Raiders look to hit the ground running

Two years ago the Raiders were the most dominant running team in the NFL. Injuries along the offensive line and in the backfield derailed Oakland's ground assault last season, but first-year head coach Bill Callahan is making it a priority to get the running game back on track, though that might be a little easier said than done.

After all, the Raiders became a very prolific passing team in 2001 thanks, in part, to the addition of wide receiver Jerry Rice. Rice and fellow receiver Tim Brown, along with catch-happy running back Charlie Garner, gave quarterback Rich Gannon a plethora of targets to choose from and Gannon responded with his third consecutive 3,000-yard season and a second trip to the Pro Bowl.

But as he prepares for the opening of training camp, just two days away, Callahan is letting it known he wants the offense to get back to doing what it does best. In 2000, the Raiders led the league with 2,470 yards while also averaging 4.8 yards a carry, numbers Callahan says Oakland needs to get back to if it wants to make a serious run at the Super Bowl.

''We're going up to training camp and to Napa to improve the rush systems on both sides of the ball,'' said Callahan, who replaced Jon Gruden as Oakland's head coach when Gruden was shipped to Tampa Bay during the offseason. ''We want to be a more physical running team. We can get back to that very easily and that's our goal.''

Though they had acquired Rice and Garner, one of the game's top pass-receiving running backs, prior to the start of 2001, the Raiders went into last season bent on trying to run the ball the same way they had the previous year, when they led the AFC and were second in the NFL with 23 rushing touchdowns.

But things went downhill quickly. Starting center Barret Robbins was lost for the season to an ACL injury during the second game of the regular season. Right tackle Lincoln Kennedy and right guard Mo Collins were both hampered throughout the year by nagging injuries, as was left tackle Barry Sims. The only Oakland offensive lineman to make it through the entire year relatively pain free was left guard Steve Wisniewski, and he's since retired.

It didn't help that Tyrone Wheatley, who in 2000 had the first 1,000-yard season of his pro career, also was slowed by a variety of leg and foot ailments. As a result, Oakland's production on the ground dipped drastically.

The Raiders managed just 1,654 rushing yards last season, 24th among the NFL's 31 teams. Wheatley had just 276 yards, only 45 more than Gannon. Garner, forced to pick up the slack, had 839 yards but scored just one rushing touchdown.

Meanwhile the passing game took off. Oakland was second in the AFC and fifth overall during the 2001 season. Gannon threw for 3,828 yards and 27 touchdowns, finishing the year second only to St. Louis's Kurt Warner in quarterback rating. Brown and Rice each topped the 1,000-yard mark in the process, giving the Raiders a highly productive passing trio.

Still, Callahan says Oakland must get back to running the ball effectively if it wants to make a championship run.

''We strive for balance here. We always have and we will continue to do that,'' said Callahan. ''Last year ... we saw more eight-man fronts. We saw more people trying to take away our running game because any coordinator in this league knows that the number one priority is stopping the run. (Defenses) committed their people to doing that and they did a commendable job. With the injuries, we threw the ball a little more on those normal downs when we were running it in the past. We didn't use Tyrone as much because he was in and out, he was hurt and hobbled. So we didn't get that opportunity to really get him in his rhythm and get him going. But you see signs, you see spurts, that he still is a productive back.

''A lot was made last year going into training camp about Jerry Rice and Tim Brown. Is Tim going to get his catches? Is Jerry going to get his catches? I don't care about that. All I care about is winning. And I know that they care about winning as well. What's important is if we become the team I think we're capable of becoming and run the football, there will be enough touches for everybody.''

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