Raiders: Wounded Pride

The Vikings' losses of late could all fall into the "should have" category. They get another chance to win a game they are favored in today in Oakland, and Raiders are beaten up badly.

Perhaps no team in the recent history of the NFL has fallen from grace farther faster than the 2003 Oakland Raiders. Earlier this calendar year, many people believed the Raiders would beat Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl. Less than 10 months later, the belief is the only way the Raiders make the playoffs will be to buy tickets.

The problems have been rampant, starting with quarterback. Rich Gannon had a record-setting year for passing in 2002, but through the first six games of the year this time around he was one of the lowest-rated passers in the league. Pulled vs. Kansas City because of a shoulder injury and subsequently placed on injured reserve, his replacement, Marques Tuiasosopo, tore his left MCL and is gone for the year. So, veteran backup Rick Mirer gets the call with Rob Johnson backing him up — explaining the malaise in Raider Nation.

The running game is solid but woefully underused by the Raiders. Charlie Garner is another runner/receiver in a recent streak vs. the Vikings who can hurt you many ways. He is the team leader in rushing and receptions and, while not a 20-carry player, is as important to the Raiders offense as someone like Ahman Green is for the Packers. However, he too was downgraded to doubtful this week. In his absence, rookie Justin Fargas could get the opportunity at feature back. In short-yardage situations, the Raiders have options, including Tyrone Wheatley and Zack Crockett — both of whom are adept goal-line runners.

The receiver corps took a massive hit opening day when young emerging star Jerry Porter went down with a hernia injury. Without the speed he brings to the vertical offense, defenses were able to pack the box on veterans Jerry Rice and Tim Brown and make them short-yardage possession receivers. With Porter back, it's expected Oakland will again try to spread the field, but Rice and Brown have been part of the Raiders contingent once viewed as "veteran" but now seen as "old." At tight end, a small mutiny is underway. Last year, Doug Jolley was one of the primary Gannon targets late in the year and in the postseason. He has recently been replaced by rookie Teyo Johnson, who has more big-play ability but is raw in the blocking realm of the game.

The aging offensive line has been another area ravaged by injuries. Tackle Lincoln Kennedy has missed time with a calf injury and been replaced by second-year pro Langston Walker. Guard Matt Stinchcomb went on IR, with Brad Badger getting guard duty now. He is joined by LT Barry Sims and Mo Collins and center Barrett Robbins, who has returned to action after his public absence before the Super Bowl. This is a line capable of dominating at the point of attack, but, to date, has yet to do so because of a one-in, one-out rotation.

With the problems Oakland has seen on offense, the defense has experienced its woes as well. The Raiders are near the bottom of the league in sacks, and a mix of age and inexperience on the defensive front is to blame. At the ends, the Raiders have both ends of the spectrum — 15-year pro Trace Armstrong on one side and rookie Tyler Brayton at the other. Armstrong has been spelled by former starter DeLawrence Grant, but he and Brayton are simply too inexperienced to be counted on together. In the middle, Dana Stubblefield and Rod Coleman simply haven't been getting the job done. Stubblefield, a perennial All-Pro while with the 49ers, hasn't been as dominant with the Raiders, and that weakness has been exposed. He missed the last two games to injury and has been listed as doubtful today. This is a team that will likely have two or even three new starters next year — and they are well on their way already with all the injuries.

The linebacker corps took a hit when troubled Bill Romanowski, one of the meanest hitters in the league, was lost for the season with problems related to concussions. He has been replaced by six-year vet Travian Smith, who joins MLB Napoleon Harris and OLB Eric Barton in a younger, faster LB corps. But, for their speed, they are missing game experience and have been abused in both the run game and short passing game all season.

The secondary remains one of the strong points of this team and, despite problems with the rest of the defense, this group has been stout. At the corners, the Raiders have a pair of true shutdown types in Charles Woodson and Phillip Buchanon. Both were first-round draft picks who have lived up to their blue-chip status. At the safeties, Oakland has future Hall of Famer Rod Woodson and former first-rounder Derrick Gibson. Of all the problems the Raiders have had on the field, this group hasn't been one of them.

When the schedule first came out, this looked like a long-shot win for the Vikings — a second straight road game to the West Coast against the defending AFC champ. But now this has all the makings of a Raiders team ready to fall apart and implode on itself, and the timing couldn't be better for the Vikings to steal a win out of the Black Hole.

Randy Moss vs. Charles Woodson —
During the 1998 NFL draft, the Raiders' Charles Woodson was drafted with the fourth pick to become the game's pre-eminent shutdown cornerback. With the 21st pick of that same draft, the Vikings signed a troubled player with a world of talent — Randy Moss. Sunday they meet in the NFL for just the second time, but it will be the matchup to watch.

The two players have had quite a role reversal since they first played one another. In that game, Woodson kept Moss out of the end zone, but he caught four passes for 86 yards. At that time, Moss was seen as one of the NFL's problem children and Woodson was viewed as the defensive franchise player of the Raiders. Now it is Moss who has become a team leader and Woodson who has become a lightning rod of controversy.

Woodson has called out head coach Bill Callahan on national TV twice in recent weeks and has become the focal point of a Raiders team that has unraveled quickly. But, for the purposes of the Vikings game — and his matchup with Moss — it may be his contract status that makes a bigger difference. Woodson will become a free agent after this season and, if he doesn't re-sign with the Raiders, he is sure to draw as much interest as anyone in the free-agent marketplace. As he attempts to leverage himself as the best available free agent in the Class of 2004, a head-to-head matchup with one of the game's best wide receivers would be a feather in his agent's cap heading into the offseason.

Look for Woodson to get plenty of opportunities to single-cover Moss. Teams over the last few years have paid dearly for that tactic, but the Raiders have the confidence in Woodson that he can take away anyone's top receiver — even someone the caliber of Moss. While he won't get the one-on-one assignment all day, Woodson will likely be on an island for 10 plays or more with Moss. Watch for it.

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