|Sunday, December 30
Plenty of whine served in Raider locker room
By John Clayton
DENVER -- The Raiders can rightfully scream that they were robbed at 5,280 feet. Umpire Carl Paganelli flagged guard Frank Middleton for the rarest of rare calls -- tripping blitzing safety Kenoy Kennedy -- that erased what could have been a go-ahead 70-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Rice with 5:12 remaining.
The Raiders can rightfully claim that their defensive linemen were erroneously called for six offside penalties. Defensive tackle Darrell Russell claimed Broncos center Tom Nalen kept inching the ball forward to entice those type of calls. Raiders defensive tackle Grady Jackson suggested quarterback Brian Griese jerked his hands a couple times before snaps.
Quarterback Rich Gannon didn't mince any words, even though his opinion didn't go over well in the press box.
"It's not a question of us not playing hard," Gannon said. "We play hard every week. I think we need to be more disciplined. I'll get scolded for saying it. We need to be a more disciplined football team."
Wasn't that the old knock on the Raiders? Great talent, bad discipline. Jon Gruden changed all that. Work ethic improved. So did accountability. Had Gannon survived the beating he took last January in the AFC championship game by the Ravens defense, the Raiders might have been in Tampa for the Super Bowl.
Of late, though, the Raiders have slipped. They've lost three of their last five. In the past four games, they've averaged 16 points a game, and it's becoming rare to have even a two-touchdown game. They've been climbing the charts on penalties and have 102 called against them for 862 yards over 15 games.
Receiver Jerry Rice, who brings in the fresh perspective of playing across the bay with the 49ers until this year, seemed to agree with Gannon.
"I don't care how good you are, if you have penalties like that, it's going to cost you, and it's going to catch you in the end, so you've got to cut down on those," Rice said. "If we can cut down on those, we have a chance to win. I think what this team really needs to do is clean up everything. We need to start from the bottom and look at ourselves."
Receiver Tim Brown, who is the heart and soul of the locker room, didn't necessarily agree with Gannon. Once he heard Gannon's cry for discipline, he fired back, "That's not what we need to be talking about. We need to be talking turnovers. If Rich can't control that, then that's Gruden's job. If Gruden isn't talking about it (discipline), he doesn't need to be talking about it."
Still something is amiss with the Raiders. They've lost five games by a total of 25 points. In November, their run defense vanished into the Black Hole. In December, it's been the offense that's been in disguise. While the stats are nice, the touchdowns aren't there.
Take, for example, the first half of Sunday's game against the Broncos. Gannon completed 20 of 22 passes for 193 yards in the first half. Rice caught eight balls for 99 yards. Gannon countered a wild bunch of blitzing schemes by working the flats with short passes and tossing a few checkdown routes across the middle of the field.
As flawless as Gannon was, the Broncos went into halftime with a 13-10 lead. The dinks and dunks were pretty, but ball possession meant nothing when Bill Romanowski slipped free into the backfield and decked Gannon with a sack midway through the first quarter. Bertrand Berry recovered the fumble and three plays later, the Broncos were tying the score at 3-3.
You almost get the feeling as though the Raiders are falling into a pattern that comes to West Coast offense teams. The Eagles certainly have gone through it this year. Donovan McNabb may get some nice drives and his offense may eat up a lot of the clock, but it seems as though the Eagles aren't getting many touchdown drives in the first three quarters.
Brown suggested that teams are dropping more into zone defensive schemes and letting Gannon pick them apart.
"That's what the West Coast offense is," Brown said. "You use short passes to supplement the running game. Charlie Garner adds a couple of runs, but Charlie isn't going to knock over a lot of people in there. We got Tyrone Wheatley in there and he got some seven- and eight-yard runs. If we can get him in there for 15 to 20 carries a game, I think we will be fine."
Interesting. The Raiders switched to more of a passing style of offense this year after leading the league in rushing last season. Garner is more of a pass catcher than run producer. Sunday was vintage Garner. He had nine carries for 23 yards and nine catches for 59. Brown seems to suggest the Raiders should go back to running. Wheatley, the forgotten member of the backfield, entered the game with only 248 yards on 80 carries. He had five carries for 17 yards.
Gruden didn't seem to be stressing major changes or panic. Gannon threw 49 passes, completing 35 for 313 yards, but he was intercepted twice and lost a fumble with a sack. "You're not going to beat anybody with three turnovers," Brown said. Still, Gruden didn't duck the concept that the Raiders weren't taking advantage of opportunities.
"It's hard to go 20 for 22 every half," Gruden said. "Denver came in here and if you look at it carefully, applied a lot of pressure. When they weren't blitzing, they were showing us lots of pressure. That made it very difficult. It wasn't just a nine-man front or a 10-man front or 11-man front. We felt that throwing the ball early, if we had some success, might get them out of that a little bit. We were unable to make plays in some key situations."
The fourth quarter turned into a disaster. The Broncos led 20-17, and the Raiders had a third-and-2 at the Broncos' 40. Gannon was called for delay of game. On the next play, Gannon, facing a full blitz, ignored Rice who cut short a deep route and threw to hardly used James Jett, who didn't fight for the ball and let Deltha O'Neal grab an interception.
"When the ball is in the air, you have to attack the football," Rice said. "James is a great athlete, but he'll learn from that one. Somehow in that situation, you've got to make a play even if the ball is not thrown well."
Middleton said he'll have to play a little better to avoid the strange tripping call that erased Rice's 70-yard touchdown with 5:12 left. Wide receiver Jerry Porter appeared to be interfered with on a fourth-down incompletion with 2:04 left.
"We're in Denver," Grady Jackson said. But if the Raiders want a bye week in the playoffs, they better clean up their own problems before worrying about potential close calls by officials.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.