The passing game may enamor the fans but the Oakland Raiders Super Bowl aspirations hinge on the running game approaching the form it showed in 2000.
Oakland's running game plummeted from No. 1 in 2000, when it advanced to the AFC Title Game, to No. 22 last season despite the addition of Charlie Garner as a free agent from San Francisco. Garner produced 1,417 total yards (839 rushing, 578 receiving) from scrimmage and 72 receptions last season but the return of Tyrone Wheatley would go a long way toward re-establishing the ground game success.
Despite the glamorization of the forward pass, the ground is still more paramount to success. Last season, teams that ran the ball 30 or more times posted a record of 160-30 while teams passing the ball 30 or more times had a record of 124-183. Teams that ran the ball 40 or more times recorded a 34-2 mark while teams passing 40 or more times went 22-55.
With two future Hall-of-Fame wide receivers, Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, it would be unrealistic for Oakland to develop a "three yards in a cloud of dust" approach. The Raiders, however, need to make the ground game a more genuine threat. Wheatley ran for a career-high 1,046 yards in 2000 but only 276 on 88 carries last season.
The Raiders may not likely have a 1,000-yard rusher but if they get, say, Garner to rush for 800 yards and Wheatley 600, that would essentially be as efficient as one guy rushing for 1,400.
"If you look at our offense, we were much more balanced in 2000 than we were last year and it was only because Tyrone Wheatley had a good year," Brown said. "Obviously, getting him going and getting him the same amount of carries as Charlie would be huge for us."
Wheatley's season seemed to turn downhill in the Raiders 23-18 win at
Indianapolis. He fumbled pitch, dropped a swing pass in the open field, strained a knee ligament and had a sideline shouting match with now former head coach Jon Gruden that ended with Wheatley hurling his helmet.
Wheatley did not play for the next five weeks but he now contends the knee was healthy enough to play after three. He didn't play until the Raiders traveled to take on the New York Giants, who drafted him 17th overall selection in 1995. However, when it appeared Wheatley was becoming a factor in the Oakland he fumbled on the goal line against Kansas City.
Gruden, who is now Tampa Bay's head coach, held Wheatley out of a subsequent, midweek practice for what the coach said was an illness. Wheatley didn't touch the ball against San Diego that weekend and spent the rest of the season as a minimal factor in the team's offense.
Bill Callahan, who replaced Gruden as the head coach, has made it a point that Wheatley will be a bigger factor in 2002.