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OAKLAND AT DENVER; Tonight, 6, Channel 7

Finally, He Catches Raiders' Baby Boom

An 8-1 Start Is Brown's Reward After Years of Underachieving Teams and Davis' Meddling

November 13, 2000|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thirteen years a Raider.

Some might say Tim Brown's NFL fate sounds more like a life sentence than a brilliant career, but look at him now.

These Raiders are charmed.

They are 8-1, and at long last, they just win--whether it's by Rich Gannon's arm or Sebastian Janikowski's foot.

Consider what Brown has seen.

He has played for Mike Shanahan, Art Shell, Mike White, Joe Bugel and Jon Gruden.

He has caught passes from Jay Schroeder, Steve Beuerlein, Jeff Hostetler, Jeff George, Donald Hollas and Gannon, to name a few.

He remembers Bo Jackson's hip, Marcus Allen's feud with Al Davis, Todd Marinovich's wild ride and talk of Irwindale.

He actually played in Los Angeles, for gosh sake, and only three others among these Oakland Raiders did--Steve Wisniewski, James Jett and Greg Biekert.

"It's great. It's been a long battle," said Brown, a Raider since he was drafted No. 1 overall in 1988 after winning the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame.

All those 8-8 and 7-9 seasons can recede into the past. If the Raiders break their long drought at Mile High Stadium tonight against the Denver Broncos--the only team to beat them this season--they'll just about wrap up the AFC West.

"I really believe that no one can beat us unless we turn the ball over," Brown said. "That's my feeling."

It used to be they seemed to find a way not to win. In 12 seasons before this, Brown played on only four winning teams and in five playoff games, two of them victories.

Even the year they reached the AFC title game against Buffalo after the 1990 season, the Raiders lost by a score of 51-3.

"It was heartbreaking, to have so much talent and not be winning," Brown said. "At the same time, we always understood why we weren't winning.

"Either it was problems between players and players, players and coaches, or players and the organization. You always had something that was going on that was keeping this team from jelling together."

He gives credit to two people for the change--Gruden for making it happen, and Davis for letting it happen.

"You know, I think when Gruden got here, guys really started to believe that he was the guy running the show. It wasn't just Al all the time," Brown said. "That's a difference."

Hard to figure that it would be Gruden--the babyfaced coach with the tough demeanor, still the youngest coach in the NFL at 37--who finally got a hand on the reins held so long and so tightly by Davis.

Bugel, Gruden's predecessor, lasted only one 4-12 season.

Gruden has job security partly because he would have been willing not to have the job. And he secured the authority to make such moves as getting rid of George and bringing in Gannon, an unlikely choice who has become a star at quarterback.

Brown--remembered for once saying Davis might as well coach the team because "they could bring in Superman and he couldn't coach this team if the hierarchy doesn't change its philosophy"--tips his hat to Davis.

"You know, when things don't work for you--I know it may have worked for him back in the day--but when they don't work after a while, everyone has to change their ways," Brown said. "I'm sure he hasn't changed completely, but he's changed enough to allow this team to grow."

Davis is still at practice every Wednesday and Thursday and he still stopped by Brown's locker to congratulate him after the sweep of Kansas City, the first since Brown's rookie year.

But he is watching as this team grows in ways that somehow seem to suit the Raiders.

Take a quarterback no one had much regard for in Gannon. Add a runner, Tyrone Wheatley, who was something of a reclamation project. Top it off with a renegade receiver some teams wouldn't touch, Andre Rison, sentenced to two years' probation last week for writing bad checks.

It just works, baby.

"No one thought we would ever be able to come back and play like this," Brown said. "But we've got a special group of guys this year. We're all different, but on game day we all come together and get it done."

The addition of Rison could have rankled.

With 41 catches, Brown still leads the team, but he might be on his way to his lowest number of receptions since he had 49 in 1992.

But he has always played in the shadow of Jerry Rice in the Bay Area and he accepted the arrival of Rison, thanking him for the diminished double coverage.

"I've always been the guy here to catch all the balls to do this and do that," Brown said.

"I've said for years, I don't have any problems catching less balls if we're going to win more. So I think having him here, I'm not catching as many balls as I usually do, but we're winning games. We're keeping people off balance. That's the most important thing."

Note what he said. In 1997, Brown caught 104 passes. The Raiders went 4-12. "Now we have three or four really good receivers we can put out on the field," Gannon said. "We have Jett, Rison, Brown, and another guy, David Dunn. We feel like we have four good receivers. We feel like it's hard for people to match up."

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