OAKLAND, Calif. - Jon Gruden looks younger than many of his players.
When wide receiver Tim Brown first met him at the team's training facility, he walked right past Gruden - now in his third season as the Oakland Raiders' coach - thinking he was just another face in the crowd.
Gruden, 37, does not have a gray hair on his blond head, is clean-shaven and, away from the sideline of a football game, is non-threatening.
Maybe it was the look that made Gruden's players almost instantly feel comfortable around him. The team refers to him as Gruden, foregoing the customary "Coach" part. When players choose to deviate from that, they call him "Chucky," after the murderous, pint-sized doll in the horror movie series "Child's Play."
The contorted faces Gruden makes on the sideline when things are not going well brought about the nickname. Expect to see a high number of "Chucky" dolls today when Gruden leads his Raiders against the Ravens in the AFC championship game at Network Associates Coliseum.
Gruden, according to defensive tackle Grady Jackson, is nothing like his dubious nickname. In fact, he is rather harmless. "Gruden is a good coach, fiery, so people tend to think he's mean," Jackson said. "But don't buy into it.
"He expects the best out of you. He pushes you and gets you going. That is what we needed around here. He is a coach that knows what it takes to win."
Apparently, that meant scrapping the bombs-away offense long associated with the Raiders and replacing it with a power running game, supplemented with short passes.
Such a switch meant Jeff George, the quarterback during Gruden's inaugural season in 1998, had to go. In his place stepped journeyman Rich Gannon.
Together, Gruden and Gannon have turned around a Raiders franchise that had not been to the playoffs since 1993. Gannon has thrived in Gruden's system and is an All-Pro this season for the first time in his 13-year career.
Gruden came to the Raiders after spending three seasons as offensive coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles. Oakland owner Al Davis snatched Gruden up, thinking he was getting one of the league's youngest and brightest offensive minds.
That has proved to be true. But it is not the X's and O's that set Gruden apart from many of his predecessors who failed to bring the Raiders back to their former greatness of the 1970s and early '80s.
Gruden's finest work comes from the production he is getting out of three castaways. He has revived the careers of Gannon, running back Tyrone Wheatley and wide receiver Andre Rison.
Wheatley, thought to be a total bust after getting cut in the preseason by the Miami Dolphins in 1999, has rushed for nearly 2,000 yards in two seasons.
Rison signed with the Raiders shortly before training camp this season, and is more of a No. 2 receiver than the actual No. 2 receiver, James Jett. Rison's final season in Kansas City, he had just 218 receiving yards despite starting 14 games. This year, Rison was second on the team in receptions (41), receiving yards (606) and touchdown catches (six).
"He lets us be us," Rison said. "And he puts the responsibility on the veteran players to conduct the locker room and practice habits.
"That is why you see guys in here with cornrows, fade haircuts, beards, long hair, short hair, it doesn't matter. A lot of organizations, they look at your appearance and hold it against you."
The groundwork for the Raiders' march to a 12-4 regular season and AFC West title was laid in the final game of last season.
Oakland, out of playoff contention, kept rival Kansas City from going, too, with a 41-38, come-from-behind win at Arrowhead Stadium.
"That gave us so much momentum going into the off-season program," Gruden said. "I think guys were more eager to show up here March 16, start lifting weights and working again. I think that taste was fresh in their mouths. They got a chance to enjoy that victory in a place where we hadn't had much success.
"That, more than anything, helped our football team."
And it kept the focus off Gruden's second straight .500 season. Some speculated that Davis - the owner with the "Just win, baby" attitude - would get a little restless if Gruden did not start strong this season, but those thoughts are long gone, replaced with visions of the club's first Super Bowl berth since the 1983 season.
Besides an offensive resurgence, Gruden said the key to the Raiders' rise lies in consistency.
"You've just got to be consistent," he said. "That has been the big thing that I've concentrated on so these players get a read on where we are headed. I don't think anybody responds to inconsistency, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde approaches.
"We try to be consistent in the good times and consistent in the bad. And very persistent in terms of the standards and effort on the practice field and in the meeting rooms."
The players have responded.
"With Gruden here and the system that he's implemented," Brown said, "I really think this is going to be a run for the Raiders that is going to last a long time."