Charles Woodson was pushing every button he could think of, but
he just couldn't get to Randy Moss. Woodson, the Oakland
Raiders' perpetually calm cornerback, finally became frustrated
and briefly lost his cool last week as he sat in the living room
of his Alameda, Calif., town house, fiddling with a Sony
Playstation controller. Four days before facing the Minnesota
Vikings' receiving sensation in the flesh, Woodson hoped to
simulate their showdown through the magic of Madden '98. But
alas, Woodson's exhaustive search for his rival's video-game
likeness gathered no Moss. "Man," Woodson said, chucking the
controller to the floor. "I don't have time to figure this stuff
Woodson, like the rest of the football-watching universe, was
eager to see how this battle of second-year
standouts--Generation Y2K's answer to Jerry Rice versus Deion
Sanders--would play out. But as he chilled on his couch and
broke down the matchup, Woodson fixed his thoughts on a larger
prize. "Everybody's going off about me and Randy," he said, "but
I'm just anxious to go up there and win this game."
The Raiders, who lost their opener to the Green Bay Packers on a
Brett Favre touchdown pass in the waning seconds, were 11-point
underdogs to the Vikings, and Woodson felt a loss in Minneapolis
would be a disaster. "Even with last week's disappointment," he
said, "we proved to ourselves we can play with anyone. Now we
have to deliver, because not everyone can handle being 0-2. Some
guys will just pack it in."
No team has folded more regularly than the Raiders of recent
years, but thanks to a relentless defense and a shut-up-and-play
mentality, the Silver and Black is back on track. In muscling
out a 22-17 victory over the Vikings, Oakland not only sucked
the air out of Minnesota's vaunted passing attack but also
emerged as an unlikely powerhouse in a league gone mad. With the
two-time defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos 0-2, the
reinvented Raiders look capable of contending for the AFC West
title. On Sunday they played tough, crisp, smart football, then
steadfastly refused to get caught up in their own hype. "We're
not beating our chests and saying, 'Look at us!'" said halfback
Tyrone Wheatley, who bashed his way to 67 of his 83 yards in the
second half. "We'll come hard every week and let the other teams
around the league look at the film and decide what our identity
While much has been made of Oakland's murderous schedule, which
includes October games against the Broncos, Bills, Jets and
Dolphins, no one considered the opposition's perspective: As
Minnesota quarterback Randall Cunningham can attest, facing the
Raiders holds all the allure of spending an afternoon
crash-testing a Miata. Though Cunningham threw for 364 yards, he
was sacked six times and pummeled repeatedly, and he completed
just 4 of 11 passes after the Vikings closed to within five
points early in the fourth quarter. "We whipped their ass," said
Raiders nickelback Darrien Gordon, a Broncos starter the past
two years. "Teams have to realize that when they play the
Raiders, it's going to be a smash-mouth game." Moss, who caught
four passes for 86 yards--but only one, for 15 yards, after
halftime--is already convinced. "They beat us, simple as that,"
he said. "No fluke. They hit us in the mouth."
Moss's mouth played a role in Oakland's preparation for this
game. In the middle of the week he complained to reporters that
a true mano a mano contest against Woodson would never
materialize because, as usual, he expected double coverage.
"That's the only way you can really slow me down, by bumping me
and rolling the safety over the top," Moss said. "That's taking
the 'punk' way out. If you're trying to see if your guy is worth
what he says he is, let him play one-on-one."
Dream on, Randy. The Raiders punked Moss all afternoon, bumping
him hard at the line of scrimmage. Oakland kept its corners in
place, with Woodson on the left and savvy veteran Eric Allen on
the right, and gave the illusion of bringing help over the top.
Moss moved around frequently but never found a comfort zone.
"Because of his comments, we knew he had been worrying about
two-deep coverage," Allen said, "so in the first half we pressed
him and showed him that look--to make him think that's what we
were doing--but rolled the safety away from him. Later, we
started rolling toward him, and I think he got frustrated. Hey,
Michael Jordan was here to watch him play: The guy really wanted
to get off."
Raiders defensive coordinator Willie Shaw, who should be some
team's coach this time next year, swears he wasn't preoccupied
with stopping Moss, who lit up the league for 17 touchdowns last
season but has yet to reach the end zone in '99. "My only
concern was getting after the quarterback," Shaw said. "All that
talking Moss did in the paper about punk coverage, that's high
school stuff. If you're really going to be a good player in this
league, just go play. I think he psyched himself out."
Shaw sent extra defenders after Cunningham on more than half of
the Vikings' snaps, mixing zone blitzes with more traditional
pursuits such as Mike Dog 1, an alignment in which 6'2",
245-pound linebacker Greg Biekert bursts through the middle of
the line. On Minnesota's second play of the third quarter--after
the Raiders took a 13-10 lead on Rich Gannon's nine-yard pass to
wideout James Jett--Cunningham's slant pass to Moss was batted
into the air by the blitzing Biekert and intercepted by
defensive tackle Russell Maryland, setting up Michael Husted's
42-yard field goal.
Even without extra pass rushers, Oakland's underrated defensive
line consistently collapsed the pocket on Cunningham and forced
the Vikings, who had minus-one yard rushing after halftime, into
a one-dimensional attack. Cunningham had success mixing things
up in the first half, spreading the ball to wide receivers Moss,
Cris Carter and Jake Reed and tight ends Andrew Glover and
Carlester Crumpler. But when the Raiders' offense came alive in
the third quarter and staked Oakland to a 22-10 lead, Cunningham
started locking in on his wideouts. "It's not that Randall gets
rattled, but when he gets a lot of pressure, he starts to
eliminate guys," says Allen, a former Philadelphia Eagles
teammate of Cunningham's in the '80s. "Favre beat us the
previous week because in crunch time he kept the window open and
used the whole field--Joe Montana was the same way, no matter
how hard he got hit--but with Randall, things get narrow, and he
forgets about some of his options."
Cunningham wasn't the only vexed Viking. Last year Minnesota set
an NFL record by averaging 34.8 points a game; this year, with
the same personnel, the team has scored just 34 points in two
games. The natural scapegoat is new offensive coordinator Ray
Sherman, and several Minnesota players privately grumbled about
his play-calling after the Oakland game. However, Sherman, who
on Sunday vacated his preferred perch high in the stadium in
favor of the sideline in an effort to make Cunningham feel more
comfortable, can't be blamed for dropped passes or kicker Gary
Anderson's sudden lack of accuracy. The fact is, the Vikings
have been out of sync since the latter stages of last year's NFC
Championship Game loss to Atlanta, when the Falcons' defense
stifled the game plan of Brian Billick, Minnesota's offensive
coordinator at the time and now coach of the Baltimore Ravens.
Even Minnesota's old standby, the Cunningham lob to Moss, seems
a little stale, though it did provide one thrilling highlight on
Sunday. Moss and Woodson were matched up for 25 plays, but
Moss's lone photo op came five minutes into the second quarter
when he ran a fade down the right sideline and made a glorious,
29-yard, one-handed catch at the Oakland five-yard line. Woodson
appeared to have perfect position, but Moss beat him to the
punch, shoving the backpedaling corner to the turf with his left
hand while gracefully pulling the ball in with his right. Then
the stunned Woodson got flagged for pass interference. "That was
bulls---," he groused, "but, hey, the guy made a damn good
catch. I'm never going to live that down. My boys will be
calling me all week."
Woodson was outshone on that play, but he made up for it. Though
he has not been able to persuade Raiders coach Jon Gruden to let
him return kicks or play wideout, Woodson is an impact player
who affects the game in ways that don't translate into the
Playstation landscape. With 2:46 remaining in the first half,
Anderson lined up for a 42-yard field goal that could have put
Minnesota up 13-3. Woodson gave a quick shove to 257-pound
blocker Kailee Wong, darted around the right side of the
Minnesota line and got horizontal to block the kick. Oakland
linebacker K.D. Williams, a skycap at the Tampa airport this
time last year, scooped up the ball and charged across midfield
like O.J. in the old Hertz commercial, setting up Husted's
37-yard field goal with 36 seconds left in the half. A six-point
swing in what turned out to be a five-point game--perhaps
Woodson's boys will cut him some slack for that.
At game's end Moss sought out Woodson on the field, renewing a
friendship that flourished at last February's Pro Bowl when the
two shared a limo ride to Scruples, a Honolulu nightspot known
for its creaky dance floor and frequent bikini contests. On his
way to the locker room Woodson got a congratulatory handshake
from Marcus Allen, who was on the sidelines for his current
employer, CBS, and not his former boss and longtime tormentor,
Raiders owner Al Davis. "That's a pretty good team," Allen said.
On this day, at least, all was well in Raiderland.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS Gannon fodder The Vikings' defense was easy pickings for the Oakland quarterback, who completed 21 of 33 passes for 248 yards.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Catch of the day Moss used his left hand to shove Woodson to the turf while pulling down a pass from Cunningham with his right.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS A little Elba room Raiders back Napoleon Kaufman, who rushed nine times for 31 yards, lunged for a few extra inches in the third quarter.
"When you play [us]," says the Raiders' Gordon, "it's going to
be a smash-mouth game."
Last year Minnesota averaged 34.8 points a game; this year
they've scored 34 points total.