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Original Issue

Passing Fancy With their throw-first, run-later philosophy, the Raiders have emerged as the team to beat in the AFC

As he jogged off the field minutes after his team's 27--7 rout of
the AFC West rival San Diego Chargers on Sunday, Oakland Raiders
wideout Jerry Porter appeared downcast. While thousands of
Oakland's rowdy faithful--who made Qualcomm Stadium seem like a
colony of Raider Nation--exulted in the stands nearby, Porter
just shook his head. "We had the fork in them, but we didn't
twist it," he said of the Chargers. "We could've scored more, and
it wasn't totally vintage Rich Gannon. We can be better."

Just how ominous are Porter's comments for the rest of the AFC?
Consider Gannon's so-called pedestrian day: 26 of 41 passing for
328 yards--his 10th 300-yard passing day in 2002 (an NFL
single-season record), giving him 4,205 yards with three games
remaining and keeping him on pace to break Dan Marino's NFL
record of 5,084, set in 1984. Yes, Oakland struggled to open a
13--7 halftime lead against San Diego, but consecutive touchdown
drives that ate up 5:02 and 7:24 midway through the second half,
during which Gannon was 8 of 11 for 126 yards (connecting with
five receivers), put the game away.

Such is the standard for Gannon--a leading candidate for league
MVP honors--as he pilots an offense that is as unconventional as
it is lethal. In Oakland nowadays the pass sets up the run, and
defenses might go to dime coverage on third-and-short. The
Raiders (9--4) have won five straight following a four-game
losing streak, and they are alone atop their division and a
cluttered conference. Oakland can secure the home field advantage
throughout the AFC playoffs with wins in its last three games: at
Miami and home against Denver and Kansas City.

Under coach Jon Gruden a year ago, the Raiders were fourth in the
league in scoring (24.9 points per game) using a balanced attack
that featured passes to wideouts Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, and
runs by the inside-outside duo of Tyrone Wheatley and Charlie
Garner. Gruden left for the Tampa Bay Bucs in the off-season and
was replaced by offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, who,
troubled that Oakland ranked 16th last year in pass plays of
20-plus yards, turned to players--notably Porter--with more speed
and pass-catching ability. Now the Raiders are third in scoring
(29.3 points), and are fourth in passes of 20 yards or more.
"Over time, defenses catch up to you," says Callahan, "so we
decided to get more aggressive in our play-calling."

Needing a deep threat to complement his celebrated pass-catching
duo, Callahan replaced fullback Jon Ritchie on the majority of
snaps with the little-used Porter, and the results were smashing.
Despite just two catches for 16 yards against San Diego, Porter
has 46 catches for 634 yards, and his 13.8 yards-per-reception
average and eight touchdown catches lead the team. "We're a
faster team with him," Gannon says of the 6'2", 220-pound Porter,
a second-round draft choice in 2000. "You want your best 11 on
the field, and he's one of our best 11 on offense."

Of course, diversifying the passing attack meant downsizing the
running game, which averages 23.5 carries a game (almost five
fewer than last year). Still, their 4.2-yard average per carry
this season is up from last year's 3.7. The change has also
helped keep the 5'10", 190-pound Garner healthy, which is vital
for a scheme in which he is a primary receiving target. While he
averages fewer than 11 rushes a game, Garner has 77 receptions,
tops in the league among running backs. Meanwhile, Ritchie and
Wheatley have adjusted to their reduced roles. "It was tough at
first," says Ritchie. "But once you saw what this offense could
do with guys like Porter and Doug Jolley [a rookie tight end from
BYU who burned the Chargers on six catches for 104 yards], it
soothed things. I've never been so grateful to be a part of an
offense." --Josh Elliott

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH JERRY JR. Porter, in Rice-like fashion, leads the Raiders in TDcatches.