Garner is Raiders big little man

The three most prominent names associated with the Raiders offense are quarterback Rich Gannon and wide receivers Tim Brown and Jerry Rice. No surprise there, considering two of of three are headed to the Hall of Fame while the third is enjoying a rebirth of his career. But arguably the biggest key to Oakland's sustained success this season has been running back Charlie Garner.

With 515 yards rushing and 325 yards receiving, Garner has been the Raiders do-all player this season. More importantly, when Tyrone Wheatley went down with an injury earlier this season that forced him to miss four games, it was Garner who stepped into the starting role and helped keep Oakland's offense going without skipping a beat. And while the running game hasn't been the overpowering product it was a year ago, when Oakland led the entire NFL in rushing, Garner's presence in the lineup has been a key factor in helping the Raiders to an 8-2 record that is tied for the league's best mark. An overlooked component of Oakland's attack? Perhaps. Unappreciated? Not even close. ''He has just really matured into a professional and he can hurt you a lot of different ways, as a receiver, as a runner,'' said Oakland head coach Jon Gruden, who coached Garner when both were in Philadelphia. ''And he has been as good a blitz pick-up man as we have had on our team in the last four years. He has done a lot for us. He's a fun guy to have in the huddle. He's kind of like a joker or ace. He's good in any hand you have.'' Garner rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his last two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers before signing with the Raiders this past offseason. With Wheatley back in Oakland's lineup and likely to dip into the number of carries Garner gets, a third consecutive 1,000-yard season is unlikely. Yet the argument could be made that without Garner the Raiders wouldn't be where they are today, with a comfortable lead in the AFC West and the front-runner for homefield advantage in the playoffs. Wide receiver Tim Brown, for one, thinks Garner has been the one player Oakland has had to rely on most this season. ''Obviously he's been the difference with Tyrone being out,'' Brown said. ''It it would have been the same situation last year, if Tyrone would have went down, I don't know if Napoleon (Kaufman) could have stepped in and done everything that Charlie's doing. Napoleon was a different player. Charlie's been the key, the catalyst to our offense. '' NOTES Linebacker William Thomas isn't expected to rejoin the Raiders until Thursday night, according to Gruden. Thomas is in Amarillo, Texas to attend the funeral of his brother, Derwin Wooten, who died last week. ''We'll see where he is mentally and physically when he gets back,'' said Gruden. ''This is all about him right now. If he feels like he can get himself mentally ready to play, we'll play him.'' ... Left tackle Barry Sims and cornerback Charles Woodson were both held out of practice Wednesday. Both are questionable to play against the Cardinals ... Gruden said that Mo Collins and Frank Middleton would continue to split time at right guard, but the Raiders are also exploring the possibility of using Middleton at left tackle should Sims be unavailable ... Woodson's status could mean more playing time for Tory James, who likely would be paired against the Cardinals' 240-pound wide receiver David Boston. ''The guy is really something,'' Gruden said of Boston. ''He's making all kinds of plays. He runs people over. He looks like a doggone tight end until he runs away from you, then he's like Bob Hayes. He's a combination of speed and size and elusiveness. He's a thing of beauty to watch. He's going to be a guy that really forces us to play extremely well and take notice of where he is at all times.'' INJURY REPORT Raiders: Tackle Barry Sims (foot) questionable; cornerback Charles Woodson (toe) questionable; running back Terry Kirby (ankle) probable; tight end Roland Williams (ankle) probable. Cardinals: Defensive tackle Mario Fatafuchi (hand) out; wide receiver Rob Moore (hamstring) out; punter Scott Player (ankle) out; linebacker Rob Fredrickson (knee) questionable; wide receiver Frank Sanders (hamstring) questionable; defensive end Thomas Burke (neck) probable; running back Thomas Jones (upper respiratory) probable; defensive end Fred Wakefield (calf) probable; safety Adrian Wilson (thigh) probable.

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