RAIDERS 41, TITANS 24
He spends hour after hour breaking down film and drawing up plays, immersing himself in the minutiae of offensive strategy like a microbiologist trying to cure cancer. Yet as a 15-year NFL veteran with an uncanny knack for survival, Oakland Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon understands there are times when X's and O's become secondary and the game evolves into a test of will and vehemence. So it was that on Sunday night, with the Tennessee Titans closing in and nearly two decades' worth of frustration weighing heavily on a nerve-racked Raider Nation, Gannon stared hard into the eyes of his linemen and appealed to their basic instincts. "If we're really the Number 1 offense in the NFL," he barked into the huddle, "we need to do something right here, right now."
There was nothing subtle about Gannon's command. Twenty-four seconds remained in the third quarter of the AFC Championship Game, and like the 62,544 fans at Network Associates Coliseum, the Raiders appeared to have lost their swagger. A 13-yard touchdown run by Tennessee's magnificent quarterback, Steve McNair, had cut Oakland's lead to 27-24, and the prospect of a third consecutive January meltdown loomed. Suddenly the cloudless sky grew darker, and San Diego, site of Super Bowl XXXVII, seemed much farther away than 450 miles to the south. To get there, to win a conference title for the first time since January 1984 and set up a sexy showdown with their former coach, the Raiders would have to maul their way out of a crisis. As Oakland guard Frank Middleton explained, "We had to take over the game."
So Gannon laid it on the line, and over the next four minutes his burly blockers unleashed 1,600 pounds of collective fury, spurring a nine-play, 66-yard drive that reverberated across the Hayward Fault and could be felt all the way to Tampa. By the time Gannon cruised two yards into the end zone for the touchdown that secured the 41-24 victory, even the vaunted defense of the NFC champion Buccaneers had to marvel at Gannon's quintet of protectors. "This line has been the strength of our team," said Raiders coach Bill Callahan, a fact that Bucs counterpart Jon Gruden—his mentor and predecessor—knows all too well.
A year ago Gruden was Oakland's highly visible leader while Callahan, his nominal offensive coordinator, toiled in the shadows as the line coach—football's version of the drill sergeant. Callahan, who grew up as the son of a cop on Chicago's gritty South Side, set the tone for the unit that in 2000 produced the NFL's top-ranked rushing attack. That season the Raiders hosted the AFC Championship Game but got pounded by the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. The next year a controversial replay reversal doomed Oakland in an AFC divisional playoff game against the New England Patriots, who went on to win it all. Tampa Bay then pried Gruden from the Raiders for $8 million and four high draft picks, and Oakland owner Al Davis gave Callahan, 46, his first head coaching job.
By midseason Callahan committed to a pass-first philosophy that reached its apex on Sunday, when, discounting Gannon's improvisational scrambles, the Raiders ran once in the first three quarters. Conventional wisdom suggests a team must be able to run to win in the playoffs, but as Middleton said, "That wisdom is a bunch of bulls—-."
Eighth-year center Barret Robbins, who earned his first Pro Bowl trip this season, is the key to the line's success. So surly that some teammates avoid speaking to him in the locker room for fear of incurring his wrath, Robbins is nonetheless a schematic savant who makes the blocking calls before each snap. "He's like Rain Man with pads," says fullback Jon Ritchie. "He must have 10 eyes—I don't know how he sees it all. He may be the ideal creation for that position."
Ritchie would get no argument from Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher. "As soon as he snaps the ball, Robbins bursts out and seals off one defensive tackle, and one of those big guards [Middleton or Mo Collins] pushes the other tackle outside," Fisher said last Saturday. "Then, even if your outside rushers get around their tackles [Lincoln Kennedy, a Pro Bowl starter, and Barry Sims], Gannon can step up in the pocket and have a bubble around him. It's like they put up a giant wall that can't be budged."
On Sunday, with apologies to the costumed freaks in the Coliseum's south end zone, the protective layer around Gannon was like a black hole. As the Raiders drove for touchdowns on their first two possessions, Gannon (29 for 41, 286 yards, three touchdowns) typically had time to go through his reads, decide on his wardrobe for San Diego and tabulate his weekly calorie intake. He completed his first 12 passes, prompting the Titans to revert to the blitz-happy style they employed to upset the Jacksonville Jaguars in the '99 AFC title game. But the Raiders barely flinched.
After making a point of running the ball in a Nov. 3 overtime loss to the San Francisco 49ers (Oakland's fourth straight set-back after opening the season 4-0), Callahan abandoned any semblance of balance. Now, when the Raiders do run, it catches opponents off guard. On Sunday scatback Charlie Garner's 18-yard dash on the first play of the fourth quarter helped set up Gannon's scoring scramble, and fullback Zack Crockett provided the final touchdown on a seven-yard blast with 3:25 to go.