Oakland Raiders Vault: Woodson’s First Pick-6

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Sep 30, 2014; Alameda, CA, USA; General view of Oakland Raiders helmet and Lombardi trophies from Super Bowl XI, XV and XVIII during a press conference at the Raiders practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

This week, the Raiders take on the first of four scheduled NFC West opponents in a rare regular-season matchup against the Arizona Cardinals. The Raiders, still searching for their first win of the season, face a tough opponent in Arizona, who come into the game hot at 4-1 with a familiar face at quarterback: Carson Palmer.

The Raiders and Cardinals, aside from pretty regular preseason meetings, do not have a very extensive history with each other, despite each franchise having a long history.  Since the Raiders joined the NFL in 1970, the St. Louis/Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals and the Oakland/Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders have met eight times, with the Raiders holding a 5-3 advantage in the all-time series. The series is tied at 2-2 in the 21st Century, with the Cardinals winning the last meeting between the two teams 24-23 (on a missed Janikowski field goal). When the two teams met at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, AZ in week 5 of the 1998 season, there was even less history between the two teams, but a memorable game ensued.

Background

The two teams were in some ways mirror images of each other when they met in 1998.  The Raiders, in head coach Jon Gruden’s first year, had gotten off to a 2-2 start that included two interconference wins against NFC East opponents Dallas and New York. Arizona, also in the NFC East in those days (don’t ask me why, I have no idea) had also started off 2-2, with losses to Dallas and Seattle (who was in the AFC West then). Cardinals head coach Vince Tobin, in his third year with the team, was on the hot seat after having gone 4-12 the year prior after a 7-9 season in his first year with the team. The Raiders had also gone 4-12 the previous year under head coach Joe Bugel, who was fired after one year and replaced by Gruden.

The Raiders were in something of a depression by franchise standards of that time (oh if we only knew how good we had it back then): they had two consecutive losing seasons in 1996 and 1997 and had missed the playoffs for four straight years. They had suffered similar stretches only twice before in franchise history: 1986-1989 (missed playoffs four straight years, two consecutive losing seasons in 1987 and 1988), and 1960-1962 (three consecutive losing seasons).

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The Cardinals were a franchise that had known nothing but depression: coming into the 1998 season, the Cardinals had not had a winning record in 13 seasons, and had not been to the post season since the strike-shortened 1982 season. The last time the Cards had been to the playoffs in a full season was in 1975, and they had not won a postseason game since 1947. Yes, 1947. As a franchise, the Cardinals had been part of the NFL since 1920, and between 1920 and 1997 had managed to put together 19 winning seasons. They were one of the most consistently bad franchises in the league. In Phoenix, they competed for local relevance with the Arizona State University Sun Devils – and they were losing, as ASU games consistently sold more tickets at Sun Devil Stadium than did Cardinals Games.

In a “if you can’t beat em, join em” move to try to gain some popularity with the local fans, the Cardinals had drafted ASU standout quarterback Jake “the Snake” Plummer in the 1997 draft, and he had started nine games for them as a rookie, throwing 15 TD’s and 15 INT’s while leading them to three of their four victories that year.  In order to try to get more out of him, the Cardinals hired Marc Trestman as their offensive coordinator to start the 1998 season. Plummer had a solid group of offensive weapons around him. Fullback Larry Centers had caught over 100 passes a few years earlier, and was one of the most consistent receiving backs in the NFL. Wide receivers Frank Sanders and Rob Moore had both turned in 1,000 yard receiving seasons in 1997, and were looking to repeat.

On defense, the Cardinals had added defensive backs Cory Chavous and Pat Tillman and defensive end Andre Wadsworth in the 1998 draft to a unit that included future Hall of Fame cornerback Aeneas Williams, safety Kwamie Lassiter, and defensive end Simeon Rice. Despite this wealth of talent on the defensive side of the ball, the Cardinals had already given up 30+ points twice on the season, and surrendered 100 or more yards rushing in three of their four games. One thing they did well is take the ball away, having recorded eight takeaways in the first four weeks of the season.

The Raiders offense was led by veteran quarterback Jeff George, who had thrown three touchdowns and three interceptions on the season.  George had no use for Jon Gruden’s quick-pass oriented West Coast offensive style, and reportedly called his own plays in the huddle from a wristband.  George was backed up by fourth-year man Donald Hollas, as well as 16-year vet Wade Wilson. Hollas had started two games in his three years in Cincinnati, and had thrown three touchdowns and five interceptions for his career.  Catching the ball from this carousel of quarterbacks was a capable receiving corps: Tim Brown, speedy and aptly-named receiver James Jett, and tight end Ricky Dudley. Napoleon Kaufman, in his fourth year in the league and coming off a 1,000 yard performance the season before, led the Raider rushing attack behind fullback Jon Ritchie and an offensive line that featured Steve Wisniewski and Lincoln Kennedy along with rookie Mo Collins.

In the 1998 Draft, the Raiders had drafted Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson – you may have heard of him – to a secondary that included veteran corner Eric Allen and veteran safety Eric Turner. The Raider defensive line was anchored by tackles Russell Maryland and Darrell Russell (RIP) with end Lance Johnstone rushing off the edge.  Greg Biekert held the entire thing together from his middle linebacker spot. Oakland’s defense had also struggled early in the season, but was very solid against the pass, having not given up more than 200 yards passing yet on the year.

Both teams came into the game off wins the week before. The Cards had beaten a bad Saint Louis Rams team, while the Raiders were coming off an impressive win against a good Cowboys team. Looking to add to their respective momentum, the two teams took the field at Sun Devil Stadium on a sunny Arizona Sunday, October 4th, 1998.

The Game

The Cardinals started the game with the ball on their own 33 yard line after a short kickoff by Raider kicker Greg Davis (author’s note: I have absolutely no memory of him ever being the Raider kicker), but only managed 13 yards on six plays before punting to the Raiders. Starting with the ball on the Raider 15 yard line, Jeff George went out and immediately Jeff George’d, throwing an interception on his second pass of the day to Kwamie Lassiter.  The pick, on a deep attempt to Tim Brown, was returned 26 yards, giving the Cardinals offense the ball at the Raider 14 yard line. Three plays later, Jake Plummer hit Johnny McWilliams for a 2-yard TD pass and, with nine minutes left in the first quarter, the Cardinals took a 7-0 lead.

The Raiders would respond with a 13-play, 31-yard drive that took nearly six minutes off the clock, culminating in a 51-yard Greg Davis field goal to close the gap to 7-3. After a Cardinals three-and-out, Raider punt returner Desmond Howard managed a huge 46-yard return that put the Raiders in field goal position again. A Raider three-and-out from there resulted in a 40-yard field goal by Davis, and the score was now 7-6 with just seconds remaining in the quarter.  On the second play of the three-and-out, Jeff George, while attempting a pass to Jon Ritchie, went down with what would turn out to be a groin injury, sidelining him for the rest of the game and, indeed, limiting him for the rest of the year. Donald Hollas would step in.

The Cardinals responded to the Raider field goal with a huge return of their own: on the ensuing kickoff, Eric Metcalf got loose for a 59-yard return, giving the Cardinals the ball at the Raider 33 yard line to open the 2nd quarter. Two plays later, Plummer hit Rob Moore for a 13 yard TD strike, and the Cardinals had extended their lead again, up 14-6 early in the second quarter. The Raiders went three and out on the ensuing drive, but Raider gunner Kenny Shedd forced Metcalf to fumble the ball and recovered it, giving the Raider offense new life at the Cardinals 36 yard line. A big 14-yard run by Kaufman put the Radiers well inside Davis’ leg range, and three plays later, he hit his third field goal of the game from 34 yards out, closing the gap to 14-9.  Despite another huge Eric Metcalf kickoff return on another short Davis kickoff that gave the Cardinals great field position yet again, the two teams traded three and outs, bringing the clock down to 8 minutes left in the half.

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  • On the fourth play of a drive that began at the Cardinals 34 yard line, Jake Plummer – who had hit his last two in a row for 21 yards – attempted a screen pass out to running back Adrian Murrell that was intercepted by Charles Woodson at the 46 yard line and returned for a TD.  It was Woodson’s first pick-six of his illustrious career, and immediately changed the complexion of the game. Having trailed all game, the Raiders suddenly found themselves in the drivers’ seat with a 16-14 lead. No longer willing to risk another big Metcalf return on another short Davis kickoff, Jon Gruden sent punter Leo Araguz in to handle kickoff duties. His first kickoff sailed down to the 1-yard line, and Metcalf’s 25-yard return was quickly followed by another Jake Plummer interception, this time to Marquis Walker. Walker returned the ball down to the four yard line, and Donald Hollas found the end zone on his own a few plays later, giving the Raiders a 23-14 advantage that they would carry into the half.

    The third quarter of the game would be an exercise in either defensive excellence or offensive ineptitude.  Late in the quarter, Hollas would fumble deep in Raider territory, setting the Cardinals up for an easy score, but Jake Plummer would be intercepted in the end zone by Eric Allen to kill that red zone attempt. With both quarterbacks struggling, the two teams – especially the Raiders – ran the ball a lot in the quarter, and the clock wound down quickly, halfway through a Cardinal drive that had begun at their own 41 after yet another big punt return by Eric Metcalf. Plummer had kick started the drive with a big 23 yard completion to Frank Sanders, but the drive stalled at the Raider 23-yard line just a few seconds into the 4th quarter, and the Cardinals settled for a 41-yard Joe Nedney field goal to close the gap to 23-17.  Another Raider three-and-out gave the Cardinals the ball at their own 39, and completions of 17 and 18 yards from Plummer to Sanders put the Cardinals back in Nedney’s range. A few plays later, Nedney hit a 29-yard chip shot, and the Cardinals had closed the gap to 23-20 with over eight minutes left in the game.  Another quick Raider possession could give them an opportunity to tie it up or even take the lead.

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  • But there wasn’t another quick Raider possession. Instead, Donald Hollas and veteran running back Harvey Williams – a bigger, more powerful back than the 5’9″ 185-pound Kaufman – led the Raiders on clock-killer. Starting the ball at their own 22 with 8:16 to go, the Raiders ran six plays – including four passing attempts by Hollas of which he completed two – before facing a 3rd and 13 at their own 40, still with plenty of time on the clock. Rather than playing it safe, Jon Gruden dialed up a deep play to tight end Rickey Dudley, which Hollas completed to give the Raiders a first down at the Cardinals 42 yard line. Harvey Williams carried the ball on four of the next five Raider snaps (after having touched the ball four times in the previous seven plays) to get the clock down to the two-minute warning with the Raiders facing 3rd and 4 at the Cardinals 25 – well within field goal range for Greg Davis.

    The field goal would never come. On 3rd and 4, Hollas dropped back to pass and was strip-sacked by Andre Wadsworth, who recovered the ball at the Cardinals 31 yard line. Now, trailing by three with 1:52 remaining, Jake Plummer and the Cardinals had the ball and one timeout. Plummer missed on his first two attempts before finding Frank Sanders for 6 yards on 3rd and 10. Sanders was tackled before he could get out of bounds, and Plummer rushed the team to the line to convert a 4th and 4 play with the clock still running to 1:15 left in the game. A 14-yarder to Sanders moved the chains, but the clock kept running, and Plummer took the next snap with :50 to go, hitting Rob Moore for 7 yards to the Raider 42. Arizona took the timeout with 45 seconds to go in the game.  A wild, scrambling play on 2nd and 3 resulted in an incomplete pass to Moore, but also took nearly 20 seconds off the clock, and a quick flat route out to Centers gave the Cardinals another 4th down with 22 seconds to go. Plummer called his own number to pick up the yards on 4th down but it took the Cardinals too long to line up for the spike, and the clock wound down to five seconds with the Cards still at the Raider 38-yard line, just outside of Nedney’s range. A quick pass out to Metcalf, in an attempt to get him in space, failed, and the game was over. Final score: Raiders 23, Cardinals 20.

    The best individual performances of the game had been turned in by Cardinals receiver Frank Sanders, who had caught 10 passes for 118 yards, and Cardinals returner Eric Metcalf, who had compiled 249 return yards on 10 touches. On the Raiders side, kicker Greg Davis, despite being relieved of his kickoff duties, had turned in a solid performance in kicking all three of his field goal attempts, which had given the Raiders key points early to keep the game close before the Raider defense could take over. Punter Leo Araguz also played well, both in the punting game and in relief of Davis as the kickoff specialist. The move by Gruden to replace Davis with Araguz in the kickoff game had limited the damage Metcalf could do in the 2nd half. Raider special teams had struggled to contain Metcalf, especially early on, but the key forced fumble and recovery by Kenny Shedd and the punting and kicking by Araguz to go with Davis’ precision field goal kicking had also helped the Raiders stay in the game.

    The Raider defense, after some early struggles, had played spectacularly.  They had picked off three passes, sacked Plummer three times, and held the Cardinals passing offense under 200 net yards (Plummer threw for more than 200 but the sacks deducted from the team total). The Raiders had also completely taken away the Cardinals running game, holding them to 49 yards on 21 attempts for a 2.3 yard per carry average. The offense, on the other hand, had not played one of their best games. Donald Hollas was 12-22 for 104 yards in relief of Jeff George, who had gone a spectacular 4-10 for 16 yards and an interception. The Raiders running game had only averaged 3.3 yards per carry, but Gruden leaned on it enough, especially in the second half, for the team to pick up over 100 yards rushing for the game. Kaufman and Williams had both carried the ball more than 12 times, and Williams’ had carried the load late to eat up the clock in the 4th quarter.

    Aftermath

    Arizona would go on to finish 9-7, making the NFC Playoffs as a Wild Card team and managing their first playoff victory since 1982.  This was done despite Jake Plummer throwing 20 interceptions to only 17 TD’s and despite the defense finishing near the bottom of the league in both scoring and total defense.  Cardinals running back Adrian Murrell would rush for 1,000 yards in 1998. The Cardinals would not reach the playoffs or record a winning season again until the 2008 season, when they reached the Super Bowl with Kurt Warner at the helm. Jake Plummer would throw 79 interceptions to only 58 TD’s over the course of the next four seasons with the Cardinals before he was released after the 2002 season. Plummer would go on to play for the Denver Broncos, where he was 7-1 against the Raiders in four years. Frank Sanders would finish the 1998 season with 89 receptions for 1,145 yards, both his career highs. He also left Arizona after the 2002 season, and played his final year in Baltimore.  Eric Metcalf had over 1,800 all-purpose yards in 1998, including over 1,500 yards in the return game. He only spent 1998 in Arizona, and then moved on to three more stops in three years, he would only touch the football in a regular season game 23 times in that three year period.

    The Raiders would win their next three in a row, taking a 5-game win streak and a 6-2 record into Week 10, before losing six of their last eight including a four-game skid and finishing 8-8, missing the playoffs again. Jon Gruden would lead them to an 8-8 record again in 1999, then the Raiders would make three consecutive playoff appearances in 2000, 2001 and 2002. The Raiders won the AFC and went to the Super Bowl in 2002, and my memory gets fuzzy after that.

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  • Jeff George and Jon Gruden would never really find a way to work together. George would return from his groin injury too early, making 3 pass attempts in a loss against Baltimore before aggravating it again.  He would see action in two more games late in the year, finishing with less than 1,200 yards, 4 TD’s and 5 INT’s. He would spend three more years in the NFL, one in Minnesota and two in Washington, before ending his injury-riddle career. Hollas would start the next three games, leading the Raiders to three straight wins in which he completed just 42% of his passes for 511 yards and 4 TDs. Hollas would play most of the Raiders loss against Baltimore after George re-injured his groin, starting a five-game run in which the Raiders lost four of five, and Hollas threw 14 interceptions to only six touchdowns despite completing a much higher percentage of his passes. Hollas was benched late in a Week 14 loss to Miami after throwing his sixth interception of the game, and Wade Wilson would lead the team for the remainder of the year. Lastly, Hollas spent time in the Detroit Lions training camp in 1999 before being cut, and never returned to the league. Napoleon Kaufman would go down with an injury late in the Miami game, as well, and finished the season with 921 rushing yards and only two touchdowns. Kaufman would split time with Tyrone Wheatley in 1999 and 2000, and became the Raiders primary punt returner for the 1999 season. He retired after the 2000 season.

    The 1998 season was the end of one period and the beginning of another for the Raiders organization.  Rich Gannon became the Raiders starting quarterback in 1999 and the rest was history. Much of the roster that beat the Cardinals on that October day in Tempe would be a part of those great Raider teams of 2000-2002, however, and we know the career arc taken by one Charles Woodson. This Sunday, a Raider team that features a few promising young players along with a number of elder journeymen will face off against the Cardinals looking for a good beginning to a new era. The Cardinals are no longer the mediocre team with a long history of failure led by a mistake-prone young quarterback. Nowadays, Arizona have one of the best defensive units in the league, and their offensive scheme and supporting cast has breathed new life into veteran Carson Palmer’s career. If the Raiders can beat Arizona, it will require a team effort, and a pick-six by Charles Woodson would definitely help. But this time lets hope our starting quarterback doesn’t hurt his groin.