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Third Wheel

August 17, 2003|Dan Pompei | Sporting News

On the field in front of you at Raider camp is a big, young, tremendously gifted receiver who is ready to become one of the premier players in the game. In his way is Jerry Rice, not showing a bit of his age.

On the field in front of you four or five years ago at 49er camp was a big, young tremendously gifted receiver who was ready to become one of the premier players in the game. In his way was Jerry Rice, not showing a bit of his age.

That was Terrell Owens then; this is Jerry Porter now.

What was gold has turned to silver for Rice, 40. In that regard, he is like a lot of us. But in most regards, he is like none of us. Every year I go to training camp expecting to see evidence that Rice is human, and every year I see a machine of a football player running routes with explosion and fluidity. Rice doesn't look young as much as he looks invincible.

Not counting clips of old-timers, this is the best football player I have ever seen.

Marc Trestman calls the plays for Rice's Raiders, as he did for Rice's 49ers in the mid-1990s. Trestman swears he has not seen a change in Rice's level of play since both were making their living across the Bay. At 37, Raider quarterback Rich Gannon knows signs of age when he sees them. "With old receivers, you expect that their legs will go," Gannon says. "But Jerry hasn't slowed down or changed a bit since he came here [in 2001]."

Rice doesn't run away from defenders the way he once could. But that hardly compromises him. He led the Raiders last season in receptions of 25 yards or more with 10.

Yet, feeding Rice means denying Porter and ignoring one of the most sacred commandments of the NFL bible: Thou shalt not let an old player get in the way of an emerging star. The Raiders, however, don't read the same bible as everyone else. Everyone from team owner Al Davis on down always has venerated veterans, showing deference to accomplished graybeards such as Rice and Tim Brown.

Many outsiders expect Porter to get more catches this year at the expense of Brown, 37, but no one in the organization is saying that. Brown's production dipped last year; he had only two touchdown catches and didn't produce 1,000 yards receiving for the first time in 10 years. But that doesn't mean he has lost it.

According to STATS Inc., Brown had a better average for yards after the catch (5.3) last season than Porter (4.7) and Rice (4.2). You should have seen him catch a swing pass at the line of scrimmage and turn it into a 41-yard touchdown in Week 4.

Brown came to camp this year with lively legs and renewed vigor. "Tim has a lot of plays left in him," Trestman says. So Brown, too, is an impediment to Porter.

In his third season, Porter finally started to mature in 2002. He had 51 catches for 688 yards and nine touchdowns and was the Raiders' most productive receiver in the playoffs. This summer, Raider cornerback Charles Woodson says he has noticed improved route-running and a greater understanding of defenses from Porter.

When the Raiders devise their game plan to take advantage of mismatches, Porter has to be the receiver they intend on employ. At 6-2, 220, he's bigger and stronger than every cornerback he faces, and he's the fastest of the Raiders' three primary receivers. Plus, Porter has proved he can beat bump-and-run coverage.

But the Raiders say they are not intent on getting any specific player the ball. "One thing I've learned is if you try to get the ball to a guy a certain amount of times in a game, it takes the focus away from letting the game take its normal course," says Trestman.

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