Sept. 11, 2011GUTIERREZ ARCHIVE
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CSNCalifornia.comALAMEDA -- Al Saunders has been around some of the more explosive offensives in the history of professional football.He was a ball boy for the deep-throwing Al Davis-coached Raiders in 1963.RELATED: Boss, Murphy, Mitchell out for Raiders' opener
He had a front row seat for Air Coryell in San Diego in the early 1980s.He was one of the architects of the St. Louis Rams' Greatest Show on Turf at the turn of the century.And yet, when it comes to this current batch of Raiders...
"We didn't have this kind of speed in St. Louis," Saunders said. "We had some great football players that played fast. But pure speed? This is a special group."The Raiders' first-year offensive coordinator is not known for hyperbole. Saunders is a respected straight shooter. So if he says the likes of Raiders speedsters Darren McFadden, Taiwan Jones, Jacoby Ford and Darrius Heyward-Bey could outrun the Super Bowl champion Rams of Marshall Faulk, Az-Zahir Hakim, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, well then, you should listen.But really, what does it all mean? Because at the end of the day, the game is football. Not a sprint heat. It's about scoring points, not braggadocio over 40-times, right?RELATED: Jackson won't reveal Raiders' punt return
Well, the Raiders have put a premium on speed for decades. Cliff Branch, anyone? The aptly-named James Jett?Oakland has drafted the fastest player at the past three Combines in cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke (4.28 in the 40) this April, Ford (4.28) in 2010 and Heyward-Bey (4.30) in 2009.A San Francisco Chronicle survey showed the Raiders boasting eight players on their roster who have run at least a 4.36 40-time, with McFadden (4.33), cornerback Stanford Routt (4.27), running back Taiwan Jones (4.33), safety Tyvon Branch (4.31) and suspended rookie quarterback Terrelle Pryor (4.36) joining Al Davis' Need-for-Speed party.Heyward-Bey said the Raiders could have two 4x100 relay teams, but insisted he run the second-leg, rather than an anchor."I think that's the fastest guy, (the one who) runs the second leg," he said. "I'm a track guy, you know."As such, Heyward-Bey was quick to say he was the fastest on the team. So, too, did McFadden. Safety Michael Huff, meanwhile, said Jones was "probably the fastest man" he'd ever seen. While Ford took the high road."I'd probably say we were all the fastest," he said. But when he heard of the smack talk being run around the locker room, Ford stood up for himself.Of course, the only way to settle it would be in a straight Donovan Bailey vs. Michael Johnson-syle sprint, right?"For giggles," Heyward-Bey said of any race, "it would have to be in the offseason. You don't want nobody to get hurt, pull a hammy or anything like that. So, we'll probably never know."(But) tell Jacoby I said I'm the fastest."Heyward-Bey was barely smiling.Maybe he knew that while speed may equal scoring, it did not necessarily translate into championships. Maybe not.But consider: not one of the teams with the current top four scoring seasons in NFL history -- the 2007 New England Patriots (589 points), the 1998 Minnesota Vikings (556), the 1983 Washington Redskins (541) or the 2000 Rams (540) -- won the Super Bowl in that specific season.And yet, the Raiders were making like Maverick and Goose in one of the most seminal moments of "Top Gun" in that they feel the need, the need for speed."It's like we can have a track meet on the field with the guys we have out there," McFadden said. "(But) it's not just about having speed. Guys have to be able to go out there and make plays. One thing we have to do is focus on making plays."So then just how easy is it harness pure speed and apply it to real-world football skills?"I went to school with Tommie Smith, Lee Evans and John Carlos and Ronnie Ray Smith," Saunders said with a nostalgic grin, reminiscing on his days at San Jose State. "They came out in the spring and they just came back from the '68 Olympics and there were some gold medals in there but they didn't turn out to be football players. Speed and playing the game are two different things. People can run fast in a straight line, but when you have to change directions and there's another 200-pound defender over there trying to re-route you, you have to have the other skill of catching the ball. It is really different."I had a great privilege of coaching a guy for a lot of years, Charlie Joiner, who's in the Hall of Fame. Charlie wasn't a real fast guy, but he played the game as fast as anybody around, like Freddie Biletnikoff did here. The really great ones that can transfer that speed into playing explosion, a guy like Lynn Swann, those guys are special. It takes a while to do that."Just then, Heyward-Bey and Ford walked up behind the reporters interviewing Saunders and listened in like attentive yet playful students."You can teach guys to run faster," Saunders said. "Usain Bolt's working right now to run 100th of a second faster, so there's some techniques and things you can do to make guys play faster. But that innate speed factor, it really gives you an advantage because of the open field. When you get the ball in the open field you can run fast. And the faster you run, the better chance you have of getting into the end zone before somebody else catches you."Or making like Heyward-Bey and Ford and getting to the locker room before a coach's soliloquy on speed is finished. Talk about speed.