Raider Nation facing a divide

Let it be known that the Raiders quarterback controversy officially began at 6:14 p.m. Saturday under gunmetal gray skies at whatever they're calling Candlestick Park these days.

That was the precise moment that Kerry Collins threw a tight, low-arcing spiral over two defenders and into the waiting arms of second-string receiver Doug Gabriel, who was sprinting down the left sideline.

The lightning strike resulted in a 34-yard touchdown late in the first half of an otherwise meaningless exhibition game, and just like that the stadium that launched Joe vs. Steve had spawned Kerry vs. Rich.

Coach Norv Turner insists there is no controversy, but it's not up to him. It's fans, media and the quarterbacks themselves that start quarterback controversies. Bill Walsh and George Seifert didn't spark the great Joe vs. Steve debate. Joe Montana and Steve Young did.

The Raiders can deny it all they want, but it won't be long until Internet polls will be popping up everywhere and fans will be debating the merits of Collins and Rich Gannon in the letters to the editor section of Sunday sports pages and on sports-talk radio shows.

This is one debate that threatens to divide the Raider Nation.

"The deep ball to Doug was pretty great -- not pretty great, really great," said running back Tyrone Wheatley, stirring the coals, perhaps unwittingly. "Kerry Collins is throwing the ball really well."

If Gannon's grasp on the starter's role seems more tenuous than it did before the exhibition opener, it's no fault of his own. Gannon looked to be his old, efficient self during the first two series.

He needs to play well this preseason for several reasons. It's important for him to quash any talk of a controversy before it starts. He needs to prove his surgically repaired throwing shoulder will be as durable during game action as it has been during seven-on-seven drills. He needs to prove he is capable of making the downfield throws necessary to master the new offense of Turner, their first-year coach. He may have to regain the confidence of his teammates after a sub-par season.

Regardless of whether anybody wants to admit it or not, Gannon may need to play well to remain in the Raiders' employ. It's not out of the realm of possibility that he could be cut before the end of training camp. It would be typical of Al Davis to keep him until the last possible moment to prevent him from signing with another team and coming back to haunt the Raiders. If it becomes obvious that Collins is the superior quarterback, why keep Gannon when he is scheduled to earn $8.9 million and could potentially divide the locker room?

For the most part Gannon passed every test, in so much as a glorified scrimmage at regular-season prices is any test at all. He didn't flinch in the pocket as he did at times last season when his protection broke down. He was nimble when he needed to be, twisting away from a defender to avoid a sack. He completed 9 of 15 mostly short passes for 69 yards. Thirty-nine of those yards came on screen passes.

But this isn't all about Gannon. It's about Collins, too.

What Collins does is well beyond Gannon's control. The ball Collins threw to Gabriel hasn't been seen from a Raiders' quarterback since Jeff George limped off with a shredded groin. It's a curious comparison, true.

It's no knock on Gannon, even if it sounds like one. Gannon is more of a finesse passer while Collins can rifle the ball into tight spots. Either style can be equally effective, but you have to admit that the way Collins zipped the ball to Gabriel was eye opening because it's something we haven't seen in some time. Don't think Al didn't notice. We all know how the deep pass makes his heart go thump-thump-thump.

"My approach to this whole thing is I'm going to do the best I can do regardless of this situation," said Collins, who completed 5 of 8 passes for 88 yards. "That was my goal tonight."

It bears watching, this controversy that promises to become a season-long subplot. Right now we don't know whether Gannon or Collins is the better fit for this team. Collins may be a better fit for Turner's offense, but he has been prone to forcing balls into coverage.

Gannon, lest we forget, is only two years removed from an MVP season and prides himself on playing virtually mistake-free football.

"I feel great," Gannon said. "I don't know how else I need to convince people, but I feel great."

Barring an injury to Gannon, Turner said he couldn't envision a scenario in which Collins would emerge as the starter. He's doing his best to downplay any talk of a controversy, but we don't need his permission.

These things take on a momentum all its own.