Wheatley likely to be the lead man

At times the last two seasons, running backs played a secondary role in the Oakland Raiders offense -- except for a nondescript handoff here or there.

That won't be the case under first-year Oakland Raiders head coach Norv Turner. The question is, which back will end up being the bell-cow? Tyrone Wheatley, Justin Fargas, Amos Zereoue and Troy Hambrick have all been battling diligently for that role. While there is the strength of numbers, who knows if any will be the legitimate lead horse. The Raiders hope to come close to finding out that answer tonight in a preseason game at Arizona.

Granted, having one back carry the ball 25-30 times is not the best thing. After all, look at what it did to guys like Eddie George, Emmitt Smith, and Eric Dickerson. They had productive careers but the heavy workload took its toll. Nonetheless, team's that emphasize the run should want a back it can count on for 15 carries.

Wheatley looks like the guy who will replace Charlie Garner, who is now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, as the lead runner. He has looked best of all the backs in the first two preseason games, running with authority.

"We need to (use Wheatley)," Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon said. "He was a 1,000 yard rusher in 2000. We need to have a balanced attack. Norv's system is predicated on having a 1,000 yard rusher. He's had it everywhere he's been. He's had it with Emmitt (Smith). He's had it with Ricky Williams."

Turner's offensive philosophy is more akin to the Raiders the 1960s and 1970s -- power-running game with the vertical passing game.

"That's classic Norv," Wheatley said. "When you have guys like Alvis Whitted, Doug Gabriel, Jerry Porter, that can go get it, it makes it easy to throw it up there. You just have to get guys one-on-one. In he past, you didn't want the defense to blitz, now you hope they blitz. It is simple but what makes it complex is how he calls it."

Wheatley put up a solid second half showing last year, particularly in the second half. You could argue that Wheatley was the Raiders offensive MVP. Wheatley carried the ball 159 times for 678 yards and four touchdowns. The only downside about Wheatley is that at age 32 he is long on mileage. Maybe, not like say, an Eddie George but it would take a stellar effort to approach his 2000 season (when he rushed for 1,046 yards on 232 carries – both career highs). Plus, he has yet to show he can make through the season unscathed.

"Running games are really no different from team-to-team," Wheatley said. "It's how the coaches utilize it. That's the only difference in each team and their running game. You might have one difference here or there but there's no huge difference."

Behind Wheatley is Fargas, who is fast but injury-prone. Zereoue was a nice change of pace for Jerome Bettis but his best season in 2002 consisted of 193 carries for 762 yards. Hambrick carried 275 times last year in Dallas but could only total 972 yards, good for a 3.3 yards per carry average. If the team decides to go with Wheatley like it appears, Hambrick then might be the odd man out.

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