You take off your shoes upon entering Andre Rison's penthouse apartment along the Oakland waterfront, depositing your kicks into an assemblage of spanking fresh Jordans, Doc Marten sandals, suede Oakley uppers and spit-shined Bruno Maglis. Then you follow the Oakland Raiders' large-living wideout to his killer balcony, from which you can spot the coolest sights of the East Bay: Lake Merritt, the Bay and Golden Gate bridges, the Berkeley Hills and the Oakland Coliseum. Peering down on his seventh NFL city in 12 seasons, shouting out to the assortment of homies, musicians and teammates in his apartment, Rison serves up a taste of the trademark rhetoric that accompanies his every move. "Man, other teams have problems," he says emphatically. "Every year you hear how the Raiders have so much talent, but they don't know how to win. Well, guess what: Now we know. If we stay focused—and we will, because Jon Gruden won't have it any other way—we could be a dynasty in the making."
Whoa, Dre! It's only October, and the Raiders haven't been to the playoffs since 1993. On the other hand, in Kansas City on Sunday, Oakland took another step in a wholly unexpected direction, defeating the Chiefs 20-17 on rookie kicker Sebastian (Seabass) Janikowski's 43-yard field goal with 25 seconds to go. Lift your eye patches, shamed Raiders fans, and check it out: This formerly gutless team, which leads the AFC West with a 5-1 record, seems to have recaptured its pride and poise.
Oakland now wins close games and never quits—and who saw this coming? For the last half-decade the Raiders' penchant for folding was an NFL certainty, like Jimmy Johnson's hair and the Bengals' ineptitude. Oakland's locker room during the mid-1990s featured such inspirational sights as a player fielding a cell-phone call minutes before kickoff. Now, thanks to the prodding of Gruden, the Raiders' feisty 37-year-old coach, and Rich Gannon, their irascible 34-year-old quarterback, the men in silver and black have filled out their uniforms in a very significant way. "I guess we grew some balls," says cornerback Darrien Gordon. "Guys have really bought into what Gruden's selling."
When he hired Gruden in January 1998, Raiders managing general partner Al Davis knew he was getting one of the league's bright young offensive minds. What Davis couldn't have known was that Gruden's brash, hyper, ribald and relentless leadership style would captivate a locker room. Unlike his immediate predecessors, Mike White and Joe Bugel, Gruden has never evinced fear of incurring Davis's wrath, instead projecting an attitude insiders describe as: I know I'm good, and if I get fired, someone else will snap me up. It's hard to quantify Gruden's appeal, though Rison comes closer than most: "He don't take no s—, and he know his s—."
Following his first season Gruden found a kindred spirit to carry out his program. He jettisoned strong-armed quarterback Jeff George and pried Gannon, a lightly regarded free agent, from Kansas City. Gruden's and Gannon's pursuit of perfection has seeped down to the lower reaches of the Oakland food chain. While Gannon played a near-flawless game against the Chiefs, completing 28 of 33 passes for 244 yards and scrambling for 38 more, and high-profile performers such as Janikowski, wideout Tim Brown (five catches, 89 yards) and corner-back Charles Woodson came up big with the game on the line, the biggest play of all—for the second week in a row—was made by free safety Anthony Dorsett, a fifth-year veteran best known for his father's football exploits.
Two Sundays ago Dorsett set up the Raiders' 34-28 victory over the San Francisco 49ers by blocking Wade Richey's 29-yard field goal attempt in overtime. Midway through the fourth quarter of Sunday's game, with the score tied at 17, Dorsett stripped the ball from Kansas City rookie wideout Sylvester Morris as Morris struggled for a first down at the Oakland 11-yard line. After the game Dorsett, who signed with the Raiders in the off-season after four years with the Tennessee Titans, dared to compare his current team to his former one. The Titans, after three consecutive 8-8 seasons, won the 1999 AFC title and nearly upset the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV. Dorsett insisted that Oakland, which went 8-8 in each of Gruden's first two seasons, possesses that kind of potential. "There's no doubt this team is equal in talent," Dorsett said. "It's just a matter of matching the mentality we had in Tennessee, that no matter who we played or what was going on, we'd find a way to win."
Last year Oakland suffered each of its eight defeats by a touchdown or less. But in their season finale, against the Chiefs at Arrowhead, the Raiders, with nothing to play for, reinvented themselves and restored some semblance of balance to a contentious rivalry. Kansas City, needing a victory to make the playoffs, jumped to an early 17-0 lead. However, the Raiders, who had lost 17 of their previous 19 games to K.C., fought back to prevail 41-38 in overtime and haven't lost a close game since. "The Chiefs always used to say that if they could keep the game close, we'd fold," Oakland guard Steve Wisniewski said after Sunday's game. "For two games in a row now we've kept it close, and they were the ones who folded."
The Raiders' transformation is no great mystery to the Chiefs. "It's Rich Gannon," K.C. running back Kimble Anders says. :'They had a great plan: Keep it close and let Rich win it in the last two minutes, because he'll find a way to get it done." Esteemed more for his intangible qualities than for his physical skills, Gannon was an Evian-pure passer on Sunday, completing 84.8% of his throws—the third-highest single-game percentage ever for an NFL quarterback with at least 30 attempts.
In what was probably the best game of his 13-year career, he spread the riches, completing at least two passes to each of eight receivers, and saved his biggest pass for his most reliable target. With 11:20 remaining and Oakland facing a fourth-and-one from the K.C. 35, Gannon faked a handoff to Tyrone Wheatley and turned to throw a short pass to fullback Jon Ritchie (seven catches, 48 yards). Ritchie was covered, and Gannon slipped away from defensive tackle Chester McGlockton before side-arming an up-for-grabs pass downfield toward Brown, who outmaneuvered rookie safety Greg Wesley to catch it at the three. Two plays later Gannon tied the game by throwing his second touchdown pass, a seven-yarder to Wheatley.
If Kurt Warner is the NFL's unlikeliest starting quarterback, Gannon, who made his first Pro Bowl last season, is No. 2. After playing at Delaware, Gannon was picked in the fourth round of the 1987 draft by the New England Patriots, who never gave him a real shot at quarterback. He remembers a predraft visit from Oakland's Chet Franklin, who's now a personnel executive for the Raiders but at the time was an assistant coach. "He had me run a 40, but when he asked me to do a couple of [back-pedaling] drills, I started to get the picture," Gannon says. When he learned that Franklin was the Raiders' defensive backs coach, Gannon, intent on playing quarterback, ended the session.