What We Learned
Three things we know after the Raiders-Saints game
Updated: Monday November 20, 2000 11:32 AM
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
NEW ORLEANS -- Winning at the Superdome for the first time since beating Philadelphia in Super Bowl XV, Oakland held off the injury-plagued New Orleans Saints 31-22 on Sunday to stay two games ahead of Denver in the AFC West. The victory clinched the Raiders' first winning record since 1993, their most recent playoff season. Here are three observations from the game:
1. Poor Jeff Blake. Propped up on crutches and hobbling slowly from the Saints' locker room, he was a sad, downcast figure in the bowels of the Superdome.
With the most successful season of his nine-year NFL career finished prematurely by a broken and dislocated right foot, Blake fought the emotion of the moment.
"I'm very hurt," said Blake, his foot already encased in a hard cast. "It took a lot to hold in my tears. But I've got to be strong for the guys and my family. I can't use my body, but now I can use my mind to help us win some football games. It's time to play Coach Blake. That's all I can do."
Blake broke his foot on a first-and-10 play from the Saints' 47 with 1:58 remaining in the first quarter. He faked a pitch and wound up rolling right, away from the pressure from Raiders defensive end Lance Johnstone. But not far enough away. As he dumped a pass out of bounds to avoid a loss, Blake was dragged down by Johnstone, catching his right foot underneath himself.
"It was an accident," said Blake, who finished 2-of-5 for 39 yards against the Raiders. "I was trying to throw the ball away and get ready to go run the next play. And as I was throwing it away, a guy fell down right on my foot. I broke one bone and tore some ligaments in it. I'm going to stay positive and Aaron [Brooks, his backup] is going to do a great job."
Blake had done a great job himself this season for the Saints after New Orleans gave his career a jump start by signing him just hours after free agency began in February. He looked poised to lead New Orleans into the playoffs for the first time since 1992, and had provided a steady, productive hand to a position that represented a nightmare for the Saints recently. Blake played joyfully for New Orleans, reflecting the relief he felt from being out of Cincinnati.
Blake said he is scheduled to have season-ending surgery on his foot either Wednesday or Thursday, once the swelling subsides. When asked if he will be tortured by what might have been for him and his team this season, Blake refused to wallow: "I can't really say," he said. "That part is over with. We've got to worry about tommorrow.
"We've been dealing with adversity all year long and still finding a way to win the ballgame. No, I won't be back. And it's tough when you lose your starting running back [Ricky Williams] and your starting quarterback. But you have to be tough and mentally battle through."
Blake is the sixth Saints starter to be lost for all or a significant portion of the season this year. Four of those have come on offense: No. 1 tight end Cam Cleeland, receiver Jake Reed, running back Williams and Blake.
Blake writhed in pain on the field, saying it was the first time he could ever recall not being able to "jump right up" after an injury. Brooks replaced him and played well, and could very easily play himself into the Saints' 2001 starting quarterback plans if he finishes strong this year.
New Orleans also is expected to sign either Billy Joe Tolliver or Pat Barnes early this week to fill Blake's spot on the roster. Both passers where with the Saints in training camp.
"I thought Aaron played well for the first time he every played in an NFL game," Blake said. "He had a great passing percentage [14-of-22], threw two touchdowns and we moved the ball. It took him a while to get going, but that was fine. The guys played well and we're going to get to the playoffs."
Just not Blake, who has never played in a postseason game in his NFL career.
2. Maybe Rich Gannon is the league's MVP.
Through three quarters, New Orleans trailed just 17-13 and had done a pretty fair job of containing Gannon, at least through the air. Gannon at that point had passed for just 57 yards, but rushed six times for 56 yards. When Oakland was building its 17-0 second-quarter lead, Gannon repeatedly got loose in key situations and picked up first downs with his feet.
Gannon finished as both the Raiders' leading passer, completing 14-of-21 for 168 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, and leading rusher, gaining 55 yards on seven carries (7.9 average). New Orleans didn't limit Gannon's damage despite putting consistent pressure on him all day. The Saints finished with five sacks for 34 yards, including two by right defensive end Joe Johnson.
"It's very frustrating," said Saints defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, who entered the game as the NFL's co-leader in sacks with 13, but was blanked. "You get chances to get him and you can't quite get there. He's a good quarterback. Compared to other teams, we did get to him. But it's tough when you're working hard trying to get to him, and he scrambles out and throws a completion or runs for the first down."
For Gannon, it was a simple matter of survival.
"It was more to get out of the there before I get killed," he said. "I just tried to get what we could. But we got a couple of big third downs running the football from the quarterback position."
Oakland's offense had an odd game altogether. Of the Raiders' 11 possessions, they didn't even generate a first down on six of them. On the other five, they scored. Up 17-0 midway through the second quarter, the Raiders' next three possessions and two plays of their fourth -- a span of 11 plays -- produced no first downs and minus-9 yards of offense. But Gannon broke that streak with a 10-yard scramble on third-and-8 from the Oakland 29, and then he and Brown heated up to put the game way.
Brown had all of his team-high four catches for 69 yards in the fourth quarter. Brown's first reception was a 21-yard touchdown catch early in the quarter, giving the Raiders a 24-13 lead that was never challenged. After the Saints stayed within reach at 24-16 with a field goal, Tim Brown made like Jim Brown, demoralizing his opponent again and again with back-breaking third-down conversions.
Three times on the ensuing Oakland drive, Gannon looked for and found Brown on third down, throwing to him for 7 yards on third-and-1, 12 yards on third-and-9, and 29 yards on third-and-6. Three plays later, Oakland put the game away for good at 31-16 on running back Zack Crockett's 6-yard run.
"[Gannon] had a super performance given the circumstances in this game," Oakland head coach Jon Gruden said. "He made a lot of creative plays and was brilliant down the stretch. We converted a lot of third downs in the last two drives. ... [Brown] was there at the end when we needed him."
3. No one made us forget about Williams, but statistically, the Saints' running game did just fine in replacing their leading rusher.
New Orleans entered the game averaging 138.6 yards per game, and finished with 133 yards on 30 carries, good for a very respectable average of 4.4 yards per rush.
But there was room to question New Orleans' decision-making in the running game. Simply put, the Saints have got to find more ways to get the ball to rookie Chad Morton. Whenever Morton touched the pigskin, he produced. Morton led the Saints with 45 yards rushing on just five carries (9.0), and he also was the team's leading receiver, with six receptions for 62 yards (10.3). He showed good open-field elusiveness and speed, and proved to be the Saints' most reliable big-play weapon.
Williams broke his ankle in the fourth quarter at Carolina last week, finishing his season with 1,000 yards rushing and 409 yards receiving. He had accounted for nearly 45 percent of the Saints' offense this season, a higher amount than any other player in the NFL.
The Saints would also do well to run rookie fullback Terrelle Smith more often. Smith had a team-high average of 10.5 yards per carry, gaining 42 yards on just four attempts. Former Ram Jerald Moore was less productive than either Morton or Smith, picking up 42 yards on 13 rushes, just 3.2 yards per carry.
Ruled inactive Sunday was Terry Allen, the four-time 1,000-yard rusher who signed Tuesday. Allen is expected to be in game condition in time to play in next Sunday's NFC West showdown at St. Louis. Allen and Morton are expected to eventually carry the majority of the rushing burden.
Afterward, Saints head coach Jim Haslett pronounced his newly cobbled together running game a success.
"We had  yards rushing, so I would say that it was successful," he said. "That was one of the big deals, can you run the ball without Ricky? I think we proved we can run the ball."
New Orleans left tackle Willie Roaf said the Saints' running game would have been even more productive had the game officials not flagged his team 12 times for 93 yards. Roaf was just one of several Saints to complain about the officiating. The Raiders were flagged just five times for 32 yards.
"We played against two teams, the Raiders and the refs," Saints receiver Joe Horn said. "We couldn't get any breaks. We didn't deserve some of those penalties. They kept the Raiders in the game. I might get fined, but they don't get fined when they throw bad flags. If we were playing against just the Raiders, we would have had a chance to win the ballgame."
Said Blake: "There were a lot of flags thrown. I don't know what the referees were on today."
Added Roaf: "It was frustrating because every time we would get a big play, they would call holding on us. They must have called holding on us at least eight or nine times."