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Diane Pucin

Simply Put, These Raiders Didn't Cut It

January 27, 2003|Diane Pucin

SAN DIEGO — In the end, none of it mattered.

Not Jerry Rice's past greatness nor Tim Brown's consistent excellence. Not Al Davis's lifelong greed, nor Raider mystique. Not Rich Gannon's perseverance and toughness and MVP award, nor Bill Romanowski's pills, potions or intimidating methods. Not the Raider Nation and their silver and black faces and their spikes and tattoos.

And certainly not the betting line, which had the Raiders favored, nor all the NFL experts. Four of the five Sports Illustrated NFL specialists picked the Raiders to win.

Favored? How? Why?

The Raiders looked just like Iowa against USC. The Raiders looked as if they had never seen anything like these other pirates, the Buccaneers. These other pirates were faster, tougher, more confident. These other pirates were unworried, playful, easily operating at a quicker tempo while staying completely under control.

For three quarters, there wasn't much the Raiders could do. Keyshawn Johnson was running away while Rice and Brown were running in clay.

What were all those NFL experts thinking? They liked the Raiders, on TV, on the radio, in on-line predictions columns and pre-game chat shows. Why? How? Who thought the aging, sluggish, uninspired Raiders could or would compete with the Buccaneers?

Tampa Bay had the better offense. And the defensive matchup was no contest. Coaching smarts? Advantage Tampa Bay.

Don't blame the Raiders. They had an excuse for believing they had a shot. Athletes have to think that way. But the rest of the world? Was no one watching last week? Did no one notice what the Buccaneers did to Philadelphia last week? Is anyone home at Pundit Central?

If you were surprised, any of you, even you passport-carrying members of the Raider Nation, you just haven't been paying attention.

Athletes who are strong, quick and aggressive now, who are doing the right things now, will beat the guys who were really strong, quick and aggressive at one time and who are still pretty good. But who aren't quite good enough now.

If you fell in love with the Raiders' passing attack -- 37-year-old Gannon to 40-year-old Rice and 36-year-old Brown -- then you're a nostalgia buff.

"It wasn't their speed that did us in," Brown said. "It was just that we didn't make plays."

It was the speed, though. And the fresh legs and the way Tampa Bay defenders could hit Gannon with sprinter speed because no one was slowing them down at the line of scrimmage.

It was speed that allowed Buccaneer defensive backs to have four of the five interceptions of Gannon passes. Those defensive backs could catch up to Gannon's passes quicker than his receivers.

The reason the Raiders didn't make offensive plays was because the Buccaneer defenders were too fast. Tampa Bay free safety Dexter Jackson was reading and receiving Gannon's passes faster than Rice.

Rice is to be admired for keeping himself in playing shape and to be applauded for working harder than anyone for 20 years. But when he says that, "Yes, absolutely I'll be back next year, no doubt, no question about it," you can't help but wonder what he is thinking.

Jerry Rice is not going to win another Super Bowl title. Not unless he sneaks off to Tampa and becomes a fourth or fifth receiver for the Buccaneers and plays for Jon Gruden.

And if you think that Raider owner Al Davis is to be admired for his loner tendencies and his welcoming of castoffs, is to be applauded for his acceptance of renegades and malcontents, can you forgive him for making the biggest mistake in team history?

Does it make you happy that Davis has $8 million in the bank and four high draft choices while the Buccaneers have Gruden?

Finally, Davis's arrogance and greed and iron hand and stubbornness cost him big.

Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks said it was a big advantage, having Oakland's previous coach on the Buccaneer sideline.

"Jon knows how Rich Gannon thinks," Brooks said. "Jon knows all of Rich's tendencies and his ability. I think Jon was in Rich's head. I think that was a huge key for us today."

It wasn't helpful that Oakland center Barret Robbins was dismissed from the team Saturday after missing the day's workouts and team functions. Whether he was back in Oakland or in a local hospital was being debated, but it's not a surprise. The Raiders under Davis have historically accepted erratic behavior and excused it and let it pass. Then it happens on the eve of the Super Bowl. And all of a sudden your starting center is gone.

That's Raider World. And so is playing with the aged and the castoffs. Some day all those draft choices from Tampa may be productive. But Rice and Brown and Gannon and Romanowski and many of the other Raiders won't be. And so the rebuilding will have started.

This was the small window of opportunity for Oakland, the single chance.

For 40 minutes after the game, the Raiders, all of them, kept denying the obvious. No, Gannon said, it was not Tampa Bay's speed that hurt them. It was Raider mistakes. No, Brown said, Buccaneer speed was a non-factor. It was only bad operation of the Raider offense. No, Rice said, Tampa Bay's speed didn't matter. If only the Raiders had executed.

They were the athletes, they are allowed to be in denial.

The rest of us should believe our eyes though. It's too late for these Raiders.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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