As he jogged off the field minutes after his team's 27-7 rout of the AFC West rival San Diego Chargers on Sunday, Oakland Raiders wideout Jerry Porter appeared downcast. While thousands of Oakland's rowdy faithful—who made Qualcomm Stadium seem like a colony of Raider Nation—exulted in the stands nearby, Porter just shook his head. "We had the fork in them, but we didn't twist it," he said of the Chargers. "We could've scored more, and it wasn't totally vintage Rich Gannon. We can be better."
Just how ominous are Porter's comments for the rest of the AFC? Consider Gannon's so-called pedestrian day: 26 of 41 passing for 328 yards—his 10th 300-yard passing day in 2002 (an NFL single-season record), giving him 4,205 yards with three games remaining and keeping him on pace to break Dan Marino's NFL record of 5,084, set in 1984. Yes, Oakland struggled to open a 13-7 halftime lead against San Diego, but consecutive touchdown drives that ate up 5:02 and 7:24 midway through the second half, during which Gannon was 8 of 11 for 126 yards (connecting with five receivers), put the game away.
Such is the standard for Gannon—a leading candidate for league MVP honors—as he pilots an offense that is as unconventional as it is lethal. In Oakland nowadays the pass sets up the run, and defenses might go to dime coverage on third-and-short. The Raiders (9-4) have won five straight following a four-game losing streak, and they are alone atop their division and a cluttered conference. Oakland can secure the home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with wins in its last three games: at Miami and home against Denver and Kansas City.
Under coach Jon Gruden a year ago, the Raiders were fourth in the league in scoring (24.9 points per game) using a balanced attack that featured passes to wideouts Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, and runs by the inside-outside duo of Tyrone Wheatley and Charlie Garner. Gruden left for the Tampa Bay Bucs in the off-season and was replaced by offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, who, troubled that Oakland ranked 16th last year in pass plays of 20-plus yards, turned to players—notably Porter—with more speed and pass-catching ability. Now the Raiders are third in scoring (29.3 points), and are fourth in passes of 20 yards or more. "Over time, defenses catch up to you," says Callahan, "so we decided to get more aggressive in our play-calling."
Needing a deep threat to complement his celebrated pass-catching duo, Callahan replaced fullback Jon Ritchie on the majority of snaps with the little-used Porter, and the results were smashing. Despite just two catches for 16 yards against San Diego, Porter has 46 catches for 634 yards, and his 13.8 yards-per-reception average and eight touchdown catches lead the team. "We're a faster team with him," Gannon says of the 6'2", 220-pound Porter, a second-round draft choice in 2000. "You want your best 11 on the field, and he's one of our best 11 on offense."
Of course, diversifying the passing attack meant downsizing the running game, which averages 23.5 carries a game (almost five fewer than last year). Still, their 4.2-yard average per carry this season is up from last year's 3.7. The change has also helped keep the 5'10", 190-pound Garner healthy, which is vital for a scheme in which he is a primary receiving target. While he averages fewer than 11 rushes a game, Garner has 77 receptions, tops in the league among running backs. Meanwhile, Ritchie and Wheatley have adjusted to their reduced roles. "It was tough at first," says Ritchie. "But once you saw what this offense could do with guys like Porter and Doug Jolley [a rookie tight end from BYU who burned the Chargers on six catches for 104 yards], it soothed things. I've never been so grateful to be a part of an offense."