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Friday, October 4
 
Raiders look better with age

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- The horn blows at the Raiders' state-of-the-art training facility. Veteran players bound off the emerald practice field on Thursday with the verve and enthusiasm of cats toying with mice -- but please, don't tell Al Davis we saw them.

Jerry Rice, pushing 40, still looks smooth and lithe. Rod Woodson, as hard as Alcatraz looming out in the Bay, is 37. Tim Brown and Rich Gannon, a mere 36, are bristling with vigor. Trace Armstrong and Bill Romanowski, also 36, are looking good, too.

Rod Woodson
Rod Woodson recorded three interceptions last Sunday, lifting his career total to 64.
It's just a morning walk-through before lunch and practice in preparation for Sunday's intriguing game at the Buffalo Bills. But it's the next game and these veterans already are fired up. The 3-0 Raiders are one of two NFL teams with a perfect record -- the surprising San Diego Chargers, fellow tenants in the suddenly difficult AFC West, are also unbeaten -- despite their status as the league's statistically oldest squad.

This observation is getting a little old for the aforementioned players, all of whom were born before the first Super Bowl was played. Still, they are reasonably polite when the subject invariably comes up.

"When you see how hard Jerry and Tim work, you realize it's no accident," said Gannon, who sees himself as a "grinder" compared to the future Hall of Fame receivers. "They are still trying to improve themselves. I think we all believe we can get better. That's why we're still playing."

Said Rice, "I'm still looking to play the perfect game. Every time you break down a game film, you can see places where you didn't do this or you didn't do that. It's something I'm still striving for."

Every time these great players play, it seems, something historic happens. During the course of last Sunday's 52-25 trashing of the Tennessee Titans, three more milestones were achieved:

  • Rice, already the holder of 14 NFL records, passed Walter Payton to become the league's all-time leader in yards from the line of scrimmage. Rice is at 21,281 yards, or better than 12 miles in the congested freeways that are NFL fields.

  • Woodson, who intercepted three passes against the Titans, broke the NFL record for career interception return yardage when he bolted 82 yards for a touchdown. He now has 1,339 yards, 57 more than the Giants' Emlen Tunnell.

  • Brown, who caught six passes for 90 yards against Tennessee, moved into third place on the all-time NFL list with 954 career receptions. Only Rice (1,384) and Cris Carter (1,093) have more.

    And while the Raiders' veterans have generally poo-pooed records as they have systematically fallen, these seemed to strike a chord.

    "Without a doubt, especially when you can break a record like Walter's," Rice said. "He's a guy I have the utmost respect for and had a chance to meet. He was a great individual, so I'm honored to be able to surpass him. But records are meant to be broken, so I don't know how long it's going to last."

    Said Woodson, "The individual things are good, I guess, after your career is over and done with. In the meantime, I want some more victories. I came here to get some wins and try to get a ring. We've got 13 games left in our season. We can't rest on our laurels."

    The Raiders are functioning at a high level in all areas. They scored 21 points within the first six minutes of last Sunday's win, with only one offensive play. Woodson's first interception set up the first score, a 17-yard pass from Gannon to running back Charlie Garner. Phillip Buchanon and Terry Kirby returned punts for touchdowns of 83 and 79 yards, respectively. Later, Woodson scored on the way to those 52 points, which tied a Raiders regular-season record.

    " We are getting older and we are getting better. There's no reason to think that's going to change anytime soon. "
    Jerry Rice, Raiders wide receiver

    One of the oldest and most cherished clichés in sport is that veterans compensate for a lost step with experience. Turns out, as with many clichés, it's true. Rice acknowledged Thursday that he has lost that step -- hardly a news flash for someone who will turn 40 on Oct. 13 -- but consider the wondrous things he and Gannon are doing.

    It was second-and-10 from the Raiders' 19-yard line in the first quarter. Gannon, surveying the Titans' defense, didn't like what he saw and audibled to another play. But the Titans recognized the call and made the proper adjustment, and Gannon was forced to adjust his call a second time. He flashed a hand signal at Rice and, for a moment, established eye contact. Rice caught the gesture and slanted from his wide-right spot. He was open early, inside the cornerback, but Gannon waited another second and when Rice flashed open a second time in the middle of the field, he delivered the perfect pass. Rice went 75 yards, all the way to the Titans' 6-yard line.

    Under normal circumstances, it's an eight- to 10-yard gain. Under the circumstances, the Titans, according to Gannon, probably make an interception or a sack if he doesn't hook up with Rice. Instead, it's 75 yards.

    "The small things," Gannon said. "Those are the differences experience can mean for you."

    Certainly the Raiders' vast experience has been an asset in beating Seattle (31-17), Pittsburgh (30-17) and Tennessee. But just as clearly, the team's window of opportunity is closing. This is a team, after all, that projected zero starters from the previous three drafts.

    They reached the AFC Championship two years ago, but Tony Sirgusa took Gannon out of the game and the Raiders lost 16-3. A year ago, the snow and a by-the-book interpretation of the NFL tuck rule cost the Raiders another berth in the AFC title game when New England took a memorable 16-13 overtime win.

    It is fashionable this year to doubt the aging Raiders. They started 10-3 in 2001 but lost their last three regular-season games. Their scoring and running totals suffered. They lost their head coach, John Gruden, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    Can the Raiders do it this time around? Can they win a Super Bowl ring for their aging veterans?

    The schedule is daunting; after Sunday's game at Buffalo: at St. Louis, San Diego, at Kansas City, San Francisco, at Denver, New England, at Arizona, New York Jets, at San Diego, at Miami, Denver and Kansas City.

    The players say they are unconcerned.

    "We are getting older and we are getting better," Rice insisted. "There's no reason to think that's going to change anytime soon."

    Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.







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