- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 26, 2003

SAN DIEGO A number of Tampa Bay Buccaneers defenders have identified Charlie Garner as the key to the Oakland Raiders' top-ranked offense.
That's right, watch out for the running back who had one carry in the first three quarters of Oakland's AFC Championship game win.
Garner, of course, does far more than run the ball. He caught more passes (91) this season than any running back and all but nine wide receivers, and nearly had a 1,000-yard rushing season to boot.
His 1,903 total yards from scrimmage ranked fifth in the NFL in a year when Priest Holmes, Ricky Williams and LaDainian Tomlinson all rushed for more than 1,600 yards.
Raiders coach Bill Callahan spent much of this week lauding Garner's contributions, calling him the team's "pulse." And he wasn't the only one praising the smallish-but-speedy back. If players and coaches on both teams are to be believed, Garner just might be the key to Oakland's chances in Super Bowl XXXVII.
"Charlie Garner gives us a dimension we haven't had," Callahan said. "His ability to get lined up on a linebacker in my opinion, that's what you have to get, those mismatches. He can create space. And what's overlooked is his blitz protection. He's a complete back in every sense."
That kind of praise was a long time coming for the Philadelphia Eagles' second-round pick in 1994. Garner, 30, spent five seasons mostly playing behind Ricky Watters and Duce Staley in Philadelphia before he was cut and signed by the San Francisco 49ers as a free agent.
In San Francisco, he finally became the 1,000-yard rusher he promised to be during his two standout seasons at Tennessee. He also caught 124 passes in two years with the 49ers and developed into the do-everything back for which he is now the prototype.
"That's what I was trying to do: carve a little niche for myself in this world," said Garner, who was born in Fairfax and attended Jeb Stuart High School.
Signing with Oakland as a free agent in 2001 was another step for Garner, who was told by then-coach Jon Gruden that he could stay on the field longer if he improved his receiving skills and became more proficient at pass-blocking.
The Raiders and Garner reached the ultimate level this year with Callahan's one-back set. Although Oakland's offense is best known for NFL MVP quarterback Rich Gannon and its trio of wide receivers Tim Brown, Jerry Rice and Jerry Porter the constant threat of Garner keeps everything moving.
"We face defenses who are going to drop eight guys [into coverage], or drop a middle linebacker 20 yards deep," Brown explained. "With a guy like Charlie, you can drop the ball off and he'll make something happen. He makes the defense adjust and that's been the name of our game this year make the defense adjust to what we're doing."
Many NFL offenses use their tailbacks as check-down receivers usually guaranteeing 4 yards and little else but Oakland isn't afraid to feature Garner. The result has been an impressive 10.3-yard per catch average.
Garner's ability to turn short catches into big gains defines the West Coast offense, a scheme built on high-percentage passes thrown to receivers on the run. And his speed is almost an instant mismatch, though Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks (who figures to get the bulk of action on Garner) is fast enough to negate that advantage.
"We have been checking [St. Louis Rams star] Marshall Faulk for the last four years and [Brooks] says that he's never missed him," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "I'm going to have to press that on him this week, too: 'That's Charlie Garner. You can't miss him, big boy.' I know he's up for the task."
Sapp, despite Oakland's infrequent rushes last week, believes that Tampa Bay must stop the run to win today. And the Raiders' four-game losing streak in which they ran just 67 times combined showed they must retain the threat of the run in order to pass.
Run or pass, one thing's certain: the ball will be in Garner's hands today.
"He's the guy we go to in critical situations," Callahan said. "He's a guy who we have complete confidence to take the game over. He's so complete in every facet."

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