All though training camp, Raiders coach Norv Turner insisted his team had no quarterback controversy. Sunday he proved it.
Through three-plus quarters of Oakland's season-opening 24-21 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Rich Gannon was precisely as harried, maddening, up, down and sideways as his teammates.
The Raiders' first four meaningful possessions of 2004 were a study in exasperation. First came a punt. Second came a Gannon fumble while trying to pass; it was returned 49 yards by Pittsburgh's Aaron Smith, setting up the Steelers' second touchdown.
Third came a hideous interception straight out of the Billy Joe Hobert instructional video. Fourth came another punt.
Oh yeah -- the Raiders' fifth drive culminated in a gorgeous deep ball from Gannon to a streaking Doug Gabriel for a 58-yard touchdown.
"Obviously he made some big plays," Turner said.
Followed by some more not-so-big plays. The Raiders opened the second half with a field goal. They followed with drives that ended in a punt, and yet another interception that would have made Bronco Nagurski cry.
And the way we know there is no quarterback controversy on this team would be:
The next time the Raiders got the ball, Gannon was dispatched back onto the field. As opposed to being encouraged to find a cheap one-way flight back to Oakland.
This isn't to suggest Gannon was solely responsible for his team's offensive fits and starts. No matter how the Raiders' movers, shakers and godlike architects dress it up, this is a team in transition. It will experience inconsistency, miscommunication and straight-up slapstick. And there will be bad days, too.
But this season the Raiders have something they didn't have when Gannon struggled last season -- a backup quarterback who once started a Super Bowl. Kerry Collins is his name, and Al Davis didn't sign him to a three-year, $15 million contract because Collins could whip up a mean bucket of Gatorade.
Past performance would suggest Collins to be a better fit for the kind of power-running, deep-passing offense said to be favored by Davis and Turner. So it is only natural that his signing heralded an emergency session of the Second Guessers Society, with Topic A being: Is Collins about to supplant Gannon as the Raiders' starting quarterback?
And Topic B being: How about now?
Gannon gave Turner multiple opportunities to make a switch on Sunday. Forget the fumble -- Gannon was hit as he tried to throw, and even with replay it wasn't abundantly clear whether he had fumbled or thrown an incomplete pass.
The interceptions were grievous. The first came when Gannon attempted to dump the ball out of bounds, and found Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend instead.
"The guy winds up making a tippy-toe catch on the sideline," Gannon said, making a face like someone experiencing his first taste of hard liquor. "That's unfortunate."
"That," Turner said, "was an interception you shouldn't and can't throw."
The second interception wasn't much prettier. Under blitz pressure, Gannon lofted a pass for a crossing, well-covered Jerry Porter. It was far short, way wide and intercepted by linebacker James Farrior.
"The backside linebacker fell right into it," Gannon said. "I never saw him."
Quarterbacks have been forced to surrender their playbooks for less. Turner stuck with Gannon, and his resolve paid dividends. On the Raiders' final two possessions, they scored a field goal, then a game-tying touchdown and 2-point conversion.
They couldn't hold the tie. Gannon clearly held his job, with a 20-for-37, 305-yard effort. Though it is interesting to note that when asked to assess his quarterback's performance, Turner made a face like someone experiencing his first eyeful of Dame Edna.
"I think it is just (Gannon) getting comfortable with everything we are doing," Turner said. "I was getting comfortable with him. The thing he did was what our team did. He competed, and he gave us a chance to win."
That will cease to be a passing grade at some point this season. Which Gannon, with a veteran's grasp of the obvious, acknowledged.
"I pride myself in taking care of the football," he said. "Today, the ball was on the ground too much. I need to do a better job. I'll accept that responsibility. That hurt us."
As for the raucous confluence of young players, new coaches and intersecting learning curves:
"Look," Gannon said, "we knew coming in that everything wasn't going to be perfect. I still think we have a good team. Next week we'll be one week better."
And one week closer to the Raiders' next quarterback controversy. Which, if Sunday's game is any indication, is just a gleam in Dame Edna's eye.