3-4 at end, and Sapp suddenly gets single blocking he hasn't seen in years.
"Ted loves the 3-4, and this defense fits me like a glove," Sapp said. "They are moving me around. I'll match up against different guys. This is really broadening my game."
Like Gannon, Sapp seems to be playing with a mission. The Bucs weren't fired up about re-signing him, and he didn't hesitate when the Raiders made him an attractive offer.
"Warren goes all out in practice and that's a good experience for us because we are awfully young at a lot of positions," Turner said.
History has shown the Raiders have remade themselves through the years. After the firing of Callahan, Davis got more involved in the decision-making. He's revamped the front office. Some younger players are rising into starting jobs. The Vertical Stretch is back in the offense.
The offensive and defensive lines have totally been revamped. And Gannon is like a new Gannon.
"I expect to have a Pro Bowl year," Gannon said. "I expect to help this team win 10 or 11 wins and get to the playoffs. I expect this team to win the AFC West. I don't expect anything less."
Senior writer John Clayton covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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