EVEN WHEN EACH yard seemed as long as a mile and first downs were in fantasy, even when the numbers were telling the same ghastly story told so often this season, the Raiders on Sunday did have a different look and feel about them.
A detectable rhythm was there. A bounce in their collective step was noticeable. Harbored inward was a sense of faith.
Maybe that's what happens when, for at least one day, you turn to a quarterback who can gaze upon his past and honestly say he was better than George Blanda, Joe Namath, Joe Montana or Dan Marino.
Once upon a time, Bruce Gradkowski threw for more yards as a Pennsylvania high school quarterback than the aforementioned quartet. On Sunday, he was simply the prince of Raider Nation, the guy who led a 20-17 comeback win over the Cincinnati Bengals and practically floated off the field.
Gradkowski's performance was not classically beautiful; he spent most of the game in the same statistical hole formerly occupied by deposed starter JaMarcus Russell.
But Gradkowski's conclusion was, well, classic.
After throwing an interception with six minutes left — he was hit as he threw — Gradkowski loped out with 2:12 remaining and the Raiders trailing 17-10. Beginning at his own 20-yard line, he led the Raiders to the Bengals 45 before throwing three consecutive incompletions. That left fourth-and-10 and the game in the balance.
Such is the time when Raider drives typically stall or end with a turnover. But Gradkowski rifled a 16-yard strike to wideout Chaz Schilens, leaving the Oakland Coliseum's smallest crowd since 1967 (34,112) cheering for a chance in the final minute.
They were rewarded two plays later, when Gradkowski nailed rookie wideout Louis Murphy with a gorgeous back-shoulder spiral for a 29-yard touchdown, after which kicker Sebastian Janikowski booted the game-tying extra point with 33 seconds left.
Suddenly, the building shook with joy. Not a soul was seated, in the stands or on the Raiders sideline, where Russell enthusiastically led cheers while waving a towel.
"I don't know that you can ask for a better closing drive," coach Tom Cable said.
What followed, however, bordered on the miraculous. Bengals kick returner Andre Caldwell fumbled the ball to the Raiders at the Cincy 17, setting up Janikowski for his game-winning 33-yard field goal.
Yet the entire stage was set up by, of all things, the passion and determination of Gradkowski. He threw for two touchdowns, as many as Russell had in nine starts. He looked off defenders — the touchdown pass to Murphy was the second read — and he brought something more important than his pedestrian statistics (17-of-34, 183 yards, one interception, 73.5 rating).
Gradkowski brought presence, the ability to convey positive energy with such force that it made believers of those around him.
Gradkowski was, on this day, the anti-JaMarcus.
"I think a lot of guys on the team feed off the quarterback's energy," Gradkowski said, and the uptick was visible, from the sideline spirit to the overall body language. Even the Raiders defense seemed to raise its level of tenacity.
"That was probably the hardest we've fought all year," safety Tyvon Branch said. "It seemed like everyone was on the same page and we were just all clicking."
Not exactly. Cincinnati, which already has swept AFC North rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore, built a 14-0 lead midway through the second quarter and went flat. Even as the Bengals controlled the ball for more than 38 of the game's 60 minutes, outgained the Raiders 348-275 and finished with a 23-16 edge in first downs, it was clear they came to town expecting a typical Raiders performance.
This game was neither typical, nor was it about numbers. It was about pluck, most of it coming from Gradkowski. Care to guess what might have happened if Russell, the Big Easy, had been asked to provide the leadership?
Gradkowski said he drew upon his experiences in Tampa Bay and Cleveland. He cited the lessons learned under the tutelage of Jeff Garcia and Jon Gruden, props that (wink-wink) will go over well in the big office at Raiders headquarters.
But Gradkowski said something that was more revealing, that he considers Justin Fargas a strong leader because the running back is tough, gritty and "gets after it."
Such, Gradkowski said, is his own mentality. The Raiders no doubt wish Russell had more of it.
For now, though, they'll take it wherever they can find it.
Contact Monte Poole at email@example.com