The Oakland Raiders broke their three-game fast and scored last Sunday. Yes they did. They scored 18 points, which was enough to beat Tampa Bay by two; and they did it with a brand-new quarterback, Marc Wilson, and an offensive line that blocked as well as it is humanly possible to block, and a defense that was inspired in spots. And are things right in Pride and Poise Country now? No, they are not.
Forty minutes after the game, Al Davis, the owner, was slouched against a wall outside the Raiders' dressing room, cursing softly to himself and lobbing ice cubes into a laundry bag.
"How'd you like your new quarterback?" he was asked.
"I didn't get to see the real Marc Wilson," he said. Pause. Plink went an ice cube. Plink. "I don't know what I saw but it wasn't him. They didn't let the kid throw the ball. How many long passes did he throw, one?"
October 26, 1981
One exactly, an overthrow of Wide Receiver Cliff Branch in the end zone. The rest of the time it was little flips and dinks behind a line that gave Wilson an hour to throw the ball, a line that brutalized the Bucs when the Raiders ran.
Wilson said he had been "nervous...I never lost my nervousness...I didn't want to make a mistake." Davis shook his head, plinked a few more ice cubes and said, "They didn't let the kid open up. They called the first downs for him and the third downs. What could he do?"
This isn't Raider football. This kind of dink approach supposedly was what got Ken Stabler a ticket to Houston. It drives Davis crazy. Oh, the Raiders won the game all right. They won it because Ted Hendricks blocked Bill Capece's 31-yard field-goal try after a high snap with eight seconds left, and because of the brilliance of their offensive line, and their defense, which held Tampa Bay to zero first downs in the first half. But things are out of sync. The Raiders screwed up the clock at the end of the first half when they had a first-and-goal on the Tampa Bay three and had to settle for a field goal. They let the clock run and la-dedahed out of the huddle. "Yeah, I know, that was terrible," Davis said. "What the hell can I do? I'm the owner. I can't climb down on the field."
And if Wilson is Oakland's quarterback for real, if he doesn't just represent a holding operation until Jim Plunkett gets himself back together again, then the Raiders have a long way to go.
Wilson was pressing Sunday, and his ball was doing tricks as he tried to guide it to his target, but he's a good-looking young athlete. He stands 6'6", and when he drops back in the pocket during practice with long, graceful strides, Davis peers at him and smiles. "See that kid?" he will say. "He's going to be in the Pro Bowl someday."
There are two types of players Davis likes best, the ones he drafted in the first round and the ones he salvaged when the world had given up on them, e.g. Jim Plunkett, and last week it was time to replace one from column B with one from column A. The Raiders had just been shut out 27-0 in Kansas City. They had sunk to 2-4 in the AFC West, three games behind Denver. It was their third straight shutout, which sent people scurrying to the record books to learn that the last time this happened was during World War II, when the 1942 Brooklyn Dodgers suffered two shutouts at the end of the year and then led off 1943 with four more. The Raiders' high-powered offense (the deep pass, the punishing ground game) had coughed, sputtered and finally died. They were a joke.
In the Raiders' locker room the players were passing around a yellow mimeographed sheet that a fan had sent in. It read: LONESOME? LIKE TO MEET NEW PEOPLE? LIKE A CHANGE? LIKE EXCITEMENT? LIKE A NEW JOB? JUST SCREW UP ONE MORE TIME.
The changes and excitement were furnished by the organization itself. The first wave came against Kansas City. Eleven-year veteran Ray Chester, who had caught just four passes in the last three games, was replaced at tight end by young Derrick Ramsey. Left Guard Gene Upshaw, who had started every game in his 14-plus-year career—207 straight—was replaced by Curt Marsh, a blond, 275-pound rookie. Upshaw spent the entire K.C. game on the bench.
On the Wednesday after K.C. the next wave was announced. Monte Jackson would replace Dwayne O'Steen at the right cornerback spot. O'Steen had been overrun by the Chiefs' ground game. Jackson had been a two-year Pro Bowler with the Rams and had come to the Raiders in 1978 for a first-, second-and third-round draft choice, the famous Lawrence Welk trade—uh one, and uh two, and uh three—that had never quite worked out.
Steve Sylvester, a balding, soft-spoken utility man, would replace Dave Dalby at center. Opponents had been hurting the Raiders with stunts and deep loops over the middle of the line.
And finally the big one, Wilson for Plunkett, last year's Cinderella, the NFL's favorite bedtime story for 1980.
"You know, I played on the Jets during Namath's last four years," Safety Burgess Owens said, "and we used to ask ourselves, 'When is it going to happen? When are they finally going to replace him?' We'd wait for it, week by week, but it never happened. On this team, things happen quickly. I can't say the players here were surprised. This is a very professional team."
"The roller coaster never stops, does it?" Plunkett said one day last week, smiling that sad smile of his. "It goes up, it goes down. The suffering that goes along with it, yeah, I guess that's the hard part. I can understand their thinking. Things weren't working right and I started pressing. I'd get rid of the ball too soon, so the line wouldn't have to hold their blocks for too long, or so I felt. My thumb isn't right and I guess that has affected my throwing a little. My timing just wasn't right."
"Jimmy didn't look right in camp, either," Davis says. "Neither did Upshaw. The idea of the changes was in the back of my mind then, but I felt we owed it to our Super Bowl people to give them a few games. I told [Coach] Tom Flores in camp, though, that the offense didn't look like it should. We weren't scoring much, even in the exhibition season.
"It's Tom's team and Tom's offense, and ultimately he must take the blame if it can't score. Yeah, I know, the players are at fault, and we've gotten some injuries, but no bleepin' points in three games? A coach has got to get some of the blame for that."
Does this mean Flores is in some kind of trouble?
"Check the history of this organization," Davis says. "We don't fire coaches here."
Some of the Raiders' difficulties are easy to pinpoint. They were 2-1 when they lost Fullback Mark van Eeghen with a bad hamstring pull, and it was only then that they realized what a vital part of their offense he was. Even more serious was the loss for the year of Wide Receiver Bobby Chandler who had a ruptured spleen in the opener. Chandler was their possession receiver, their Freddy Biletnikoff type, the guy who'd make the tough catch over the middle to keep the drive alive. Morris Bradshaw has been a poor imitation.
There are a couple of more sides to the bleak Raider picture. Earlier in the season The New York Times reported that Stabler had allegedly associated with a known gambler while he was quarter-backing the Raiders. Last Sunday the Times reported that a convicted bookmaker and police informant named Gene Tropiano had alleged in 1972 and again recently that the Raiders' trainer, George Anderson, had placed bets on Raider games with a San Francisco-area bookmaker for four teammates, two team officials and himself in the early '70s and had passed inside information about injuries to that same bookmaker. The morning of the Tampa Bay game, Davis said he had confronted Anderson with these charges last week: "I said to him, 'I hear you bet on football.' He said, 'Al, I swear I never did.' If it's true, the guilty people should be apprehended. It's wrong and it's illegal. But the guy says it's not true. The league has had this for nine years. I'm not going to let this faze me. My mind isn't on that right now."
Another dark side of the picture is what some Oakland people feel is an ongoing battle between the team and the league office and the latter's arm on the field, the officials. This fight, they whisper, is related to the current Oakland lawsuit against the NFL to get a green light to move to L.A.
The suggestion is that some very strange things are happening to the Raiders. In the 9-7 loss to Denver, the Broncos got their touchdown on a pass play in which the receiver, Rick Upchurch, stepped out of bounds. The films show it. Denver's field goal was set up by a penalty on a punt that was marked off against the Raiders when it had actually been called against the Broncos. The league has admitted the error, privately.
In reviewing Oakland's 36-10 Monday-night victory over the Vikings, the league decided that Raider Safety Odis McKinney had delivered a blow to the area of Steve Dils's head that was so severe in its intent that only a $750 fine would set the matter straight. Closeup footage from NFL films, plus replays of the TV tape, reveal that when McKinney blitzed he had a clear shot at Dils, and could have taken Dils's knee out if he'd wanted to, but instead he ran right through him, making contact at the upper-chest level. Dils bounced right up after the hit, and the referee, Gene Barth, standing five yards away, threw no flag. In the same game the Vikings' Ahmad Rashad rolled up the leg of Oakland Safety Mike Davis, breaking it and tearing ligaments in his ankle—a play far removed from the action—without any kind of reprimand from the league office. Two weeks later, on a punt play against Detroit, the Lions' Ken Fantetti set up McKinney with a block, and Bill Gay finished him off with a forearm and helmet to the head that depressed his cheekbone. The Raiders sent films of that play to the league office. "Accidental hit" was the ruling that came back.
"Yeah, it makes you wonder," McKinney says. "You get fined for a clean hit, and then they bounce you around like a Ping-Pong ball and nothing's said about it. I don't want to say it takes anything away from your aggressiveness and your outlook on the game when that stuff happens, but you never know."
"I won't even mention it," Davis says. "I've got enough trouble scoring points without worrying about the league office. That'll come later."
Meanwhile, the Raiders have a new look—and a new quarterback. And this could have its points.