I'm sure that if I were really clever, I'd make some sort of connection between the Raiders and the founding of Anglo Australia at Botany Bay by a collection of criminals and their jailers. After all, one rummy bunch can echo the other, and the Raiders are nothing if not a franchise in love with their history. That's sort of to be expected in Oakland, Calif., because history's dead hand not only holds sway, it's attached to the still-living owner and wellspring of all things silver and black, Al Davis himself. It's a testament to the tenacity of the old man's vision that Raider fans are devoutly hoping that Randy Moss, wideout and wild child, will restore the two things that have always been associated with their team: swagger and the vertical game.
Raiders football is about the long pass. It's supposed to rely on blisteringly fast wideouts and a quarterback with enough arm to get them the ball, delivering lightning strikes downfield that can break the back of a more stolid opponent. (Insert an image of a fuming Chuck Knox or Dan Reeves grinding his molars to powder, should you be given to nostalgia.) The vertical game doesn't always rely on exactly the same formula. In its better days, the vertical game featured a tight end to fulfill everyday possession receiver needs and to take those sack-saving dump-offs over the middle. But that part of the plan depends on the presence of someone as good as Raymond Chester, Dave Casper or Todd Christensen, and it's been a while since the Raiders had anybody like that.
The vertical game depends on having wideouts who come in two flavors, fast and faster. Cliff Branch, one of the fastest men in the history of the NFL, is the archetypal great Raider wide receiver, but Raiders history is replete with other deep threats, guys like Warren Wells or Mervyn Fernandez, and now hopefully Jerry Porter. (In this formula, you can consider the great stickum-slathered possession receiver Fred Biletnikoff as the Hall of Fame exception that proves the rule.) On some level, that changed when the Raiders adapted to the times and relied more heavily on another Hall of Famer-to-be, Tim Brown. Gifted as he was, Brown was a more prototypical '90s wideout, tall enough to tower over most cornerbacks, and blessed with the hands to catch almost anything thrown at him. But relying on Brown took the Raiders away from what made them the Raiders, and made the vertical game an antidote to the NFL's tedious, nearly universal adoption of the short-passing West Coast offense made famous by the cross-bay 49ers.
Enter Moss. The premier wideout of his generation, Moss' explosiveness on and off the field seems made for a Raiders franchise given to playing the game its own way. Coming as part of a rebuilding effort after two disastrous seasons (4-12 in 2003, the worst record ever for a team that was in the Super Bowl the year before, and 5-11 in 2004), the move is easy to spin: Raiders reject their recent loserdom, sign the biggest, baddest star available, return to the Old Ways, and teach the NFL a thing or two. And if that smacks of hubris, isn't that how an Al Davis operation does things?
There are reasons to see why it could work. Moss and Porter are backed up by further speed in Ron Curry and Doug Gabriel, perhaps giving the Raiders the fastest collection of wideouts on one team since ... well, probably the Raiders of the mid-'80s, or if you want to be really obscure, perhaps the Houston Gamblers' quartet in the USFL that a young Jim Kelly made briefly famous. The offensive line seems to be improving with last season's arrivals of right tackle Robert Gallery and center Jake Grove, so the Raiders should be able to build and hold pockets for Kerry Collins to deliver long bombs. Add the decision to bring in Lamont Jordan and give the team a viable power running game to set up the vertical game, and you could start thinking the Raiders might just live up to the spin.
Unfortunately, there are reasons to wonder about that, starting with Moss. Flip the pages of the superb 2005 edition of the 2005 Pro Football Prospectus, and you'll discover that Aaron Schatz and his team of analysts from the Football Outsiders have noted that Moss' explosiveness is a product of his environment, courtesy of playing 11 games a year on turf (including his eight home games as a Viking, naturally). Over the last four years, Moss has averaged 14.3 yards per catch, but that breaks down to 15.2 on turf, and 12.3 on grass. The bad news? The Raiders play all 16 of their games in 2005 on grass. Vertical game mystique or no, I wouldn't expect Moss to grow on grass, and neither should you. Instead, Moss might be the possession receiver and obvious end zone target from inside the 20, while Porter and Curry are the deep threats.
But there's a more basic problem: finding the howitzer to belch flames from the pocket and send those bombs arcing downfield. The strong-armed Kerry Collins seems to resemble this kind of quarterback more than Rich Gannon, but he's also Kerry Collins, the guy who blew it in Carolina and with the Giants. Beyond the franchise's historic sympathy for tough-luck stories, is this really a Raiders quarterback? Last year, the Raiders ranked 19th in the league in yards per pass attempt, and that was mostly Collins' "achievement." Will he be able to wing it well enough this year to take advantage of Moss and the rest of his stable of wideouts?
There's some reason for hope. Fellow scrap-heap pickups Jim Plunkett, Jay Schroeder, Jeff Hostetler and Rich Gannon all had their best seasons in yards per attempt when they became Raiders starters. And Jeff George exceeded the career best he'd established with the Raiders when he went to the Vikings in 1999, where his primary target was ... a young Randy Moss. If Collins can raise his game, and Moss can blast past cornerbacks on grass, that old-time Raiders religion could be holding revival meetings in opponents' end zones again.