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Super Bowl XXXVII

For Raiders, there's no more holding back

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 26, 2003


SAN DIEGO -- There is something you should know about Oakland's offense.

Something mystifying, and perhaps even a little frightening.

The Raiders now consider their offense to be free of the shackles of Jon Gruden. Liberated, if you will, from his stodgy ways.

Ponder that for a moment. The man who brought Tampa Bay's offense in from the wastelands, was considered a mite too conservative in Oakland.

What does that say about the Raiders offense?

How about: Yikes!

Or perhaps: Egad!

What we have here is an offense like no other. And that is not hyperbole. The Raiders outscored, outgained, out-threw and outsmarted everyone. They were, in a sense, outrageous.

They are using the same offense Gruden installed, but they've turned up the volume. And, frankly, they're frightening the neighbors.

"We're going to come out and throw at you 100 times," guard Frank Middleton said. "And if there's time left on the clock, then we'll run it at you 50 times."

Two years ago, under Gruden, the Raiders led the league in rushing. Power offense, right? Pound the rock, okay?

Yeah, well, quarterback Rich Gannon set an NFL record for completions (418) and 300-yard passing games (10) this season.

Coach Bill Callahan, who was brought to Oakland by Gruden as an assistant, has opened the offense up to throw without fear and attack without conscience.

"We like what he's done to this offense," Middleton said. "We always had that little short-yardage passing game and we got tired of having the ball 15-20 plays and not scoring. We want big plays, and now we make big plays. I'm a pit bull, so I live to go for the throat."

The Raiders play offense as if the game began with a two-minute warning and the quarterback is running from the law. It's all movement and misdirection. A quick glance left and a pass to the right. Play hurry-up on this possession and slow it down on the next.

The Raiders throw slants to the receivers and caution to the wind. They ignore field position and pay no attention to the clock.

And when the stakes are raised, so are their wagers.

Through the first three quarters of last week's AFC Championship Game, the Raiders called one running play for back Charlie Garner. Forty of the first 41 plays were passes or Gannon scrambles.

Who would've thought it? Who could've imagined the Raiders would get more daring once Gruden left town? Gruden, after all, is the loud one. The boy wonder raised in San Francisco's pass-happy system, who brings fire and scowls to the sideline.

Callahan is the quiet one. A longtime offensive line coach with the reserve of a snooty British butler.

"With Callahan, if we're up by 14 we're going to try to go up by 21," receiver Jerry Porter said.

The playbook has not drastically changed. It is essentially the same system Gruden installed in Tampa Bay. The difference is how it is run.

Gannon has worked with this offense for four seasons and knows when to push and when to step back. He has veteran receivers and a solid offensive line. He will often list two or three plays in the huddle and then choose which is the best fit when he gets under center and surveys the defense.

Oakland also made an adjustment early this season when offensive coordinator Marc Trestman decided to use a three-receiver set with one running back. The idea was that Porter was too valuable to sit on the sideline for two-thirds of the afternoon, so he was added and the fullback was deleted.

Now, Porter's speed has stretched defenses more than they were accustomed to against Tim Brown and Jerry Rice.

"They're going to spread the field both vertically and horizontally," Bucs defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin said. "They use all their eligibles. They change their tempo. They do things to keep you off balance. They have a lot of volume in terms of personnel groups, formations, shifts and plays.

"There are a lot of similarities to our offense. They're just further along in development."

Gannon, the league MVP, is the one who makes it go. Much like Steve Young a decade ago, he combines mobility with precision passing. Gannon is a master at looking off a defensive back and throwing the other way. He throws on the run, he throws sidearm, and he even has started throwing downfield more often.

"There is no way," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said, "you stop a quarterback like that."

Complicating matters is the Raiders running game. When they want to pull it out and show it off, it can be pretty darned impressive.

When Trestman decided the Raiders needed to throw to beat the Steelers, they threw 64 passes and ran it 17 times. When Trestman thought a running game would beat the Chiefs, the Raiders ran 57 times and threw 14 passes.

The run may not be a vital part of the game plan, but the threat of the run certainly is.

The Bucs say the way to stop Oakland's offense is to not be thrown off by the multiple shifts and formations.

"They try to confuse you with all that shifting, but all it is is window dressing," nickel back Dwight Smith said. "They're going to run the same plays, they just do it from different formations. Don't be in awe and don't get confused. All it takes is discipline."

Several Raiders talked the past week of how Gruden was too eager to sit on leads and too committed to running the ball.

In essence, they said, he held this offense down.

If only he could do it again.

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