It was November 4 a year ago. The Raiders had lost four straight games and were 4-4 at the midway
point. They were in last place in the AFC West and headed down that slippery slope their fans remembered
well from the JBD -- the Joe Bugel Disaster of 1997 -- season (4-12).
Next up was Denver at 6-2. A loss would surely mean elimination two weeks before Thanksgiving.
"The effort has been good the last couple of weeks. We played hard, but there is a difference between playing hard
and playing smart and we're just not doing that," quarterback Rich Gannon said at the time.
From this moment forward, coach Bill Callahan said, every game will be a playoff game for the club.
With eight weeks left? At the time, it sounded like too much of a burden to place on any team. But the Raiders won
seven of those games with a desperation attitude, won two playoff games and landed in the Super Bowl.
Skip ahead 50 weeks. The Raiders are going into Cleveland. Their record is 2-3. They are three games
out of first. Many fans have jumped ship. The media suspects there is no pulse.
"I've seen this team battle through a lot worse," tackle Lincoln Kennedy said.
"Just like when people jumped off the ship when we lost four games last year, the same thing can happen now,"
said wide receiver Tim Brown. "You have to set a course. If we would have fallen off the ship last year, what
would have happened? But it didn't. This team stayed together and we got it done. This thing is all about chemistry."
But there is a discernible difference between 2002 and 2003.
"It is difficult right now ... we're inconsistent," Callahan said. "We win one and we lose one. We're playing hard.
We're getting great effort. It shakes you when you look at the film because you see so many big plays."
Three weeks after sarcastically asking "are we in a funk," Callahan now describes what most assuredly
is a funk as "discouraging," and "demoralizing."
Discouraged or demoralized, the Raiders are right back where they were a year ago, only three games
Every game now becomes a playoff game. And it is being played by a team that has yet to play well all year.
At least in 2002, before the Raiders went into a skid in losing to St. Louis, San Diego, Kansas City and
San Francisco, they had played well for four straight games, averaging 40 points a game.
They knew they could do it. They just had to bear down, battle against surrender. This year, if what
Callahan says is correct, they are already bearing down, playing hard, getting great effort.
But they are losing. Ignominiously, if not badly, save for that 31-10 disaster in Denver.
They are fighting the notion of discouragement.
"Once you get discouraged, it's like you lose all hope," safety Anthony Dorsett said. "I don't think
we have lost hope, we are just trying to find a way.
"Last year we piggy-backed off each other. One man makes a play, the next man makes one, then
the next and then it becomes momentum. We are just missing that right now."
"(Speaking) As one of the captains of this team we're undaunted by the task at hand," Brown said. "I think
Manageable, perhaps, but not yet managed.
The gravity of the situation comes to head Sunday in Cleveland where the Raiders are
on the precipice.
Below is the JBD pit, where nobody wants to go.
SERIES HISTORY: The Raiders count games played against teams that wore the Browns' logo
and claim a 9-4 series lead. However, they are 0-2 against the Baltimore Ravens and have only played
the expansion Browns once -- a 36-10 romp in 2000. So, technically they are 8-6 against the
historical/Art Modell Browns and 1-0 against the Carmen Policy version. Of course, the most famous
game the teams played came in the playoffs at Cleveland on Jan. 4, 1981, when the teams ice skated
their way through 60 bitter minutes with Oakland winning, 14-12 on Mike Davis' end zone interception
of Brian Sipe's pass. The Raiders went on to win Super Bowl XV over Dick Vermeil's Philadelphia Eagles, 27-10.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
--An oddity involving the Raiders' offense, which ranks 24th in the league after five weeks is that
they lead the NFL in average yardage made on first down -- 6.39 yards.
"A lot of stats are misleading," said quarterback Rich Gannon. "But that one is somewhat glaring.
It tells you we have the ability. The problem is what has been happening on second and third down."
Gannon is partially right and partially incorrect.
The Raiders have been horrible on third down. On that score, he has a point. But it should be
pointed out that over the first three games of the season, the Raiders had so many first down penalties
that they were frequently starting out first-and-20 and first-and-15 ... which makes it a lot easier to
pick up easy and often misleading yardage.
--In recent weeks, there have been indications that opponents are wise to the Raiders' play calling.
Twice, wide receiver Jerry Rice has said opponents seem to know the routes he is running before he runs them.
"I am not going to get into all that," Gannon said. "Those are Jerry's comments and I am sure they are
well founded if he feels that way."
"I think that is just an excuse thrown out there for bad play," tackle Lincoln Kennedy said. "We are
not playing good football right now, that is all.
"It's not alarming. We've been running the same offense for five years now. Eventually they are
going to catch on."
"We can do one of two things," Kennedy said. "We can either totally revamp the whole playbook
in the middle of the season, which is not going to happen. Or we can go out there and execute much
better ... which has to happen."
--The Raiders rank 30th in the league in rushing defense and have given up 204 yards a game their
last three times out.
"When you break down defensively, all kinds of bad things happen," defensive end Trace Armstrong
said. "You create doubt in the minds of the players. We can't stop this play, we haven't been able to
stop that play. Doubt creates hesitation. When you have that, you are not going to be real successful
as a defensive player. We have to eliminate the uncertainty in our defense."
BY THE NUMBERS: 45 -- The percentage of receiving yards Charlie Garner is making per
game compared to last year at this time.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I didn't even sleep on the plane, I had so much energy (left). You run 27 times,
that's not really work. You can pass another 80 times and that's not work either. We are stealing right
now." -- LG Frank Middleton on whether the Raiders ran out of gas in the second half at Chicago.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
DE DeLawrence Grant lost his starting spot when he was declared inactive for the Chicago game.
Veteran Trace Armstrong and rookie Tyler Brayton got the starts on the left and right sides. Grant
had started at both positions this year.
Ostensibly the reason Grant was inactive was coach Bill Callahan wanted to get the speed of
rookie free agent Akbar Gbaja-Biamila into the equation and the results would seem to mitigate
against Grant getting his job back for now.
Gbaja-Biamila had one error, Callahan said, but for the most part "he came off the edge pretty well.
He pressured the passer, closed the edge and I think if Kordell (Stewart) would have held it one more
moment, he (Akbar) would have had his first sack."
Since strong-side linebacker Travian Smith has been starting for injured Bill Romanowski, he has
had his special teams roles curtailed. That is not a good development because Smith has been one of
the team's best special teams players over the last six years.
With both starting tackles (Dana Stubblefield and John Parrella) nursing injuries, the Raiders could
be in deep trouble if both are somehow unable to play Sunday. It would leave them with only Rod Coleman
on the inside. Chris Cooper has been a tackle, but has been playing mostly end this year. Even with a move
back to tackle for Cooper, it compromises the Raiders' ability to run a three-man tackle rotation. Callahan said
Gbaja-Biamila would move into the tackle rotation at that juncture but that would leave only Armstrong, Brayton
and Grant available at ends unless rookie DE Sam Williams is active. He has only been active one game this year.
--WR Jerry Porter practiced Wednesday for the first time since hernia surgery Sept. 11, but he is still being
listed as doubtful for the Cleveland game. Said Porter: "I don't like doubtful." He had hoped to return last
week against Chicago. His practice consisted of limited workouts.
--Although SLB Bill Romanowski (concussion) is also listed as doubtful, it would be a stretch to think
he is anything but out for the foreseeable future.
--RT Lincoln Kennedy, out for two games with a partially torn calf muscle in his left leg, returned to
practice Wednesday and said he hopes to be well enough to face Cleveland.
--DRT John Parrella (groin) did not practice Wednesday and is listed as questionable.
--DLT Dana Stubblefield (ankle) was also held out, leaving the Raiders short of defensive tackles
for practice purposes. Stubblefield has been on the list for three weeks but has played twice after
being deemed questionable each time.
--FS Rod Woodson (knee), as has been the case since his return from knee surgery three weeks
ago, was held out of practice and is being saved for games.
--RB Tyrone Wheatley (back) was a new addition to the injury list but was well enough to practice.
--S Derrick Gibson (shoulder) was not on the injury list but was held out of practice Wednesday.
He has missed no playing time since jamming the shoulder in the first half against San Diego 10 days ago.
--C/G Matt Stinchcomb (shoulder), inactive last week at Chicago, did not practice Wednesday.
--RG Mo Collins (knee) was a late addition to the injury report and was one of eight players who
did not practice. He has been on the injury report as questionable weekly since Week 2 but has missed
no game action. The difference is he has almost always practiced despite the injury.
--DE Sam Williams (knee) did not practice but depending on the status of tackles Parrella and
Stubblefield, he may be needed against the Browns.
--RB/KR Ronney Jenkins (ankle) practiced Wednesday and is being counted on for kickoff returns.
--TE O.J. Santiago (hamstring) was given the go-ahead for limited practice Wednesday. He was
inactive last week for the first time this year.
GAME PLAN: The Raiders will be facing the highest-rated pass defense they have seen this year when
they face the Browns (No. 2). In past weeks, the Raiders have been placed in positions where running
seemed to be their best option and yet they have stuck with the pass by more than a 2-to-1 ratio. Last
week, they ran at a 200-yard pace in the first half against Chicago, then only had six runs in the second
half. The Browns rank have the league's 26th-ranked rushing defense and gave up an NFL record 295
yards to Baltimore's Jamal Lewis in Week 2. Until they are determined to run, though, they are not
candidates for a full-scale infantry attack. On defense, the Raiders are 31st overall and are being hit hard
by runs on the perimeter. They don't expect Cleveland to attack them on the ground, however, and figure
to be more concerned with getting pressure on QB Tim Couch, only the second quarterback they have
faced in six weeks who would not be considered a mobile threat.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: CB Charles Woodson, coming off his most productive NFL game
(two interceptions, a fumble recovery) will face the Browns' leading receiver Kevin Johnson and their
scoring threat, Andre Davis (3 catches, 3 TDs).
--Whether Lincoln Kennedy or Langston Walker starts at RE, the opposition will be LE Courtney
Brown, the Browns' sack leader (4). The Raiders would be best served if both RT John Parrella (groin)
and LT Dana Stubblefield (ankle) are at top form because they will match their brute strength against a
rookie C, first round pick Jeff Faine.
--Raider K Sebastian Janikowski is 15-for-16 in field goals this year while Cleveland's Phil Dawson,
who once wore a Raider uniform, is 6-for-8.
INJURY IMPACT: If WR Jerry Porter can somehow make it into this game, it would give the
Raiders at least the illusion of a deep passing threat and force the defense to back off, thus giving
Tim Brown and Jerry Rice more room to maneuver in the short zones. Because they are so thin on
the defensive line, the condition of both starting defensive tackles (John Parrella and Dana Stubblefield)
is critical. The Raiders will be OK with Langston Walker at RT if Kennedy cannot go. Walker has filled
in capably and may even give Kennedy a run for his job when his partially torn calf muscle improves.