Raiders

Speed demon Rico Gafford helps Raiders prep for Ravens' Lamar Jackson

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AP

Speed demon Rico Gafford helps Raiders prep for Ravens' Lamar Jackson

ALAMEDA – Lamar Jackson ran more often in Week 11 against the Cincinnati Bengals than any Raiders rusher has in a game all season.

The Baltimore Ravens rookie's 26 carries for 119 yards isn’t all that unusual under normal circumstances. There is, however, one catch. Jackson’s a quarterback.

That’s the largest carry count by a quarterback since the NFL merger. The yardage total is second in history for a signal-caller.

But the QB wasn’t running for his life. He was running with purpose

That presents one huge problem for the Raiders defense: Containing the first-round Louisville product and Heisman trophy winner in his second career NFL start.

Jackson’s ability to run and throw – despite what some draft experts might say about that second trait – makes him unpredictable. That’s magnified because he has just one professional start. There just isn’t much tape to go on or tendencies to identify.

“[He presents] a lot of challenges, just because you don’t know what plays they are running,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. “I don’t recognize some of the plays they are running. You got to go back to Louisville and study him there. He’s got magnificent running ability. He’s going to get better and better the more he plays, and we got to respect his passing ability and these receivers. We know a lot about them.”

[RELATED: Jordy Nelson limited in on-field work in practice]

The Ravens will build off what Jackson did against the Bengals, and give the Raiders new and unscouted looks. It’s certainly possible he’ll throw more than the 19 passes he attempted in a win over the Bengals. Gruden and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther must be ready for such chess moves.

Tackling Jackson is difficult, even if defenders know what’s coming. He has raw speed in spades. He ran a 4.34-second 40-yard dash as Louisville’s pro day, showing that he can be gone in a flash.

The Raiders have someone who can match that pace.

“We got Rico Gafford,” Gruden said, “who runs about 4.2.”

Gafford is a practice-squad receiver and former college cornerback who turned in a 4.22 40-yard dash at Wyoming’s pro day. The Raiders will run Johnny Holton, activated Wednesday from the practice squad, as a Jackson clone as well.

“The best I can tell you,” Gruden said, “is we are going to be very, very creative on how we try to emulate and simulate the Ravens.”

[RELATED: Derek Carr's aim for Raiders' final six games is to mess up NFL draft order]

Gafford will do his best to give Raiders defense proper looks as they try to get used to Sunday’s unique challenge.

“I love running,” Gafford said, via the Las Vegas Review Journal. “That’s the one thing about me: I love running. I’m a track guy. Anyone who knows me can tell you I run. I run a lot, and I run fast. I’m just going to do the best that I can … to be the best Lamar Jackson I can be, other than him.”

Raiders claim Jon Gruden, Buccaneers knew their plays in Super Bowl XXXVII

Raiders claim Jon Gruden, Buccaneers knew their plays in Super Bowl XXXVII

Editor’s note: Sports Uncovered, the newest podcast from NBC Sports, shines a fresh light on some of the most unforgettable moments in sports. The fifth episode tells the story of "The Mysterious Disappearance that Changed a Super Bowl," chronicling Barret Robbins' absence from Super Bowl XXXVII.

The Raiders arrived at Super Bowl XXXVII prepared to reclaim their rightful place atop the NFL. Only their old coach Jon Gruden and the Tampa Bay Buccanneers stood in their way.

The Silver and Black were confident in a victory. They were armed with the No. 1 offense in the NFL, and weren't scared of the Bucs. By now you're aware of the story. Pro Bowl center Barret Robbins went missing the night before the game and the Raiders were trounced 48-21.

After the thrashing, the excuses started flowing from the Raiders. The fingers were pointed at Robbins for going missing and at coach Bill Callahan for his drastic last-minute game plan alteration. But while Robbins' disappearance -- which is the focus of NBC Sports' latest episode of their Sports Uncovered podcast series -- had a big impact, many Raiders believe the Gruden effect played a bigger role, believing the Bucs knew what plays they were running.

"Every level of the defense knew what we were doing," Lincoln said. "They knew what to look for when we checked versus a blitz. They knew where we were going with the ball. They knew Rich's rotation."

[SPORTS UNCOVERED: Listen to the latest episode]

"You have never played a football game where 95 percent of the plays, the other team, they can guess what plays you are running based on scheme," Mo Collins said. "But these guys, we was breaking the huddle, and they was calling out our formation, and bossing over to our formations."

If the Bucs did know the Raiders' plays, the blame should fall on Callahan for not switching up the checks from when Gruden coached the Raiders the year prior.

"I played with some of them after the fact," Sam Adams said. " And they're like, 'We cannot believe you're using the same checks, and the same terminology.' We -- I mean Gruden ran practice saying, 'He's using the same stuff that he put in.' Come on. How can that be?"

To members of the Bucs, though, all this talk are just excuses for the beating they laid on the Raiders.

"It's the same offense that Jon Gruden ran when he was there," former Bucs defensive tackle Booger McFarland said. So, we practiced against the same offense for a year. So, if you're not going to change any of the same audibles that Gruden uses in Tampa, that's on you."

[RELATED: Al Davis never got over Super Bowl loss to Bucs]

The Raiders walked into Qualcomm Stadium without their Pro Bowl center, and with a game plan that was barely 48 hours old. They left with their tail between their legs.

Looking back on the loss, none of that mattered. The Raiders were instilled as four-point favorites, but that line was off.

That was always Gruden and the Bucs' Super Bowl to win.

Al Davis never got over Raiders' Super Bowl loss to Bucs, Greg Papa says

Al Davis never got over Raiders' Super Bowl loss to Bucs, Greg Papa says

Editor’s note: Sports Uncovered, the newest podcast from NBC Sports, shines a fresh light on some of the most unforgettable moments in sports. The fifth episode tells the story of "The Mysterious Disappearance that Changed a Super Bowl," chronicling Barret Robbins' absence from Super Bowl XXXVII.

Al Davis hated to lose, no shock for someone synonymous with “Just win, baby.” The Raiders' longtime owner and football chief enjoyed plenty of success, building a perennial playoff contender with three Lombardi Trophies in the case.

Davis’ last chance at a fourth particularly hurt, especially after the Raiders got robbed by the Tuck Rule and lost in the AFC title game the two previous years.

A 48-21 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII wasn’t painful just because of built-up frustration.

There were several factors at play.

The first, and most obvious: The Raiders got trounced.

The pre-game setback (and massive distraction): his Pro Bowl center Barret Robbins wasn’t available after going on a bender the two days before -- Robbins's mental health made things more complicated than it originally seemed -- in a story that broke not long before the game. 

The real stinger: they lost to Jon Gruden, a head coach that Davis traded to Tampa Bay roughly a year before.

All that influenced a disastrous day at the office for Davis. It's discussed in great detail on Thursday’s episode of NBC’s “Sports Uncovered” podcast, which focuses on Robbin’s disappearance and its root causes, while looking at all reasons why the Raiders lost that Super Bowl.

[SPORTS UNCOVERED: Listen to the latest episode]

Part of that analysis was Davis’ reaction to the end result. As you'd expect, he took it to heart.

NBC Sports Bay Area’s Greg Papa called Super Bowl XXXVII on the radio and was entrenched with the Raiders leading up to the game. The former, longtime voice of the Raiders was close to Davis and knew how much this loss hurt the late Raiders owner.

“Al was a sore loser to the highest level,” Papa said. “He didn’t tolerate losing. It just wasn’t part of his mentality … He was a fierce competitor, so whenever he lost, you could see it all over his face. He was a sore loser; a pissed-off loser, but this look on his face, it was the kind of look if someone told you that you had terminal cancer, your wife or husband was going to die or had died.

“It was just the look on his face. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was the most painful expression. I honestly thought, he’ll never get over this. He’ll never -- even if they come back next year and win, he’s never going to get over this game.”

Papa knew that losing to Gruden exasperated that sentiment. Tampa Bay made an insane offer for Gruden: two first-round draft picks, two second-round picks and $8 million. For a coach. That’s insane, and Davis took an offer that would've been hard to logically refuse. The popular coach hoping for a contract extension with the Raiders was shipped across the country, only to lead his new team to victory over his old one. Locking horns and eventually losing to an ally-turned-motivated opponent was particularly difficult.

“I really believe he changed forever after that game,” Papa said. “He was never the same person. His body began to break down. … And he became maniacal, increasingly maniacal, about trying to over--, you know, to change it. To the day he died, I don’t think he ever got over that loss.”