The Raiders spent their summer in a state of bliss, believing that only tire zebras cost them the Lombardi Trophy, shrugging off the departure of coach Jon Gruden and insisting that Gruden's successor, Bill Callahan, is the ideal leader for a team looking to build on its recent success. Whether Callahan's players are divinatory or delusional won't be revealed until the second Sunday of September, so until then everything is golden in the world of Silver and Black.
Leave it to All-Pro cornerback Charles Woodson, who forced the apparent fumble by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in last January's AFC divisional playoff clash that precipitated the most famous replay reversal in NFL history (and ratcheted up Raider Nation's already robust paranoia to uncharted levels), to sound a cautionary note. " Coach Callahan seems to be his own man, but just like anybody who's in a new role, he's trying to feel his way through," Woodson says. "The bottom line is, we're really not going to know anything until we go out there and strap it up."
That's the deal for anyone coaching in the strange kingdom of Raiders owner Al Davis, whom observers of recent practices describe as revitalized and peppy. That could be a scary prospect for Callahan, 46, the team's offensive coordinator for four years but a first-time head coach—one who is replacing a man who reveled in ignoring Davis's ideas. Will the hiring of Callahan mark the return of the Al Davis Puppet Theater ( Joe Bugel, please pick up the white courtesy phone), or will he make fans forget the coach who transformed a franchise's collective attitude and netted four high draft picks and $8 million from the Bucs?
It's a loaded question, because the Raiders have assembled a roster designed to produce instant gratification. Ten of Oakland's projected starters are 30 or older, including three high-profile free-agent signees: defensive tackle John Parrella (32), linebacker Bill Romanowski (36) and free safety Rod Woodson (37).
The key to it all, as it has been since he came to Oakland in 1999, is Rich Gannon, 36. Though he is perhaps Gruden's biggest fan, Gannon is excited by Callahan's attention to detail and coaching vision. A Pro Bowl quarterback for the past three seasons, Gannon scoffs at suggestions that with surrogate godfather Gruden gone, his prickly approach toward motivating teammates might need to be scrapped. "That's bull——" Gannon says. "I ain't gonna change."
Still, there are potential issues. After years of lauding off-season workouts as the reason for the team's turnaround—Oakland is coming off consecutive AFC West titles after missing the playoffs the previous six seasons—the quarterback skipped the team's voluntary sessions while mired in a contract dispute. (He signed a six-year, $54 million deal in July.) "It could have been an issue if he'd come back and struggled," says fullback Jon Ritchie, "but when he showed up for the start of training camp, it was like he was never gone."
Gannon believes this year's Raiders will be more disciplined than their immediate predecessors, partly because of whom they've added and partly because of deletions like suspended defensive tackle Darrell Russell. Already former Chargers standout Parrella, the anti-Russell, has blown away his new teammates with his all-out effort and gritty maturity. "That guy [ Russell] had the worst attitude ever, and he brought a lot of others down with him," one offensive starter says. "Parrella's a beast who's all heart."
While he isn't armed with Gruden's trademark glare or overt bravado—"I don't get in people's faces and scream and holler," Callahan says—Coach Cali has convinced his charges that he's no feckless flunky. During a hot practice in early August, Callahan stunned his players by halting a nearly completed series of passing drills and ordering a do-over, meaning an extra 20 minutes of work. Plenty of Raiders cursed under their breath, but they left the field with a newfound respect for Callahan.
"That's the first time we've had that experience," Ritchie says. "But looking back, he was right. We've really taken to Coach Cali, because he's honest and consistent."
Everyone in Raider Nation is full of Cali love—at least until the games begin.