Last Thursday night Oakland Raiders guards Mo Collins and Frank Middleton relaxed at The End Zone, a dimly lit bar wedged into a narrow strip mall near Network Associates Coliseum. It's an intimate place, owned by former Raiders running back Clem Daniels, where the waitresses chide patrons, hip-hop music blares from the jukebox, and the gregarious players never have to worry about being treated like stars. They affectionately refer to The End Zone as "the black Cheers," and it's the type of haven any Raider would appreciate these days. As Middleton says, "There's a lot of tension around this team."
Apparently still trying to come to grips with a 48-21 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in last January's Super Bowl, Oakland fell to 2-4 on Sunday with a 13-7 loss to the Cleveland Browns. "It doesn't seem like it's the same team," says Denver Broncos defensive end Bert Berry, whose team rolled over the Raiders 31-10 in Week 3. "It's one thing to lose a Super Bowl, it's another thing to be destroyed. And they were really destroyed."
The NFL's top-rated offense in 2002 is now one of the league's worst. Oakland came out of the game against Cleveland ranked 26th in total offense, 31st in third-down efficiency (26.0%) and 32nd in time of possession (25:57). On Sunday the Raiders' offense gained only 254 yards, converted 3 of 12 third downs and committed 11 of the team's 19 penalties. ( Oakland leads the NFL in penalties, with 67.) The defense, ranked 28th in the league, isn't any better.
"There's no camaraderie on this team," says Middleton. "We have too many vets who go their separate ways and too many people who don't know each other outside of football. [Quarterback Rich] Gannon is trying. Tim Brown is trying. Jerry Rice is trying. But we need more of a family concept. When times get hard, we need to be fighting for each other."
Instead, they're fighting with each other. In the game against the Broncos, on Monday Night Football, Gannon went to the sideline after one series and ripped into offensive coordinator Marc Trestman as a national television audience looked on.
Many critics trace the Raiders' troubles to age. (They are the league's oldest team, with an average age of 28.4.) But there are other factors at play, primarily injuries. Right tackle Lincoln Kennedy missed Sunday's game with a torn calf, and Collins sat out with an injured knee. Middleton tore his right quadriceps in the first quarter and could be lost for the season. The offense also misses wide receiver Jerry Porter (sidelined since the season opener with a hernia and the ensuing surgery), whose deep speed creates space for Brown and Rice to run crossing routes. Furthermore, Gannon's timing in the short-passing game has been disrupted by speed rushers and constant blitzing. In fact, Rice says opponents have become so familiar with the Oakland offense that they're calling out plays before the snap.
Raiders coach Bill Callahan has responded by revising his playbook and making a greater commitment to the running game, but as the loss to Cleveland showed, the meltdown continues. "Every other team has put a star by us on their schedule, and we're just going through the motions," Middleton says. "Until we get mad and completely frustrated, it will continue to be a slaughter for us out there."