Solid Moves Should Have Raiders Turned Around
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2004; 11:45 AM
An extensive -- and fully justified -- offseason retooling remains a work in progress for the Oakland Raiders, who still face significant questions about their new quarterback tandem of Kerry Collins and Rich Gannon and about other prominent veteran players.
The Raiders fell far and fell fast last season, going 4-12 on the heels of their Super Bowl appearance to culminate the 2002 season. Coach Bill Callahan faced a near mutiny by his players. The Raiders veterans suddenly looked old and washed up instead of seasoned and wise. Gannon went from being the league's most valuable player to having his season cut short by a shoulder injury that required surgery to repair a torn labrum.
Two-thirds of the club's decision-making brain trust changed, with Callahan being fired by owner Al Davis -- to no one's surprise -- and senior assistant Bruce Allen bolting to become the general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, leaving top front-office lieutenant Mike Lombardi to take over as the team's de facto GM. After a near-deal with Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks coach Sean Payton unraveled, Davis hired former Washington Redskins coach Norv Turner, most recently the Miami Dolphins' offensive coordinator, to succeed Callahan.
Davis, Lombardi and Turner proceeded to make a string of solid roster moves that should have the Raiders immediately back to playoff-contender status. Defensive tackle Rod Coleman and tailback Charlie Garner opted out of their contracts and departed as free agents. But Oakland upgraded at defensive tackle, prying free agent Ted Washington away from the New England Patriots and then swooping in at the last minute to sign Warren Sapp to a seven-year, $36.6 million contract hours after he and agent Drew Rosenhaus failed to close a deal with the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Raiders made solid pickups in free agency by getting guard Ron Stone, linebackers Danny Clark and Dwayne Rudd, cornerback Denard Walker, defensive end Bobby Hamilton and kick returner Chris Cole. They compensated for Garner's exit by signing tailbacks Troy Hambrick and Amos Zereoue. Ray Buchanan looked well past his prime as a cornerback in Atlanta last season, but perhaps could revive his career as a safety in Oakland.
The Raiders stayed put on draft day and selected Iowa left tackle Robert Gallery with the second overall choice. He appears to be the game's next great left tackle, and should be a cornerstone of the Oakland offense for a decade or more. The Raiders continued to remake their offensive line by using their second-round pick on Virginia Tech center Jake Grove, another potential starter as a rookie, and also got good value with third-round safety Stuart Schweigert, fifth-round wide receiver Johnnie Morant and even seventh-round tight end Courtney Anderson.
But the biggest move was yet to come, as the Raiders signed Collins to a three-year, $16.8 million contract 3-1/2 weeks after he was released by the New York Giants when he refused to rework his contract in the aftermath of the club's draft-day trade for top overall pick Eli Manning. It was widely assumed around the league that the signing of Collins would lead to the June release of Gannon, who has a $7 million salary for the 2004 season and counts $8.928 million against Oakland's salary cap. The trickle-down effect included the possibility that Gannon would reunite with Allen and former Raiders coach Jon Gruden in Tampa, possibly making Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson available.
But Turner said that not only would Gannon remain on the Raiders' roster, he would remain the starter. Collins reinforced that, saying he understood that he was brought in as the backup. Collins's contract, which included a signing bonus of $1.6 million, is structured so that the Raiders could afford to have him be a backup for one season. He is to have a salary of $660,000 and count about $1.2 million against the salary cap this season. His income jumps to more than $6 million in 2005 and $8.5 million in 2006.
The Raiders conceivably could keep Gannon, 38, under the terms of his contract and carve out needed salary cap space by releasing safety Rod Woodson, center Barret Robbins and offensive tackle Lincoln Kennedy. They could clear additional room if they could agree to a cap-friendly long-term deal with cornerback Charles Woodson, who now is counting $8.7824 million against the $80.582 million salary cap as the club's exclusive franchise player.
But it remains likely that the Raiders will ask Gannon at some point to restructure his contract and lessen his salary cap impact, and it still seems possible that he could be released closer to the season if he refuses. But Allen has said that the Buccaneers are sticking with Johnson, and Gannon and agent Tom Condon would have to study the market if they're asked by the Raiders to rework his contract. The chances are that his best deal, in terms of both money and the opportunity for playing time, would be staying in Oakland for one more season. Collins can get the ball down the field the way that Davis and Turner like, but Oakland's current roster still might be better suited to Gannon's more patient approach.
The Raiders will have to decide before the season whether to keep both of their venerable receivers, 41-year-old Jerry Rice and 37-year-old Tim Brown. They still could trade for Larry Allen if the perennial Pro Bowl guard doesn't satisfy Dallas Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells at a June minicamp that he's in better shape than he was last season. The Raiders still are far from a young team, and they probably are a more productive tailback away from being a threat to go deep into the postseason (anyone in Oakland up for signing Eddie George?).
Turner needs to be more demanding of his players than he was during his failed stint in Washington. But he says he's a better coach now than he was then. And the Raiders appear to be clearly a better team than they were when last season ended.
Around the League
The NFL's annual second-time-around free agent market opens next week. Veteran players will become available because, under the league's salary cap rules, a team can defer a portion of the cap hit for a year -- in this case, until the 2005 season -- by waiting until after June 1 to release a player.
The June free agent market almost always promises more than it delivers. Fans and some executives around the league get excited because some big-name players hit the market. This year's group likely will include quarterbacks Kurt Warner of St. Louis and Vinny Testaverde of the New York Jets, George, linebackers Jason Gildon of Pittsburgh and Jeremiah Trotter of Washington, Denver defensive tackle Daryl Gardener and Green Bay defensive end Joe Johnson.
Almost all of the cuts will be salary cap-related, but few of them will be solely due to the cap. There almost always are other reasons -- like age and recent performance--for the players being released. Warner, a two-time league MVP who led the Rams to two Super Bowls, is winless in his last eight starts. George, the Tennessee tailback who was one of the league's toughest runners for much of his career, averaged 3.3 yards per carry last season.
Still, almost all of the players will find work, and a few will make significant contributions this season. Warner has several clubs in pursuit but probably is headed to the Giants to help mentor Manning, and could open the season as the team's starter. Gardener has a four-year, $9.3 million contract agreement with Cincinnati virtually in place after being given permission by the Broncos to line up a deal with a new club. He will be reunited with Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis, who was the Redskins' defensive coordinator in 2002 when Gardener was that team's player of the year.
The Cowboys are making plans to start rookie Julius Jones at tailback, but could George be their veteran insurance policy? Testaverde probably will reunite with Parcells in Dallas or back up Tom Brady in New England under another of his former coaches, Bill Belichick. Carolina officials say they intend to retain wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad. But if the Panthers can't agree to a reworked contract with him and end up releasing him, he likely would be highly coveted by several teams.
Green Bay so far has been thwarted in its extensive efforts to negotiate a new contract with Cleveland quarterback Tim Couch and Condon as a necessary precursor to a proposed trade with the Browns for the former top overall draft selection. Now the Packers, Baltimore Ravens and other quarterback-needy teams might wait to see if the Browns release Couch, who has been replaced as Cleveland's starter by free-agent addition Jeff Garcia but has starter-like salaries of $7.6 million this season and $8 million in 2005 under his current contract with the Browns.
Here's one list of possible post-June 1 cuts around the league, by position:
Drew Brees, Chargers
Tim Couch, Browns
Rich Gannon, Raiders
Vinny Testaverde, Jets
Kurt Warner, Rams
Eddie George, Titans
Tim Brown, Raiders
Muhsin Muhammad, Panthers
Jerry Rice, Raiders
David Terrell, Bears
Larry Allen, G, Cowboys
Lincoln Kennedy, T, Raiders
Barret Robbins, C, Raiders
Kenyatta Walker, T, Buccaneers
Daryl Gardener, DT, Broncos
Joe Johnson, DE, Packers
Jason Gildon, Steelers
Jeremiah Trotter, Redskins
Zack Bronson, S, 49ers
Tyrone Williams, CB, Falcons
Rod Woodson, S, Raiders
Giants Told Not to Gather for Informal Drills
Giants Coach Tom Coughlin reportedly told his players not to gather on their own for informal drills Wednesday and Thursday, the two days this week that they were barred from the team's offseason practice facility -- the penalty imposed by the NFL Management Council and the NFL Players Association after their investigation found the Giants to be in violation of the league's rules governing offseason player workouts. The players reportedly had been contemplating organizing such workouts.
Eagles' Rookie Andrews Has Polyps Removed
Offensive lineman Shawn Andrews participated in Philadelphia's rookie camp this week after undergoing surgery three weeks ago to have polyps removed from his nasal passages. The first-round draft choice, who is slated to play guard for the Eagles this season after being a tackle in college at Arkansas, blamed the polyps for affecting his breathing and forcing him to temporarily halt his workouts early in the offseason, when he ballooned to 401 pounds. He's in the 340s now. ...
The Giants signed veteran safety Brent Alexander, a former starter for Pittsburgh released by the Steelers in March. Alexander had four interceptions and 83 tackles last season, but looking for a job isn't new to him. He also has been released by Arizona and Carolina during his career.
Tuesday: Philadelphia Eagles
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