Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Rickety Raiders still roar

Super Bowl: Oakland gives game injection of personality

SAN DIEGO - Only in football and only on the Oakland Raiders can you mix the elegance of Jerry Rice with the loutishness of Bill Romanowski and not have the chemistry blow up the lab.

Romo, the 15-year veteran/anachronism, feels like he's living a previous life, when he was Lyle Alzado. The Raiders' biker image is as dated as a '69 Chevy with a 396, fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor. Only Oakland's fans cling to who the Raiders were 25 years ago, and that's only because the fans stopped taking their meds. The fans and Romanowski.

"He's a madman out there," Rice notes.

"This is like a fairy tale to me," says Romo.

The NFL can be oppressively corporate and dull. At times, such as the prolonged hand-wringing last week over allegedly lousy officiating, the League can be borderline anal.

The Raiders are anything but.

They have the best quarterback, MVP Rich Gannon. They have the best all-time wide receiver, Rice. They have the odds-on Best Quote in the Super Bowl, offensive lineman Frank Middleton, who declared after Oakland's 30-10 butt-kicking of New York two weeks ago, "The Jets cowarded out." Middleton describes himself, half-sarcastically, as "a fat, unathletic, black guy."

The Raiders have players so old, the equipment guys hand out thigh pads and AARP cards. Nine starters are over 30. They have that good ol' Nixonian paranoia, nurtured by owner Al Davis and given new life in the AFC title game last year, thanks to Tom Brady's fumble-that-wasn't.

The Raiders are driven by a desperation born of age and money, and who can't relate to that? They're old guys at the table for one last, high-stakes card game. They're also going to be something like $45 million over next season's projected salary cap. The 2002 Raiders were built for one thing, and whether it's accomplished or not on Sunday, they will be scattered like roaches in the kitchen when the lights come on.

Davis' new motto: Just Win Now, Baby.

The Raiders are the Howard Cosell of the NFL. Truly: Who'd care this Sunday about the Tennessee Titans? Take away the unbreakable QB Steve McNair, who plays football like a bull-rider, and what have you got? McNair was unbelievable against the Raiders, once getting chiro-practed on the bench after running for a TD. But if you look up the word "nondescript" in the playbook, there's a Titans logo.

Meanwhile, everyone has an opinion about Al Davis' team. Who could be neutral about Rice or Romanowski?

The Raiders are such a great story this week, you almost forget who they're playing. That would be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs were the '70s version of the Bengals. Now, they've spent two No. 1 draft picks and millions of dollars on a coach, whose inferno personality convinced them they could go to freezing Philly last week and accomplish the unthinkable.

Jon Gruden is a football addict, one of those office-dozers who wakes up in the middle of the 15 minutes he sleeps each night to diagram offensive schemes on cocktail napkins. His QB is the steady, humble and underrated Brad Johnson.

How important was Johnson to the Bucs' season?

What was the difference in Tampa this year, with Johnson and without him?

"Like the difference between the Bengals and the Bucs," Warren Sapp said.

Johnson is a cut above the long line of caretaker QBs who have gotten their teams to the Super Bowl by not messing things up. He's an inch better than Neil O'Donnell was for Pittsburgh, or Trent Dilfer for the Ravens. And he has the same kind of defense backing him up.

The Bucs' defense simply hammered the 49ers and Eagles the last two weekends. In their way this week is the best offense in the league, led by 37-year-old Gannon, 36-year-old Tim Brown, 40-year-old Rice and a bunch of linemen in wheelchairs.

Including a fat, unathletic, black guy.

Bring on Super Week. All hail the geezer Raid-uhs. If you see one of them, give him your seat on the bus.

E-mail pdaugherty@enquirer.com

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