Two candidates emerged, the 49ers and the Chiefs. Gannon chose Kansas City, beat out Matt Blundin for the backup job and, under the guidance of offensive coordinator Paul Hackett and quarterbacks coach Mike McCarthy, improved his timing, footwork and decision-making. It was also then that Gannon began enlisting the services of his wife, Shelley, a daughter of former Vikings running back Bill Brown. "She'd quiz him on formations while they lay in bed," says McCarthy, now the New Orleans Saints' offensive coordinator. "It might not sound romantic, but that's Rich—the ultimate professional from a work-ethic standpoint."
When Elvis Grbac was injured late in the 1997 season, Gannon shone in winning five of six starts, but when Grbac returned, Gannon was benched for K.C.'s divisional playoff loss to the Denver Broncos. After his contract expired following the '98 season, which he'd spent trading places with Grbac as the Chiefs' starting quarterback, Rich told Shelley he would sign with anyone but the AFC West rival Raiders, for whom he had "complete disdain." Gruden won over Gannon during what has to rank as the NFL's coolest-ever job interview. "We went out for Mexican food and margaritas," Gruden says, "then had the limo driver stop at 7-Eleven so we could get a six-pack. We went back to my office, watched film of our most recent game against Kansas City and talked into the night."
The Raiders signed Gannon to a four-year, $16 million deal. Despite owner Al Davis's fondness for the deep ball, Gruden had enough juice to jettison turbo-armed quarterback Jeff George for a journeyman who relied on touch, accuracy, scrambling ability and field awareness. "Everyone thinks Rich is the classic overachiever because of all his intangibles," says New York Jets general manager Terry Bradway, who as a Chiefs personnel executive helped initiate Gannon's signing. "But the guy can throw the ball with zip, he's very accurate, and he can really move."
An MVP candidate last year, Gannon doesn't restrict his battles to Sundays. In his eyes a team's toughness and mood are molded on a continuous basis, which is why he confiscated the pool balls from the team's player lounge late in the '99 season. "I was used to an organized, disciplined system," he says, "and when I got to the Raiders, guys were showing up late to practice and meetings, and missing curfew, among other problems. Then we had this lounge that was like a big playroom, with a pool table, one of those pop-a-shot basketball hoops and video games."
The noise from the lounge could be clearly heard in the room where Gruden holds his midday meetings with the quarterbacks. "We were cramming for a Thursday game against Tennessee late in the season, and I finally flew off the handle," Gannon says. "I went in and took all the pool balls and put them in a box over my locker."
The following Monday, Gannon stood up in a team meeting and delivered a now famous speech. (It's commemorated by a T-shirt featuring Gannon's face inside the Raider logo.) "I told them to look at guys like Steve Wisniewski, Tim Brown and Russell Maryland and consider why they've been so good for so many years," Gannon says. "It's like, sit next to the kid who keeps getting A's in class; don't hang in back with the dummies. It was a difficult thing to say to my teammates, and there was a group that didn't like what I said. At least two guys told me so, and I know there were more who didn't come to me directly."
Despite Gannon's locker room clout, he's hardly spared intrasquad abuse. It's always an event when he boards the team plane for road trips, because Gannon's wardrobe has been known to include such gems as a multitoned leather jacket featuring the logos of each NFL team. "Dude tries to be down, but it ain't happening," says halfback Tyrone Wheatley. "Sometimes we have to get the fashion police on him. He wears the tightest jeans I've ever seen, and he has that walk like Travolta in Grease!' Ritchie calls Gannon's look " Minnesota shopping mall, with glam-rock Muzak playing on the sound system."
Imagine what Gannon's teammates might do with this bit of information, courtesy of Shelley Gannon. "We have two daughters [Alexis, 6, and Danielle, 4], and Rich plays Barbies with them," she says. "The girls got him a Prince Ken doll for Christmas, with the little sword and everything. He was thrilled."
Chide him as they might, the Raiders can't fathom life without their leader. Take away Rich and they are poor. Exhibit A: Last January's AFC Championship Game defeat to the Baltimore Ravens in Oakland. After taking shots from defensive linemen Michael McCrary and Tony Siragusa that could have been flagged as personal fouls—"Let's be honest," the 6'3", 210-pound Gannon says, "defensive line coaches teach players how to take quarterbacks down"—Gannon left the game in the second quarter with a bruised collarbone. The Raiders lost 16-3.
"He means so much to us, even though he drives me nuts sometimes," Gruden says. "But deep down, I know the sumbitch knows I love him."