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Angry Pope

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You never know

August 26th, 2006
By Jerry McDonald

A few weeks ago, I watched Phillip Rivers look as good as Drew Brees ever has for the San Diego Chargers.

This came not long after Aaron Brooks looked as bad as Donald Hollas ever has for the Oakland Raiders.

Fast forward to this weekend. Brooks passes the Detroit Lions silly, and Rivers can’t handle a snap from center on San Diego’s first two possessions without fumbling.

All it proves is nothing when measuring the Raiders’ chances against the San Diego Chargers on Sept. 11 at McAfee Coliseum.

I decided in 1994 to quit paying serious attention to the pre-season after watching the 49ers slog through football in August only to open against the Los Angeles Raiders on Monday night and look as crisp and precise as any team ever has in Week 1.

It was a playground for Steve Young, Jerry Rice and Co. at Candlestick Park and the 49ers won 44-14. The 49ers went on to win the Super Bowl. The Raiders, darkhorse Super Bowl candidates, finished 9-7 and Al Davis rewarded Art Shell with a pink slip.

That said, what the Raiders have accomplished the last two weeks is fairly remarkable. Their defense has looked decent since July 25. On offense, they looked about as poor as a team could look in practice for a good two- and a half weeks.

Don’t kid yourselves. Some of the players were concerned. While they all maintained a united front, I know of a few former teammates who have talked to some current Raiders who were wondering what the hell was going on.

Shell, through it all, never wavered, either with his team or with the media.

And while it’s still to way too early to formulate a conclusion, this much is clear _ leadership makes a big difference.

Other observations as the Raiders begin to shape what will be their 53-man roster:

— I so seldom get to be right when it comes to corrections from Raider fans. But it may interest “RFM'’ on the previous post that the Raiders were 5-1 in the pre-season in 1975.

— The report on Andrew Walter _ no structural damage. That’s a good thing, but bursitis and tendonitis aren’t conditions normally associated with the shoulder of a 24-year-old quarterback.

— Don’t expect Shell to sell out to get that unbeaten pre-season record. It sounds as if a lot of players could be sitting this one out.

— Examples of Shell’s faith and patience include place kicker Sebastian Janikowski and running back Justin Fargas, both of whom could have been shipped out of town without a whimper of protest from Raider Nation. Each looks rejuvenated under Shell.

— Saw defensive end Bobby Hamilton and running back Zack Crockett engaged in a serious-looking conversationin the post-game locker room. Approaching cutdowns may be tougher on veterans than rookies because they know the end is in sight. If not now, then soon.

– For the life of me, I’ll never figure out Randy Moss. Which is probably exactly how he wants it. He treats the local media with disdain most of the time, even though for the most part he hasn’t been the target of any hatchet job that I can remember.

He was portrayed locally last season as a guy who was hurt but wouldn’t admit to it, kind of admirable trait, really.

Yet when Moss goes on the road, he’ll chat like a magpie, particuarly when when the national media is around. Invariably, he winds up with negative press. And he’ll do national radio interviews and shows such as “Real Sports'’ which target his checkered past.

Weird.

Too bad, because he often has interesting things to say and his home fans are the ones getting short-changed, although admittedly they care far more about his yards per catch than his quotes per day.

— Jerry Porter for Deion Branch . . . nah, Bill Belichick is too smart for that.

– Speaking of Porter, wonder if he still wants to play for Mike Martz considering how the Lions looked.

Al Davis has a fondness for ex-Raiders, but Raider fans can be thankful he never put Matt Millen in the front office.

— Tough to tell what was more heartfelt _ the boos for Porter or the cheers for Ronald Curry.
 
Raiders coach faced with tough choices
Shell must trim 90-player roster to 75 by Tuesday, 53 by Sept. 3


By Steve Corkran


Raiders coach Art Shell has awakened to the same group of 90 players for the past five weeks. If he had his way, the NFL would expand regular-season rosters so that he could accommodate everyone.

It's not going to happen. Shell hasn't made a single roster move since training camp started July 24. That's about to change, though it isn't because a player has fallen from favor with Shell.

Tuesday is the first mandatory roster cutdown, where teams need to be at 75 players. Five days later, that figure drops to 53. Shell said already he is feeling the separation anxiety.

"It's a difficult thing anytime you have to part ways with guys who have been part of your family," Shell said Saturday. "I've never liked this part of the job."

Yet, it's an important and necessary function. With that in mind, what follows is a breakdown of the odds facing the 90 players on Oakland's roster of making the 53-man, opening-day squad:

Locks: Quarterbacks Aaron Brooks, Andrew Walter and Marques Tuiasosopo, running backs LaMont Jordan, Zack Crockett, Justin Fargas and John Paul Foschi, tight end Courtney Anderson, offensive linemen Robert Gallery, Barry Sims, Jake Grove, Paul McQuistan, Langston Walker, Corey Hulsey and C Adam Treu, wide receivers Randy Moss, Jerry Porter, Ronald Curry, Doug Gabriel and Alvis Whitted are slam-dunks on offense.

Defensively, the players all but assured spots are linemen Tyler Brayton, Warren Sapp, Tommy Kelly, Derrick Burgess, Terdell Sands and Lance Johnstone, linebackers Sam Williams, Kirk Morrison, Thomas Howard and Darnell Bing, cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha, Fabian Washington, Chris Carr, Michael Huff, Stuart Schweigert, Jarrod Cooper and Stanford Routt.

Kicker Sebastian Janikowski and punter Shane Lechler aren't going anywhere, either.

That leaves 51 players vying for the remaining 14 spots. Twenty eight of those 51 have a realistic shot and comprise the group of players on the bubble.

On the bubble: There's a need for another running back. Veteran Rod Smart gets the nod based on his versatility, especially as a special teams player.

Receivers Johnnie Morant and Carlos Francis combined for one reception their first two seasons. One or both likely won't be here for a third season. Morant is healthy and has more of a prototypical build for a receiver in the Raiders offense. Therefore, he sticks. Rookie Will Buchanon gets the nod if Shell opts for a seventh receiver.

Competition for two tight end spots remains fierce, with five players in the hunt. Veterans O.J. Santiago and Randal Williams make the team based on their experience.

Shell loves offensive linemen, yet he can carry only so many. Look for him to squeeze onto the final roster veteran Chad Slaughter and rookie Chris Morris.

The defense is just about set. Only a handful of spots are up for grabs. This is where it gets tough for Shell.

Does he stick with veterans such as defensive end Bobby Hamilton, linebacker Danny Clark, safety Derrick Gibson and cornerback Tyrone Poole, or go young with the likes of linemen Kevin Huntley and Anttaj Hawthorne and linebackers Timi Wusu and Ryan Riddle?

The guess is, Shell keeps Clark because of his experience as the point man of the defense, an ability to play inside and outside, and his special teams savvy. Veteran linebacker Grant Irons stays because of his playmaking ability and potential. Poole's knowledge and experience give him the nod over others. Wusu, Riddle, Gibson and Ekejiuba make it as core special-teamers.

Long-shots: This group consists of players who lack experience, got caught in a numbers game or harbored no illusions of making it out of camp a Raider. Even so, players such as quarterback Kent Smith, guard Kevin Boothe, receiver Burl Toler and cornerback Dennis Davis are prime practice squad candidates and could take that route to making the team by season's end.

Notes: Huff (ankle) is expected back at practice today, Shell said. He got hurt against the 49ers last Sunday. Walter had an MRI on his right shoulder, Shell said. "There's no structural damage," Shell added. ... The Raider Nation Celebration is scheduled for today at the Coliseum from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free for suite and season-ticket holders. Non-season-ticket holders will be charged $5.
 
Raiders 4-0, but it doesn't count yet
Defense looks solid, Moss on board, but it's still preseason


By Bill Soliday

Stand tall with pride Raider Nation, but repeat after me: It is only the preseason. These are exhibitions. They don't count. The Oakland Raiders are 4-0 but they could be 0-4 and that wouldn't matter either.

Yeah sure. Now forget the preceding and enjoy what is happening in Oakland.

Things such as:

- The Raiders have given up just one touchdown in the last 11 quarters they have played.

- They have 11 takeaways in four games.

- They have seven interceptions in four games after getting five in 16 a year ago, nearly a 600 percent improvement.

- They have Aaron Brooks and Randy Moss on the same wavelength.

They have confidence, they appear to have a large degree of panache and — what the heck, bring on San Diego for the Monday night opener.

"That's what we're looking toward," Brooks said after the Raiders' 21-3 win over Detroit Friday night. "Today was a hugeconfidence-builder for us as a football team."

"You can see us growing every week," linebacker Sam Williams said. "We're coming together, we're not making the same mistakes we made the previous weeks. We're jelling. We're just playing sound football and it's not just the first string. It's the second and the third, too.

"We have the players to make the plays, and Rob Ryan's defense is really good. We understand the system now and there should be no reason we won't be one of the best defenses around this year.

"We're ready to keep this thing rolling. We have something special here. We feel it."

But now a word from the realist, coach Art Shell.

"We're getting close, but we still are not there," Shell said after viewing game film Saturday. "And we probably won't get there until the middle of the season. We are still a work in progress, there is still a lot of improvement to be done and we will continue to work on that.

"We have to get better each week. The same thing happens once the season starts. You just have to get better and better each week in this league."

That is the official line. But Shell isn't such a hard-liner that he isn't appreciative of what has been going on in recent weeks, particularly on defense.

"The defensive coaches ... have really done an outstanding job putting this thing together," he said. "Guys are working very hard for (Ryan). The new players we added have fallen into place for us. They are really playing good ball the last couple of weeks. And what's good for us is that (Friday) the team we played did a lot of the things we are going to see once the season starts."

The good karma that has been engendered is about to face a slice of reality. On Tuesday, 15 of Shell's players are going to be told thanks, but you won't be going forward with us.

It'll be cut time and Shell hates it.

"It's a difficult thing any time you have to part ways with guys that have become a part of your family," he said. "I've never liked this part of the job, but it is something that has to be done.

"Most of them understand this is a business, but having said that, it is very hard to do. And the way they have been playing, the way they have been working, makes it tough."

However, Shell said, the game plan for Thursday's exhibition finale at Seattle is for starters to play very little and leave it up to the other 51 to make one last bid to make the roster.


EXTRA POINTS: The team will have a light workout today and then go to McAfee Coliseum for Raider Nation Celebration around 4 where Shell will introduce the team. Festivities including Raider legends and Raiderettes begin at noon ... LB Grant Irons (concussion), LB Darrell Bing (neck) and G Kelvin Garmon (back) will not practice today and will be re-evaluated Monday ... LG Barry Sims (wrist) is expected back after missing two games, but Shell said he might be held out of the Seattle game ... RB Justin Fargas (shoulder) and TE Randal Williams (contusion) have tentative go-aheads to practice ... Shell will wait to hear from medics to see if QB Andrew Walter (tendinitis) will be able to face Seattle. He has had an MRI and it showed no structural damage.
 
But now a word from the realist, coach Art Shell.

"We're getting close, but we still are not there," Shell said after viewing game film Saturday. "And we probably won't get there until the middle of the season. We are still a work in progress, there is still a lot of improvement to be done and we will continue to work on that.

"We have to get better each week. The same thing happens once the season starts. You just have to get better and better each week in this league."

That is the official line. But Shell isn't such a hard-liner that he isn't appreciative of what has been going on in recent weeks, particularly on defense.

"The defensive coaches ... have really done an outstanding job putting this thing together," he said. "Guys are working very hard for (Ryan). The new players we added have fallen into place for us. They are really playing good ball the last couple of weeks. And what's good for us is that (Friday) the team we played did a lot of the things we are going to see once the season starts."

How refreshing is that to hear from the post Norv Turner era? I appreciate his honesty.
 
Raiders plan to give first-stringers a bit of a break


David White

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Save a VHS of the Raiders-Lions game, the one with tantalizing offensive strikes and smashing defense and special teams play.

It's the last you're likely to see of a full-fledged attack by the Raiders until the Sept. 11 season opener against San Diego.

Yes, the four-win, no-loss Raiders have a fifth exhibition game to play Thursday at Seattle, but this is no time to expose the starting 11s to prolonged risk.

With two roster cut days looming in a week's span, this time is better spent evaluating backup defensive tackles (looking good, Terdell Sands) and spare tight ends (John Madsen or O.J. Santiago).

"None of the starters are going to play a whole lot," Shell said Saturday after rummaging through film of Friday's 21-3 victory over visiting Detroit. "We'll play them some, but not a whole lot. We're going to make sure we get a final look at some of the other guys that we need to take a look at."

The first of two roster cut days is Tuesday, and 15 of 90 players have to go. After the Seattle game, the roster will be whittled to its final complement of 53 players.

That's why Friday's game was so important for the front-liners to make one last splash. Save a few series, max, against the Seahawks, that was their last significant playing time until the games count.

For those who couldn't see past the Randy Moss-Aaron Brooks touchdown show, here's a short-list of players who looked game-ready:

-- Derrick Burgess: The defensive end led the league with a franchise-record 16 sacks last year. He sacked Jon Kitna on Detroit's fourth play from scrimmage of the game, striking his familiar arms-crossed pose after dropping Kitna for a 10-yard loss.

-- LaMont Jordan: He had six carries for 30 yards for a 5-yard average per carry, and a touchdown. Brooks credited Jordan with picking off several pass rushers who got through the offensive line. Blocking was not his strength last season.

-- Warren Sapp: Saddled with double teams throughout the month, the defensive tackle bull rushed his way deep into the pocket three times. He's key to ensuring a defensive presence in the backfield.

-- Kirk Morrison: The new middle linebacker has emerged as a defensive leader, bagging six tackles, one interception and a pass breakup against the Lions.

In addition, the offensive line held steady despite the absence of two starters. Two turnovers increased the defense's tally to 11 in five games. The first- and second-team secondaries continued their exhibition-season embargo on touchdown passes.

Sounds good, but Shell is the first to remind everyone it's only the exhibition season. At least he won't have to answer any more questions about the Brooks-and-Moss chemistry. They connected three times for 102 yards and two scores.

"We made some strides as a team," Shell said. "We're getting close, but we're still not there. And, we probably won't get there until the middle of the season. We're still a work in progress, still a lot of improvement to be done. You have to get better each week in this league."

Briefly: Left guard Barry Sims (elbow) and strong safety Michael Huff (ankle) are cleared to practice today after missing a week. Their game status is undecided. ... Linebacker Grant Irons (concussion), quarterback Andrew Walter (shoulder), left guard Kelvin Garmon (muscle spasms), linebacker Darnell Bing (neck), tight end Randall Williams (knee) and linebacker Ricky Brown (concussion) will not practice today. Each will be re-evaluated daily.
 
Sims, Huff set to practice again
Shell plans to rest most of his regulars in exhibition finale


PHIL BARBER


Two of the Raiders' 22 starters are expected to return to practice today. On the flip side, their places in the infirmary have been quickly occupied.

Left guard Barry Sims (out since Aug. 17 with an elbow injury) and strong safety Michael Huff (Aug. 20, sprained ankle) should be on the field today at the Raiders' facility in Alameda. And while neither is a sure bet to play against Thursday the Seahawks, their returns spell big relief for a team trying to get as close as possible to full health by the Sept. 11 regular-season opener.

It may be an even bigger relief to Huff, the highly touted rookie who seemed to be coming on strong when he hurt himself playing the 49ers.

"It's hard," he said in the Raiders' locker room Friday night. "You want to get out there and contribute to the team. But when you got great guys like Fabian (Washington) and Stu (Schweigert) out there and they're making plays, it makes it a little easier."

That night, Huff sounded more than ready to dive back into action. "The day after (the injury), I couldn't even walk," he said. "Now I'm running around, doing drills in practice. So it feels a lot better."

Sims' and Huff's replacements fared fairly well in their absence. Derrick Gibson, who has started 18 games at safety in five seasons with the Raiders, had one atrocious missed tackle against the Lions, but he drilled tight end Marcus Pollard on an incomplete pass and recovered a fumble by Jon Kitna.

Corey Hulsey was Sims' first fill-in. He shifted to center when Jake Grove hurt his shoulder, and Kelvin Garmon took over at left guard. Garmon seemed to struggle in pass protection Friday - on one play, he gave up a sack and got flagged for holding - but coach Art Shell cut him some slack.

"I thought they did a good job, both of 'em," Shell said of Garmon and Hulsey. "They worked well in there together as a tandem, and with the group, the five guys working together, I thought it was pretty good."

Yes, there is some darkness to all this bright news. Garmon (side muscle) is expected to miss practice today, as are three linebackers: Darnell Bing (neck), Grant Irons (concussion) and Ricky Brown (concussion). Tight end Randal Williams (knee contusion) is a maybe. Running back Justin Fargas banged his left shoulder, but he should practice.

"Got a lot of nicks and bruises," Shell said.

And then there is the lingering question of backup quarterback Andrew Walter, who sat out the Detroit game with tendonitis/bursitis in his right shoulder. Walter had an MRI exam, which showed no structural damage to the shoulder. The Raiders' medical staff will now determine whether he can throw this week.

"The doctors looked at him (Saturday) morning, and we'll see how he is (today)," Shell said. "Then we'll go from there."

With Marques Tuiasosopo struggling in the exhibition season - he's 14-of-31 for 160 yards, no touchdowns and one interception - Walter's availability is looking especially important.

MOP-UP DUTY

Predictably, Shell acknowledged that his starters would probably play only a little at Seattle. That's typical in a team's final exhibition game. "We're gonna make sure we get a final look at some of the other guys that we have that we need to take a look at," he said.

Shell added that the backups likely to get the most playing time will also get the balance of practice repetitions this week. The game is Thursday, and the final 22 cuts must come by Saturday.
 
That's kind of a bummer for me. I'm going to the game against Seattle on Thursday.

Guess I can learn all the numbers of the guys who will be cut next week. :(
 
I think they should have your bust at the HOF if you do that :)
 

Celebratory notes


August 27th, 2006
By Jerry McDonald

OAKLAND _ Observations from Sunday’s “Raider Nation Celebration'’ . . .

– Hard to tell who was having the better time, the 20,000 or so Raiders fans in attendance or Randy Moss, who spent much of his time on the field winging footballs into the stands to delighted fans.

– Lots of cheers, but only one guy got booed . . . Raider Nation has spoken, and they’re telling Jerry Porter to pack his bags.

– Have a hard time envisioning Bobby Petrino getting the sort of welcome Shell got Sunday. Of course, 4-0 in the pre-season doesn’t hurt.

– Raiders players on offense and defense went at it in a slow-motion scrimmage that was so free flowing center Corey Hulsey found himself wide open down the middle of the field. He dropped the pass, of course.

– Is it too mean spirited to say the “scrimmage'’ roughly resembled how the Raiders looked against the Jets last season?

– How die-hard are some of these fans? One of them, James Blackwell, charged into his burning home in Jackson recently to retrieve his season tickets. While I’d hate to speak for the Raiders, the guess here is Raiders CEO Amy Trask would have replaced them free of charge.

She was impressed by the story, however. The Raiders have begun efforts to restore Blackwell’s collection of memorabilia lost in the fire.

– The first time Moss took the microphone there was an altercation in the stands.

“Y’all break that fight up now . . . that’s what we came to see,'’ Moss said. “Naw, I’m just joking.'’

– It’s about as dry as a Death Valley creek bed, but Shell has a sense of humor. He introduced defensive coordinator Rob Ryan as the man “who promised me we’re going to have at least 10 shutouts.'’

– It dawned on me when Shell was announcing his coaching staff. Ryan, Keith Millard, Irv Eatman, Jackie Slater, Skip Peete, Lorenzo Ward, Darryl Sims . . . this is not a group you’d want to come up on in a rumble.

– That would include, of course, Shell himself.

– Trask has the same sort of determined walk as my wife when she decides something needs to be done.

When the Raiders players began their makeshift scrimmage, Trask immediately bolted from her seat toward the players assembled on the field. She disappeared amongst the forrest of tall bodies. With a matter of moments, many of those bodies were taking a knee so the fans could see what was going on.

– Host J.T. the Brick, who quizzed players from questions asked on Raiders.com, asked several to name their favorite movie.

Punter Shane Lechler, ever the Texan, proclaimed “Tombstone'’ as the best movie ever.

– Tackle Robert Gallery drew his share of cheers, but there was a clearly audible, “Watch out for the false starts'’ from just behind the railing behind the first base dugout.

– It was probably only a mixup, but when Raiders players were introduced by position group, John Madsen came out with the wide receivers instead of the tight ends. Madsen has been listed as a tight end and played there, but has also been split on occasion.

– Somebody has clued in first-round draft pick Michael Huff on the history of the No. 24 he wears on his back. Huff, since the time of the draft, has spoken of his admiration for Charles Woodson, who previously wore No. 24 for the Raiders.

But when asked about it in front of the crowd Sunday, Huff said, “I’ve got Willie Brown coaching me and I’m doing the best I can.'’
 
State of Nation looks strong
Estimated 20,000 fans turn out to toast coach Shell's 4-0 Raiders


By Bill Soliday


OAKLAND — On the field, things are fairly breezing along for the 4-0 Oakland Raiders. It remains to be seen how things are going in the grandstands ... at least in terms of ticket sales.

The Raiders are two weeks away from their regular-season home opener against San Diego — a Monday night-owl special that starts at 7:15 against the San Diego Chargers.

The game is not yet a sellout but indications are it eventually will be. And ticket sales are believed to be up from a year ago. How much, the Raiders — who have taken over ticket sales — are waiting before putting a figure on it.

But in the meantime, there was an event Sunday afternoon at McAfee Coliseum that hints things are going pretty well up in the seats between the Raiders and their fans.

A crowd estimated at 20,000 attended the second, presumably annual, Raider Nation Celebration. Last year's inaugural event attracted around 12,000.

It was something of a Raider lovefest starting with tours of the locker room, autographs by Raider legends, dancing by thefrom Sports 1


Raiderettes and, finally, the introduction of the man of the hour, coach Art Shell, and his staff and team.

"It affords us opportunities to interact with our fans," team chief executive Amy Trask said. "Since having taken over ticket operations, we have enjoyed interacting with our fans as much as it appears they have enjoyed interacting with us."

Peter Eiges, the club's ticket manager and organizer for the event, thinks he knows why.

"Art Shell has brought back the family mentality," he said. "We are together with our fans. This is a real exciting event and a real exciting time."

Fans seemed to be in agreement.

"They are being fan-friendly, trying to get them more involved in the game," Brentwood's Steve Leckie said. "I've been a Raider fan since I was 8 years old. I've had season tickets since they came back home. I am loving it."

Leckie has three tickets in an area that has been set aside for families for himself, his fiance Lisa Smith and three daughters.

"That's what I want to see brought back," he said of what was at one time, a family-friendly stadium.

Smith said the past two years have seen a marked change from the days of rowdiness that frightened away some fans.

"We never saw anything last year, and we even came for the New Year's (Eve) game," she said. "Our seats aren't too far from the Black Hole, and we never see any problems there."

Among the fans who gave Shell, a returning hero from the championship era of the 1970s, a rousing welcome was James Blackwell of Jackson. Blackwell is the season ticketholder who dashed back into his burning home two weeks ago to try to rescue his Raider season tickets from the fire that destroyed his home.

Blackwell received minor burns on his feet salvaging the tickets. Sunday, he was on the field as a guest of the team for the celebration. There he met and got autographs from players such as punter Shane Lechler.

"I'm in heaven," Blackwell said. "And Shane Lechler is my favorite player."

After Shell and Raider alumni/coaches Willie Brown and Fred Biletnikoff, the biggest cheers were reserved for wide receiver Randy Moss, defensive tackle Warren Sapp, running backs Zack Crockett and LaMont Jordan and — of course — longtime Raiders clubhouse assistant George "Run Run" Jones.

A barrage of boos greeted wide receiver Jerry Porter, who has asked to be traded in the aftermath of a run-in with Shell on their first meeting.

Moss spent considerable time giving autographs and sharing laughs and smiles with young fans, who probably wondered what all the uproar was about him being distant and disagreeable. He appeared to be having the time of his life.

But for 15 players who wore the black jerseys and were introduced, Sunday will be a bittersweet memory on Tuesday. At that time, Shell must announce that many player cuts.

But for one day, they had a chance to bask in what Raider Nation is all about.
 
Tattoos and snakes on special teams
Raiders' Cooper knows where his value is


Bruce Adams

Monday, August 28, 2006

If Jarrod Cooper didn't play for the Raiders, he'd be a season-ticket holder.

He'd take his place in the Black Hole, a large snake draped around his neck and his left arm covered with a tattoo that would do a Maori warrior proud.

Everyone would call him by his last name.

"I'm mixed," Cooper said. "My mom called me JAR-rod. She was white. My dad called me jar-ROD. He was black."

So when introductions are in order, it's always just-plain "Cooper," putting an end to any confusion over pronunciations.

Because of injuries, Cooper started 10 games at safety for the Raiders last year, but he harbors no illusions about his role on the team.

"This is my sixth year in the league and I've made a living by making a difference on special teams," he said.

Cooper is a perfect fit on special teams -- a subculture in which players embrace the open-field contact that is the primal essence of football. Sure, he says with a shrug, he likes to hit. But there's more.

"I like to be on TV," he said. "And I know that to be on TV, you've got to hit somebody. So that works out."

Though fans often take note of the chemistry between quarterback and receiver or running back and lead blocker, Cooper dwells on the chemistry of special teams. He explains that the Raiders' special teams are defined by players such as running back Justin Fargas, linebacker Isaiah Ekejiuba and tight end Randal Williams, backups who bring out the best in one another.

"That's what makes it look almost crazy," he said. "Because if it's not one person, it's someone else who is shooting by."

Often enough it is Cooper -- distinguished on the field by a tattoo inspired by "a South American tribal thing" that reaches from his left shoulder toward his forearm -- who is that guy "shooting by" on his way to a show-stopping hit on the punt-return man. Last year, he was named special-teams co-captain. He had seven tackles and a forced fumble. He added another 49 tackles, 35 of them solo, in his part-time gig as a starter.

In Friday night's exhibition win over Detroit, Cooper had a team-leading six tackles on defense and one more on special teams.

He came to Oakland in the middle of the 2004 season from the Carolina Panthers, who chose Cooper from Kansas State in the fifth round of the 2001 draft.

"You ask me, I've started every single year in this league," he said. "Being on those special teams is a starting spot in the NFL. ... You win games. I've even been to the Super Bowl on special teams." He recorded three tackles in the Panthers' loss to New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

What with the demands of training camp and preparing for another season, Cooper hasn't seen the movie "Snakes on a Plane." Still, he knows enough about his beloved pets of choice and Hollywood to have an opinion worthy of a film critic.

"Any movie about snakes is probably false," he said, describing the often-misunderstood reptiles as being "like a piece of art ... pretty to look at."

However, Cooper isn't content with simply any snake.

"I'm not into small snakes," he said. "I'm only into very overwhelmingly large snakes."

His last two snakes were a Colombian red tail boa and an albino Burmese python. He fed them live rabbits and baby goats, a diet that sounds as if it came straight out of the Raider Nation handbook on the feeding and care of household pets.

They finally outgrew his offseason home in North Carolina, each reaching more than 15 feet in length.

No doubt they will be replaced by something a bit smaller, at least initially.

"I'm all about big pythons," Cooper said.
 
Some other notes...

Just one day after returning from the physically-unable-to-perform list, Raiders WR Ronald Curry was already working ahead of the disgruntled Jerry Porter on the depth chart. Curry admitted to being frustrated by the cautious approach the team took with him since the start of camp while he rehabbed from a torn Achilles tendon for the second year in a row. We’re told he was making sharp cuts right out of the gate and has shown no ill effects from the injury. Although Porter’s attitude has been a sore subject in camp, to his credit, he has not sulked one bit during practice and is working extremely hard.

Second-year CB Fabian Washington continues to impress in Oakland with his attitude, technique and physical play. After dealing with the massive ego and inconsistent play of former first-round pick Phillip Buchanon, now with the Texans, insiders say the Raiders look at Washington as a sight for sore eyes, especially considering he works so hard at correcting his few flaws.
 
Oakland Raiders scouting report


Back in Silver and Black, Art Shell is cracking the whip,and the Hall of Fame tackle is starting with the offensive line

THE BELIEF Art Shell, who played 15 seasons with the Raiders and coached them from 1989 through '94, returns to the helm to yank this once proud club out of the doldrums brought on by three straight losing seasons. He can handle the demands of overbearing owner Al Davis and lay down the law for underachieving players.

THE REALITY Shell's most valuable commodity is his credibility. His players talk about his no-nonsense approach and the respect he still commands following a Hall of Fame career at tackle. He's also more hands-on than predecessor Norv Turner. "If we're doing a drill incorrectly, Art will stop the drill and point out exactly what everybody should be doing," says Pro Bowl defensive end Derrick Burgess. "That never happened last season. The coaches would see a problem and say they'd deal with it later, but it would never get fixed. Art handles things immediately."

It may seem odd to hear a player laud Shell for such a simple thing, but that's how bad it had gotten in Oakland. The team needs to be whipped into shape. Turner may have been too soft, but Shell doesn't hesitate to get in a player's face.

When wide receiver Jerry Porter clashed with the coach last February over Porter's desire to do his off-season conditioning in Florida, the incident ended with Shell booting Porter out of his office. Porter demanded a trade, leaving his status with the Raiders uncertain. The 59-year-old Shell has been just as assertive in his dealings with the rest of team. "When I got here, I saw that all these guys needed was some direction," he says. "They were looking for somebody to tell them what they needed to do to win again. I basically told them that I had high expectations for them and that they needed to have high expectations for themselves."

Of all the shortcomings Oakland has on both sides of the ball -- last year the club led the NFL with 147 penalties and ranked 27th in defense -- reviving the offense will be Shell's biggest challenge. The Raiders are counting on free-agent quarterback Aaron Brooks to avoid the mistake-prone play that cost him his job in New Orleans. A less complicated game plan, built around a power running game, will ease the pressure on Brooks.

Another key to the offensive transformation will be the play of a revamped line. Robert Gallery moves from right to left tackle. Barry Sims slides from left tackle to guard. Langston Walker moves from left guard to right tackle. Rookie Paul McQuistan, a left tackle at Weber State, is slated to start at right guard. Center Jake Grove, the one player in the same position as last year, injured his shoulder in camp and may miss the opener. In addition to the hard work needed to quickly become a cohesive unit, the linemen will be charged with making most of the protection calls, instead of the quarterback. Walker says the assignment adds pressure, but Shell likes the idea of Brooks having more time to focus on the play that's been sent in. "We want [Brooks] to know he doesn't have to do it all by himself," Shell says. "When I watched film of him in New Orleans, that's what usually got him in trouble."

Shell, after all, knows a thing or two about line play, and the players believe in him. "There used to be a time when teams were afraid to play us," says fullback Zack Crockett. "With Art here, I think we can get back to that place."

Fabian Washington, CORNERBACK

Of the five first-round picks the Raiders have spent on DBs since 2001, Washington has shown the most promise. Blessed with 4.3 speed and sharp instincts, the former Nebraska standout turned heads in '05 as a rookie by holding his own against top receivers in 11 starts. This summer the 5'11", 185-pound Washington has been more consistent in his reads and coverage, and he opened the preseason with a pick against the Eagles in the Hall of Fame game. He looks like the long-term answer to the departure of Charles Woodson.
 
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