When injuries decimated the Raiders' return game, backup and newly signed players stepped up and excelled.
By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 26, 2003
SAN DIEGO -- If offensive yards are to be as difficult to come by as some expect today, a patchwork collection of Raiders could become as important as Rich Gannon or Tim Brown or Charlie Garner.
Value will not, however, be measured in passing or rushing yards.
"In a game of this magnitude, special teams play a very important part," Oakland punt returner Darrien Gordon said. "Some people might think, "Okay, you've got the No. 1 rated offense. All you want to do is secure the ball and get it on the field.'
"In some respects, yeah, you want to be mindful of that. But if you can give them the ball at midfield or the front side of the field, that's even better for that No. 1 rated offense."
Much like their secondary, which dealt with setbacks to cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tory James, the Raiders made due after injuries shelved their top two return men halfway through the season.
"It threw everything up in the air," wide receiver Marcus Knight said, referring to the season-ending injuries to Phillip Buchanon and Terry Kirby against the Titans on Sept. 29. "It was like an open audition."
Oakland stumbled upon success with Knight, a second-year player from Michigan, signed Gordon after the Packers waived him and activated former North Carolina two-sport standout Ronald Curry before the AFC title game.
Knight has been a surprise on kickoff returns.
The fourth receiver in a group that includes Jerry Rice, Tim Brown and Jerry Porter, he saw the opportunity as a chance to help himself and his team.
"I knew I was an athlete, but I had never returned kicks before in my life," Knight said. "I discovered it was something I could do if I had the opportunity. It presented itself, Coach Callahan gave me a chance and the results are coming out."
He consulted Brown and averaged 24.3 yards per return during the regular season after taking over Oct. 27, and 25.5 in two playoff games.
"Marcus has emerged and is doing a fantastic job," special-teams coach Bob Casullo said. "We're excited about him. He's discovered a talent that I don't know if he knew he had or anybody knew he had. But he's doing a fantastic job with it."
The Raiders will try to exploit a Bucs unit prone to allowing big returns. Opponents gained more than 21 yards per kickoff return and more than 10 yards per punt against the Bucs this season.
"We've watched a lot of film," Curry said. "They have some good areas and they have some areas that can be exploited just like any other team. It's all about taking advantage of the areas you think you can exploit."
In the NFC Championship Game one week ago, the Eagles' Brian Mitchell burned Tampa Bay on the game's opening kickoff when he returned it 70 yards to set up a Philadelphia touchdown two plays later. The 49ers and Eagles produced 24.5 yards per kickoff return and 9.8 on punts this postseason.
"You look for ways other teams have attacked and were successful against them," Curry said. "Maybe one thing was successful and then they corrected it the next week. ... You can see them correct those problem areas.
"You can see them paying more attention to one area and then slacking off in another. But good teams like the Bucs, they're going to make corrections. We're going to make ours."