OAKLAND, Calif. – It was the type of heedless stunt that typified the Oakland Raiders' dysfunction of the past five seasons, a match race to join Donovan Bailey-Michael Johnson and Foolish Pleasure-Ruffian in the "Oops, Bad Idea Hall of Fame."
Following last Wednesday's practice at the Raiders' training facility in Alameda, starting quarterback Daunte Culpepper, still trying to fight his way back from the severe knee injury he suffered two years ago, bragged that he could beat halfback LaMont Jordan in a 100-yard sprint. This wasn't surprising to Culpepper's teammates, some of whom scoff at his penchant for extolling his own abilities in virtually every realm and sarcastically refer to him as "Top Five In the World."
Negotiations between Culpepper and Jordan ultimately broke down, and the quarterback instead ended up racing third-year cornerback Stanford Routt who, during his college days at Houston, finished third in the 200 meters at the 2003 NCAA outdoor meet. Even while starting from midfield and spotting the quarterback five yards, Routt lived up to his surname. "Stanford blew him away," one witness said. "And afterward, Daunte said something didn't feel right. Now, he's on the bench. Doesn't that say it all?"
Whether or not Culpepper's strained quadriceps was a direct result of his insensible sprint isn't 100 percent clear, the decision to race Routt was a sign that his vocational priorities are a tad skewed. That's a condition that has been all too common in Oakland since the franchise's last Super Bowl appearance following the 2002 season; just ask that great New England Patriots locker room leader, Randy Moss, and he'll tell you all about it.
Yet here's one unmistakable sign of progress: These Raiders overcame Culpepper's absence, defeating the Denver Broncos 34-20 on Sunday at McAfee Coliseum, and actually may have accelerated their long-term growth as a result. The excess practice snaps afforded No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell and his ascent to No. 2 on the depth chart made it easier for rookie Raiders coach Lane Kiffin to implement his plan to give the former LSU quarterback his first NFL snaps, and it all played out perfectly: Russell provided fans and teammates with a promising vision of the future while reinstated starter Josh McCown stepped up and played his best game as a Raider.
Oh, and Oakland, coming off a post-merger-record 17 consecutive defeats to AFC West opponents, beat a division foe for the second consecutive week to improve to 4-8. Though the Raiders' remaining schedule (at Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, at Jacksonville Jaguars, San Diego Chargers) suggests that additional victories in '07 may be hard to come by, the 32-year-old Kiffin, in his first season in Al Davis's Wild Kingdom, seems to have helped facilitate an important culture change.
"We still have a chance to win our division," receiver Ronald Curry said hopefully, "but even if we were out of it, guys would still play hard. We're trying to build something for next year and the years beyond. It's a better team with better schemes, and we're not making as many stupid mistakes as we have in the past."
Adds veteran defensive tackle Warren Sapp, now in his fourth season with the Raiders: "Ever since Lane took the job, something about him wasn't going to let us do the same old (expletive) over and over again. His message has been consistent: 'Let's stop (expletive) around and go play.' He has all the confidence in the world, and we feed off that. This was the best we've played since I've been here, easy; we put our foot on them today."
With McCown (14-of-21, 141 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions or sacks) playing efficiently and coolly despite a lacerated left pinky that had to be stitched up to keep the bone from protruding through his skin and halfback Justin Fargas (33 carries, 146 yards) carrying the ball with authority, Oakland's offense was in good hands. And for two series in the second quarter, it was guided by a physically-gifted 22-year-old whose stalled contract negotiations kept him from playing in the preseason.
Finally, with 13:48 remaining before halftime and the score tied at 7-7, Kiffin unwrapped his new toy for the 61,990 energized fans at the Coliseum. On his first NFL play, Russell deftly faked a handoff to Fargas on the left side and turned and rolled to his right as if to run; stopping suddenly, he fired a crisp pass down the sideline to wideout Jerry Porter, who made a sweet, 16-yard catch before falling out of bounds.
"We've seen him do some amazing things in practice," Porter said afterward. "The kid can play."
Russell played 15 more snaps, and there were highlights (a nicely sold screen pass to Fargas that gained 14 yards; a perfectly thrown 20-yard completion to Curry) and lowlights (a botched handoff with Jordan and a fumbled shotgun snap, though Russell ended up with the ball on both occasions). His numbers were solid – 4-of-7, 56 yards – but he failed to produce any points, his drives ending on a missed 58-yard field goal attempt by Sebastian Janikowski and a stuffed fourth-and-1 handoff to Fargas at the Denver 25-yard line.
McCown, who was booed upon his return, knew precisely what was at stake. "If he leads them on two touchdown drives and he's the future, why do you put anyone else back in?" he asked rhetorically.
When McCown got back in he seized his opportunity, leading a touchdown drive on Oakland's next possession and putting up 20 more points in the second half. Expect McCown to remain the starter and Russell to continue to make cameo appearances. Culpepper, even after his quad heals, will likely stand and watch.
Asked if he'd be upset with Culpepper were he to conclude that the race with Routt caused the quarterback's injury, Kiffin said, "Oh, yeah, if that's the case."
Imagine that: A Raiders coach not named Madden, Flores or Gruden who holds his players accountable for their foolishness.
Doesn't that say it all?
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Speaking of Gruden, has anyone done a better coaching job in 2007? Mike McCarthy, Romeo Crennel, Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin and Wade Phillips will all deservedly get strong coach of the year consideration, but Gruden has to be in the mix, too, especially after the Buccaneers all but clinched the NFC South with Sunday's dramatic, 27-23 victory at New Orleans. Gruden – rumored to be coaching for his job in '07, then enduring a series of potentially significant injuries – has been bold and undaunted from the start. He was typically aggressive on Sunday, foregoing a potential game-tying field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Saints' 28 with two minutes remaining and calling for a handoff to Earnest Graham, who converted to set up the winning touchdown. Graham, once the team's No. 3 halfback, and quarterback Luke McCown, formerly its No. 3 quarterback (and filling in for the injured Jeff Garcia), were among the team's unlikely stars in a game in which the Bucs clearly outplayed the Saints – a team that was a trendy preseason Super Bowl pick and which is fighting desperately to remain in the postseason hunt. "I'm not surprised," said Sapp, who starred for the Bucs from 1996-2003. "They still play ball over there."
• That tribute to slain teammate Sean Taylor by the Redskins – playing their first defensive snap against the Bills with only 10 men – was a nice and memorable touch, probably the most poignant memorial the sports world has seen since Bo Kimble's left-handed free throws in honor of Hank Gathers during the 1990 NCAA Tournament. It didn't matter that Washington gave up a 22-yard run to halfback Fred Jackson on the play (the Bills later punted); this was a form of on-the-job grief counseling that was far more significant to the men involved than any single play's outcome.
• On a less-loaded level, it's hard not to be inspired by the revival of the Minnesota Vikings, who rolled over the fading Detroit Lions, 42-10, for their third consecutive victory. Now 6-6 and in legitimate playoff contention, Minnesota would be a fun team to watch in the postseason given that Adrian Peterson (15 carries, 116 yards) is back from his knee injury (torn lateral collateral ligament) and looking once again like the best back in football.
• By pulling out a 27-21 victory over the Cleveland Browns that came down to a close call on the final play (see below), the Arizona Cardinals also improved to 6-6 and stayed in the thick of the playoff race. The Cards, who earlier this season beat the NFC West-leading Seahawks (8-4), can make up ground by winning the rematch in Seattle next Sunday. If not, they'll remain alive in the wild-card chase, especially given the Lions' freefall. "Our defense is awesome – it's a turnover machine," Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner said late Sunday night. "Our offense is opportunistic, and we're getting better every week. It's an exciting time around here."
• Three players who I expect will be hanging out poolside at the Ihilani Resort and Spa on Oahu in early February: Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie (two interceptions in a 24-10 victory at Kansas City), Chiefs defensive end Jared Allen (two sacks and an unlikely and deft touchdown catch) and Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu (three interceptions and 11 unassisted tackles in a 28-24 victory at Philadelphia).
• Good call by the NFL, picking Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to do the Super Bowl XLII halftime show. Chances are T.P. will succumb to the temptation to err on the side of commercialism, but here's a set I'd like to see: "Even the Losers" (for the NFC entrant), "Mary Jane's Last Dance" (for Brett Favre, if the Packers make it) and "It's Good To Be King" (for Bill Belichick).
• My adopted English Premier League team, the Reading Royals, ended their three-game losing streak on Saturday with a 1-1 tie against Middlesboro (more in Friday's 'The Gameface'), and to celebrate I'm unveiling a new feature in which the team's American goalkeeper extraordinaire, Marcus Hahnemann, peers overseas to break down our Monday night matchup, beginning with the Patriots' visit to Baltimore. "I don't see the Ravens getting within 21 points," Hahnemann said Sunday via email. "The Patriots are on target to get the highest points total for the season so with that I can't imagine they would even take their foot off the gas. I just checked the points spread and saw 19.5 … I have to go before the betting shop closes. Later …" And even if Hahnemann wasn't joking, don't worry – it's legal in the U.K.
• Finally, though I and my fellow Cal alums and loyalists had a miserable Saturday evening at Stanford (where the Bears, beaten in every facet, lost the Axe for the first time in Jeff Tedford's six years as coach), some blue-and-gold magic did take place down on the Farm this weekend: Cal's water polo team defeated USC on Sunday by an 8-6 score to capture its second consecutive (and record 13th overall) NCAA title, continuing a stirring revival under coach Kirk Everist. The former Olympian, one of the greatest players in Cal history, was celebrating back in the East Bay Sunday night when I got him on the phone, and his first words were, "That was the best bus ride of all time. Guys were singing the whole way. They busted out the Cal Drinking Song, and only about seven or eight of them knew it – and when I joined in and sang it word-for-word, they were like, 'Huh?' … This was a great victory. We played 14 guys, everyone but our backup goalie, and it really was a total team effort. (Tournament MVP) Michael Scharf, who set a school record with 98 goals this season, didn't have any on Sunday, and we still won. That's all you need to know about this team."
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Joe Gibbs is one of the great coaches of his era and a deserved Hall of Famer, and nothing that happens in his second stint with the Redskins is going to change that. But he did have what seemed to be a "Senior Moment" at the end of the Skins' game against the Bills, calling a second consecutive timeout before Rian Lindell's 51-yard-field goal attempt in the final seconds – and earning a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for the blatant no-no. After Lindell nailed the resulting 36-yarder in the rain to give Buffalo a 17-16 victory, Gibbs took all the blame … well, sort of. He made a point of telling reporters that he had asked an official if it was OK to call a second timeout and that the coach thought the official had answered yes. I think the critics who claim that the game has passed Gibbs by are off-base, but this gaffe is going to give them plenty of juice for their arguments.
• Similarly, Saints coach Sean Payton will get some heat for calling a reverse in his own territory with his team up by three and 3:36 to go; a fumbled pitch gave Tampa Bay the ball at the New Orleans 37, setting up the Bucs' winning touchdown. I actually don't mind the call, but the flip from Reggie Bush to Devery Henderson looked somewhat haphazard given the circumstances. Unlike Gibbs, Payton beat himself up unambiguously, telling reporters, "That's a disappointing loss and probably the worst job I've done as head coach since we've been here. Obviously, I regret the play call. It cost us the game."
• McCarthy, the Packers' second-year coach, has done a masterful job of getting Brett Favre to cut down on his riskier pass attempts and rely more on his playmaking receivers and improved defense, among other things. But I was a bit disappointed that McCarthy, in announcing to reporters on Friday that Favre (who suffered a bruised throwing elbow and separated left shoulder in Thursday's defeat to the Cowboys) would start next Sunday's game against the Raiders, chose this language: "We see him playing against Oakland. To quote the medical staff: 'His streak is not in danger.' " Sure, we're all interested in Favre's record string of 249 consecutive starts, but is that really the most pertinent issue right now? I mean compared to, like, you know, trying to win a Super Bowl?
• The Dolphins, four games away from the first 0-16 season in NFL history, are truly atrocious, as evidenced by Sunday's 40-13 defeat to the 3-9 Jets, Miami's second to New York in '07. But defensive end Jason Taylor, who had two first-half sacks, is simply precious. "They suck, too," Taylor told reporters after the game. "They beat us. They'll go home happy, and their fans will be happy that they got three wins this year. Good for them." The reigning NFL defensive player of the year doesn't handle losing well, which is precisely why 31 other NFL head coaches would love to have the 33-year-old Taylor on their teams if he tries to get the rebuilding Dolphins to trade him after the season.
• The BCS has done it again: Missouri's reward for beating Kansas was the opportunity to play Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship, damage its ranking by losing and lose its spot among BCS bowl teams to … Kansas. What a tremendous system. I wonder what could be done to change it. Hmmm, let's see. Maybe we should consider settling things the way every single major sports entity of any significance in American society, except this one, determines its champion … nah, too radical.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The policy at many stadiums that requires plastic bottles of water to be sold without caps. Yeah, I know, it's because they don't want people throwing full bottles of water onto the playing field – as if any fan couldn't circumvent the rule by stuffing about 10 caps in each pocket before he or she entered the stadium.
2. How it's totally kosher to call a timeout a split second before a field-goal snap, essentially making a kicker attempt a gratuitous field goal before lining up to kick the real one, but it's "unsportsmanlike conduct" to call consecutive timeouts. Only in the NFL.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE AT 4:19 A.M.
I'm not here to tell you, as the normally spot-on Cris Collinsworth did on NBC Sunday night, that "the Cleveland Browns were robbed of a victory" against the Arizona Cardinals because tight end Kellen Winslow was forced out of the end zone by a pair of defenders while coming down with the ball on the game's final play. Nor will I declare that the pass to Winslow was definitely incomplete. I'm simply going to note that the force-out rule itself is horrible. As things now stand, officials are supposed to rule that a ball is caught if they believe the receiver could have come down with both feet in fair territory were he not pushed in midair by a defender. In other words, the league asks officials to play God and decide what would have happened in a made-up universe – and, once they do, the play is not reviewable. Further, officials sometimes decide not to call the force-out when they believe the receiver has come down in bounds with the ball (viewing it as superfluous), only to have the play challenged and reversed because the affected receiver was out by a couple of inches, with no ability to retroactively say, "but he was forced out, so the play stands." Conceptually, the rule is utterly ridiculous. It would be like telling basketball refs to base their goaltending calls on whether they believe the shot in question would have gone in – only this is even more presumptuous. Since over the offseason the league is likely going to get rid of the timeout-just-before-the-field-goal rule, how about we get rid of this one, too. Here's how: From now on, force-outs are part of the game. That's the risk the receiver takes when he leaves his feet, and defensive backs are coached to make a play in that context and rewarded for doing so. To soften the blow for receivers, the NFL should also switch to college football's one-foot-inbounds rule. Roger that?
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"You are an idiot, and should not be writing any sports stories. Your latest story about irrational Packers fans and coaches concerning the Brett Favre issue are ridiculous. You are like every other bandwagon jumper that is quick to bash Favre. Even if Brett is a little banged up, he will give the Packers a better chance to win any game against any team than Aaron Rodgers would 100 percent healthy. I am so tired of people giving Favre (expletive) and using words like 'inconsistent' and 'ball-forcing.' His records speak for themselves. It's funny that this 'inconsistent' QB has the most wins, TDs and soon to be yards in the NFL. Not to mention he beat Dan Marino's completion record before he beat his attempts record, therefore meaning he would be the most accurate QB in history, because that is how you measure accuracy in the NFL: completions to attempts. And if you honestly think that Favre's year is 'surprising' and 'unlikel,y' you are even more of an idiot. Just because Favre had a couple of off-seasons does not make him a bad QB or mean that he would not have another star season after those couple average seasons. Benching Favre until fully healed is not the logical thing to do, because if you would have paid attention to the injury update, you would know that the dislocated shoulder is his left, which will not effect him. His elbow (injury) is a muscle bruise, not a pinched nerve as originally thought. With an extended week of rest, he will be plenty ready to go. Favre at 50 percent is better than Rodgers 100 percent any day. Go ahead and respond back and try and tell me I'm wrong."
Dan, I admire your loyalty to Favre, who is truly one of the all-time greats. But I have to tell you, being called an idiot by someone who deduces that Favre is 'the most accurate quarterback in history' based on your reasoning is truly an insult.
"I see you picked Green Bay to win. How did that work out for you, ya dummy? Good thing I'm not your bookie. I'd be breaking your legs right about now. Always bet on Blue."
Hmmm, let's see. As of Sunday night, I'd picked 191 games this year (not against the spread) and gotten 71 of them wrong. So, by your logic, I'd have suffered 142 broken legs by now.
"I read your articles on a regular basis and believe you're an excellent writer. I do have to question the anointing you bestowed on Aaron Rodgers for his off-the-bench performance in Dallas. Yes, he played well. Most backup quarterbacks perform well coming off the bench. They have nothing to lose. Let's just wait and see how he does as a starter."
And wait … and wait … and wait …
"Considering all of the times Aaron Rodgers came in to replace a nicked up Favre since his (NFL) draft, does this one occurrence make up for all the other so-so appearances he has under his belt? I agree that he made the best of his opportunity in Dallas, but maybe the Cowboys took it for granted that the game was already decided by the time Brett went down and Aaron went in. To anoint Rodgers a fully capable NFL backup off of one impressive performance is akin to calling Butterbean a heavyweight boxing legend after flooring one of his spoon-fed, weak-chin opponents."
You mean like Johnny Knoxville in "Jackass: The Movie''?
"Why are you saying Aaron Rodgers is a sure thing now? He had one decient game, not even good, just decient. I wana know how I can get your job, it seems really easy. Tell people lies and get paid. When Aaron Rodgers does what he did consistintly for more then just one game then tell me he will be good, until then you are plan wrong! Aaron Rodgers is a bust and will always be a bust. Those of us in Wisconsin know it. You wana argue about that meet me face to face, 3715 Britton Ridge, Union Grove, Wisconsin. So don't start praising Rodgers as the Packers savior, because he is not, and you are just stupid for thinking so!"
Waterford (Union Grove), Wis.
Hey, thanks for the invitation. How decent of you. Will you be serving cheese curds? On a less contentious note, you do realize that in recent years quarterbacks like Rob Johnson, Matt Hasselbeck, Matt Schaub and others have made good money based on limited regular season or even preseason performances? If nothing else, Rodgers did enough to make himself a coveted quarterback by teams in need after the season.
"As a lifelong Cowboys fan and watching the Green Bay backup QB, I fear they will move into the next generation and not miss a beat. He is future trouble for the Boys."
I have this strange feeling that there is more goodwill for Rodgers in places like Dallas right now than there is in Wisconsin. That's twisted.
"Yea, there are plenty of Cal fans and Niners fans like me (Born and raised in SF, lived in the Bay Area and Mendocino for decades, now stuck in SoCal) who couldn't believe it when (Mike) Nolan passed on A.R., and went with a QB with no pro- style experience, because he was 'intelligent.' We remember that Rodgers wore a Montana t-shirt under his uniform for years and dreamed of being a Niner. It will end up being Nolan's fatal decision either this year or next. Rodgers will have a great career. I only wish it could have been for the 49ers."
I can understand your frustration.
"Great article on Aaron Rodgers. It does give us Packers fans hope that when Brett retires we have a viable option to follow him. On another note: For the first time, this week I actually searched on the Yahoo! Search words of the week. Though I've seen it before, watching the video sent chills through me. Truly one of the greatest plays in the history of college football. For a Packers fan, what makes it even sweeter is the fact that it came against John Elway. Go Cal."
Thanks for the Golden Bear love; I only wish the team had come close to giving you and its other supporters the passionate, polished effort you deserved. And I have to confess that, once I met the man, I became an unabashed Elway fan. That fourth-and-17 completion of his that you saw on the video was typically incredible, and he's just as great off the field.
"Remember me? You and I went keystroke-to-keystroke over Trent Dilfer and Charlie Frye a couple of years back. I was a Browns fan in Russia; after a brief stint in the U.S., I am again a Browns fan in Russia. We were rather curt with one another until we both discovered our mutual loathing of Mr. Bush and his fundamentalist sycophants. At any rate, you last week wrote, '[n]ow that Andre Johnson is healthy, Matt Schaub looks a lot more comfortable – and they'll both show up big for the Texans in an upset victory at Cleveland.' Umm … one undersized fifth-round draft pick of a cornerback later, Cleveland sits pretty at 7-4. Now, you predict Warner of 2000 will show and shred Cleveland's improving D. What's up with the hate, man? On a positive note, this means Cleveland should win. Congrats on your move to Yahoo! Finally these so-called media giants figure out that it is good content that drives page-hits, not AP headlines. Suddenly I woke up and realized that guys like (Ray) Ratto moved, (Rick) Reilly moved, (Jeff) Chadiha moved … let's hope the music keeps playing for you guys; Yahoo! has definitely made it into my NFL rotation. Cheers from the Motherland."
Thanks for keeping tabs on me from behind the former Iron Curtain, and I know you understand that if I pick against a team (which I do 16 times a week), there is no hate intended. Unless, of course, that team is USC or Stanford (though strangely, I did not pick against the latter heading into this weekend).
"You might want to go crow hunting. You'll be eating one when the Browns win."
No, actually, after a really rough evening in Palo Alto, I'm eating Tree.
"Your a moron."
All I can say is: I have a new appreciation for Dan from Wisconsin for his correct use of spelling and grammar when calling me an idiot.
" 'I was implying that he's indecisive. Keep up the (free) advice, and kindly stop insulting my editor.' That explains the brown spot on your nose … I still think your stuped. "
Note to non-illiterate readers: I swear on my Oski bobblehead doll, I do not make these emails up.
"Your Star Trek title mistake was actually a case of clearer communication. I knew exactly which episode you meant by 'Edith Keeler Must Die' and would not have known if you had used the correct title. Keep on entertaining!"
Thanks. And similarly, I'll heretofore be referring to the 2007 Big Game (among others) as "Nate Longshore Must Sit."
"Don't sweat it, Michael: The Dave Matthews Band (or 'Dave' as his obnoxious frat-boy fans call him) sucks hard. Dave Matthews is music for people who want to believe they like really good music but have no idea what really good music actually is."
Thanks. I have no comment, except to note that the anti-Dave Matthews emails came fast and furious this week. As for my own lyrical genius …
"Dude, I got a fe-ver and the only cure is … more Cowbell! Next week I want an analysis of the Saints' defensive backfield sung to the tune of 'Burnin' for you."
Or, perhaps, I'll break down the Patriots' latest victory to the tune of 'Godzilla.'
"How come every time I see you on any sports show, you never give any props to the Dallas Cowboys?"
I'm on TV in Germany?
"Wooooooooooooooooooooow … yikes, etc. … The 'Furd' over the Cubs? Seriously, does (Jeff) Tedford have issues for sticking with Nathan all year? If the guy really has a bad ankle, sit him out if it's killing the team! And (DeSean) Jackson must have been hurt real bad to not help in this one. Love your articles!"
Rumor has it that the trainers hooked up Jackson to an IV and pumped him full of cranberry juice all week. Alas, he was unable to overcome his ailment, though I'm sure his draft stock wasn't harmed.
"Does it hurt to lose to Stanford like that? And to think, just over a month ago, Cal could've been No. 1 in the country. Cal was the biggest pretender in college football this year."
Does it hurt? It feels like I just got kicked in the groin by Bigfoot in stiletto heels.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Dude, man, I'm sorry, but uh (laughter), I'm sitting here with my friend Susan and her husband, getting … (prolonged laughter), and … how could you lose to Stanford? That is pathetic. That is ridiculous. Dude, that's really … I feel sorry for you losing to Stanford. You suck! Dude, sorry. Weren't you No. 1 in the country this year … for, like, five-millionths of a second."
– Voicemail late Saturday night from my close friend Andy Sands (Stanford '87), as per tradition.