|Raiders pass their way to San Diego
By John Clayton
OAKLAND, Calif. -- For four decades, Al Davis has talked about a Commitment to Excellence. As the Raiders head toward Super Bowl XXXVII, the commitment has chance. It's a commitment to pass the football. That is the excellence of the first Raiders' team in the Super Bowl after a 19-year drought.
Quarterback Rich Gannon, continuing to prove he was the NFL's MVP, came out throwing against the Tennessee Titans. He completed his first four passes for 62 yards. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue might cringe at the thought that his owners' meeting rival Al Davis is in the Super Bowl. The spirit of Vince Lombardi might be cringing at the thought that a team that called only one running play in the first three quarters of an AFC title game is in the Super Bowl.
But that's what the Raiders did against the Titans. They passed. And they passed. And they passed. And by the end of Sunday's championship showdown, Gannon had 41 throws, three touchdown passes and a 114.5 quarterback rating. The Raiders had a 41-24 victory that continues to defy the norms of conventional championship teams.
"The game plan obviously with the Titans' front four was to throw the ball," wide receiver Tim Brown said. "These guys can pass rush. So we hoped that they would get tired and then we would run the ball. It pretty much worked to perfection."
"I had some opportunities to run and try to make plays with my legs," said Gannon, who completed 29 of 41 passes for 286 yards and wasn't sacked. "I saw Steve McNair over there. I felt he was showing me up running around."
But that's the difference. McNair was a one-man show, and the Raiders have a circus of offensive talent. In the first quarter, McNair tried to match Gannon pass-for-pass and score-for-score, but his offense weapons started firing blanks. Halfback Eddie George rushed for 34 yards on eight carries in the first quarter and finished with a meager 67 and dropped a couple of passes anticipating some hits. George was coming off a concussion, but he also was coming off two seasons in which he averaged less than 3.5 yards a carry.
Gannon and the Raiders have more ways to win a game. That's what they've learned in the transition from Jon Gruden to Bill Callahan. Twice in the past two seasons, the Raiders knocked on the Super Bowl door. In 2000, they were the league's best running team and they lost to Baltimore in the AFC title game. Last year, the Tuck Rule cost them a chance to advance to a championship game and Gruden was off to Tampa Bay.
Callahan looked at the Titans' strength as their defensive line. The Titans are powerful along the line and can stuff most running offenses. No problem, Gannon and the guys hate running the ball, so this made practices move smoothly this week.
"That's the one thing we knew coming into this game," Brown said. "We knew we could do whatever it takes to win. A couple of years ago, we tried to run the ball against Baltimore for 2½ quarters. When we finally started to move the ball, it was too late. That's the one thing about this coaching staff. If it takes 60 runs to win, we'll run it 60 times. If it takes 60 passes, we'll throw 60 passes."
The Titans came out with a four-man line, one linebacker (Keith Bulluck) and six defensive backs. At first, the Titans played zone. Gannon picked at their flanks with outside, short tosses to Brown and halfback Charlie Garner. He went 5-for-5 in his first drive, hitting Jerry Porter with a 3-yard touchdown. He went 5-for-5 in the next possession, finishing an 85-yard drive with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Garner. The Raiders led 14-7 after one quarter.
"The Titans are a very good defensive football team," Gannon said. "They have a lot of blitzes. They have a lot of different looks to throw us off a little bit. They have a lot of extra guys down in the box. We're not going to bang our heads against the wall going against eight-man front."
Of course, the Raiders love throwing against seven-man fronts. They just love throwing, and Gannon was the best at it this season, setting an NFL record for total completions. Titans coach Jeff Fisher tried to adjust by going with three-man fronts, by having two-linebacker, five-defensive back formations along with having tricky blitz packages.
"The difference out there was that the Raiders outscored us," Fisher said. "Our philosophy coming into this game was to withstand the initial part of this game. We knew what they were capable of doing early. We wanted to keep this game manageable. We wanted to keep it close at halftime."
The Titans withstood Gannon's early accuracy and no-huddle approach and took a 17-14 lead in the second quarter on a 9-yard touchdown run by McNair. Then the Titans imploded. Raiders linebacker Eric Barton forced a fumble from the hands of Robert Holcombe at the Titans' 16-yard line with 1:28 left in the first half. Gannon caught the Titans defense napping. Callahan called for an eight-man protection and the left side of the Titans defense didn't rush. Gannon ran to his right. A Titans safety was caught flat-footed and Gannon scored a 1-yard touchdown run to give the Raiders a 21-17 lead.
Rookie John Simon fumbled on the next kickoff and it was recovered by the Raiders. Gannon had Porter open in the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown, but he dropped the ball. The Raiders settled for a 43-yard Sebastian Janikowski field goal and a 24-17 halftime lead.
They never looked back.
"Donald Mitchell (a Titans cornerback) had been grabbing me and holding me off the line of scrimmage all night," Porter said. "I looked bad on the one I dropped. That was ugly. I just lost contact with the ball. But the Titans went to zone and we beat that. They started blitzing and using more man and we really hurt them on that. Actually, anything they did didn't work."
That's the way the Raiders whipped them the first game, 52-25. They beat them with Gannon's passing and converted special teams mistakes into scored. And the Raiders defense started to physically beat up the Titans.
Though the Titans won the battle of ball possession 33:35 to 26:25, the Raiders were winning the physical war. By the second half, George was logging more time on the bench and watching Holcombe run. Receivers weren't sure-handed catching the ball. It was McNair and that wasn't enough.
"Eddie George seemed like he wore down in the second quarter, and they would put in Holcomb, who seems like a speedier back," Barton said. "You can run a horse but so much. You've got to shoot him and make glue out of him."
Said Holcombe, "They deserved to win. They answered the call and we didn't. I give them all the credit in the world."
The Raiders had the commitment to passing. The result was excellence and trip to the Super Bowl. John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.