Raiders Aging, But Hungry

The Raiders are an aging team, but a very formidable preseason opponent for the Vikings. Rich Gannon and the Oakland Raiders' quick-strike passing game should be a good test for young defensive backs Brian Williams and Rushen Jones.

About the only thing that football players hate more than having a losing season is to get close enough to a championship that they can taste it — only to have it ripped away from them. Many believed if the Oakland Raiders had won the Super Bowl last year, several veteran players would have retired on top. Instead, the Raiders got hammered by Tampa Bay and return a veteran-laden lineup for one last run for the Lombardi Trophy.

When the Raiders meet the Vikings Friday, it will likely be the only game in which the numerous veteran players on the roster get a long look before the regular season begins.

That starts with quarterback Rich Gannon. The former Viking has found a home in Oakland and has put up some eye-popping numbers in his four years as a full-time starter. The Raiders have adopted a pass-happy offense that allows Gannon to make quick reads and spread the ball around to several targets. He will likely play the first half before giving way to his eventual replacements, Marques Tuiasosopo and veteran Rick Mirer. Look for the Raiders to attack the Vikings secondary and test the new-look unit.

The running game wasn't abandoned last year, but it has been used more to keep defenses honest than to pound the ball. Charlie Garner leads the way again, coming off a season in which he came close to having 1,000 yards rushing and receiving, but he may not play tonight. He is a dangerous threat ideally suited for the Raiders offense but is far from the only horse in the stable. Veteran Tyrone Wheatley can pound the ball when needed, Zack Crockett is the short-yardage specialist and rookie Justin Fargas is being groomed as the eventual featured back in the Raiders offense. All of them will play roles for the offense this year, but Fargas is the player who will likely get the longest look vs. the Vikings.

What needs to be said about the receiver corps? Jerry Rice and Tim Brown are sure Hall of Famers, but they're not the big news. Wideout Jerry Porter and tight end Doug Jolley became Gannon's go-to guys late in the season and during the playoffs and they will be critical to the long-term future of the Raiders. Even with solid go-to guys up front, the Raiders still have quality behind them with wide receivers Alvis Whitted and Marcus Knight and tight end Roland Williams. This is the reason the Raiders can opt to pass 50 times a game by choice, not force, and these guys will be the strongest test yet to what (if any) improvements have been made in the Vikings secondary.

The only question on offense is up front. With the shocking development of All-Pro center Barret Robbins going AWOL before the Super Bowl, there are concerns about how the O-line will hold up. The Raiders have depth and excellent starting tackles in Barry Sims and Lincoln Kennedy. If Robbins returns for the season, he will be flanked at guard by Mo Collins and either Frank Middleton or former Viking Brad Badger. In fact, some teams might settle for the second-team offensive line of the Raiders, with Langston Walker and Chad Slaughter at tackle, the Middleton/Badger loser at guard and Adam Treu at center. Robbins holds the key to success here and, while he likely won't play vs. the Vikings, he's needed for the Raiders' Super Bowl run in 2003.

There are no critical questions about the offense, but the defense is another story. It is a unit that has a lot of great players, but age is playing a factor. Three key players — DE Trace Armstrong and DTs John Parella and Dana Stubblefield — have a combined 33 years of NFL experience behind them. They're mixed in with some young talent like ends Kenyon Coleman and DeLawrence Grant and tackles Rod Coleman and Junior Ioane, but this is a group that, while experienced, has seen better days. If teams are going to beat the Raiders, pounding the ball at this line is the start to success.

The linebackers are unsung, but very good and very thin. At one point earlier this summer, the Raiders had just five LBs on the roster, led by emerging star Eric Barton, veteran Bill Romanowki and middle linebacker Napoleon Harris. Travian Smith has become a valued outside man and second-year LB Tim Johnson is making strides while learning under the best teachers around. This group, as much as any, lives up to the Raider mystique of heavy hitting and cheap shots. Expect to see the same this year.

The secondary doesn't have a lot of depth, but those in the starting lineup are as feared a foursome as there is in the league. With cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Phillip Buchanon, who is questionable tonight, and safeties Rod Woodson and Derrick Gibson, the Raiders have four former first-round picks in the starting lineup. Throw in rookie first-rounder Nnamdi Asomugha and you have five. Depth is a concern, however, with Terrence Shaw, Asomugha and Anthony Parker in reserve CB roles and Keyon Nash, Eric Johnson and Anthony Dorsett serving as very raw replacements at safety. The front-line guys need to stay healthy here. If they do, the prospect of beating the Raiders through the air becomes almost nonexistent.

The Raiders are a team that is hungrier this year than they were last year. They were convinced the Super Bowl title was theirs. When it all blew away early in the second half of the Super Bowl, the Raiders vowed to keep their team together one more year to try to finish the job. It's now or never for many Raiders in 2003, and, while they will likely hold a lot in reserve in the preseason, the Vikings will probably see the most of the front-liners than any team in the preseason.



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