Raiders mystique returns

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 16, 2003

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- It's easy to get lost in Oakland's locker room. Not because of the size of the place, but because of the people in it.

Raiders mystique? Take a look around:

In one stall, there's Jerry Rice, the most prolific wideout of all time.

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In another, there's Tim Brown. Only Rice has more yards receiving.

Rich Gannon? Most Valuable Player -- of the entire league.

Rod Woodson? One of the four greatest cornerbacks in the NFL -- over the first 75 years.

Bill Romanowski. Sebastian Janikowski. Charles Woodson. For good and bad, everyone knows who they are.

''When I got here, I looked around,'' little-known Raiders receiver Alvis Whitted said. ''I asked myself, 'Why am I here? What could they possibly want from me?'''

Indeed, all those names, all that history and all that talent can make it almost as hard playing for the Raiders as it is playing against them.

The Tennessee Titans, who face Oakland in the AFC championship game, are saying all the right things as they head into Sunday's game.

''Raiders mystique?'' Eddie George asked. ''I don't get all caught up in that.''

But he acknowledged that he was a huge fan of the Raiders when he was growing up. And he is, he concedes, ''familiar with the rich history the Raiders have.''

Still, the Titans insist they are not intimidated -- by the players, the fans, the whole notion of playing Oakland in a huge game during a season in which the Raiders look to be the best they've been in two decades.

Nor do they think their overwhelming 52-25 loss here in September was a matter of being psyched out.

''We did not play well,'' Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. ''We had a number of injuries, and we were just kind of struggling finding ourselves back then. Things just got out of hand real quick. We obviously feel like we're better than we were then.''

Although the Raiders are historically the team known for stirring things up, it was Titans safety Lance Schulters who got off the first shot this week when he said Rice and Brown get more breaks than the average receiver, and he called Brown ''a crybaby.''

A blatant show of disrespect?

Maybe not, considering Schulters has an autographed jersey of Rice's framed and hanging on a wall in his house. For the record, none of the Raiders have signed jerseys of any of the Titans hanging in their homes.

''When you see the questions about Jerry and his work ethic, man it's true. It's real,'' said Schulters, a former teammate of Rice's in San Francisco.

Running the show behind the brand-new fence the Raiders erected around their complex before the playoffs began is Al Davis -- the eccentric owner who, through all his trials and travails over the decades, has taken the NFL and its fans on a strange and entertaining ride.

If it's true, as some NFL purists say, that the league is at its best when teams like the Raiders are winning, then the NFL is having a mighty good year this season.

''It's a championship game in the Black Hole, in Oakland, against the Raiders,'' George said. ''It's exciting.''

Of course, any team with so much talent, big names and eccentrics is bound to have one flaw. In this case, it's a pretty obvious one: These guys are old.

Rice, Gannon, Brown and Romanowski alone have 63 years of NFL experience between them. This is, by almost every account, the last chance for this group of veterans. Age and salary-cap problems have pretty much assured the Raiders of that.

Remember the movie ''Space Cowboys,'' in which Clint Eastwood, James Garner, Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones play aging ex-astronauts who get together for one more trip into space? This is the NFL's version of that: One more chance to add another championship chapter to the Raiders legacy.

''The way I look at it is, the old Raiders are retired and gone, and I want to call this the new Raiders,'' offensive lineman Frank Middleton said. ''It would be great to be known for what this group can do.''