Reaching Out for Glory

Marcus Allen, the '81 Heisman winner who's new to the Raiders but not to LA., has his team surging for the top
Marcus Allen, the '81 Heisman winner who's new to the Raiders but not to LA., has his team surging for the top
December 13, 1982

Midway in the second quarter of the Los Angeles Raiders' 28-23 win over Seattle Sunday in the L.A. Coliseum, Running Back Marcus Allen, the NFL's most exciting newcomer, took a pitchout at his own 44-yard line from Quarterback Jim Plunkett and set off on a sweep right. Fullback Kenny King applied the spring block on Cornerback Keith Simpson, and Allen cut behind it as swiftly and cleanly as a hot knife through cold butter. When Wide Receiver Bob Chandler gave him another block downfield, Allen slanted to the sideline, eating up yardage with long, graceful strides. Hemmed in momentarily near the Seattle 20, he cut back toward the center of the field, leaving Defensive Back Dave Brown ludicrously clawing air. This last deception, however, gave Linebacker Bruce Scholtz time to catch up, and Allen was brought down at the three. No matter. He scored the Raiders' fourth and last touchdown of the day on the very next play. Allen and the Raiders were one step closer to capturing the hearts of their still skeptical new fans.

Actually, the 53-yarder was Allen's second long gainer of the first half. On the Raiders' third play from scrimmage, he neatly reversed his field on another sweep, eluded four tacklers and raced for 33 yards. He gained 121 yards on 12 carries in the first half alone and finished the day, his best yet in the NFL, with 156 yards and two touchdowns. In five games Allen has now rushed for 415 yards, the third highest total in the AFC, and scored a conference-leading seven touchdowns to spark the Raiders, a disappointing 7-9 team last year, to a 4-1 record.

Granted, Allen wasn't exactly devastating in the second half Sunday, but by then he had lost two key blockers, King (pinched nerve) and Tackle Henry Lawrence (strained knee) to injuries. Besides, the Raiders seem able to play only one half of every game. Against San Diego on Nov. 22, it was the second half, during which they came from behind, 24-7, to win, 28-24. Sunday, it was the first. In the final two quarters against Seattle, they scored not at all and were saved from defeat two minutes from the finish by Burgess Owens' interception on the Raider three of a Jim Zorn pass. Behind 28-0 at one point in the second quarter, the spunky young Seahawks, now 2-3, had nearly pulled out a win on 16 fourth-quarter points. "We let Seattle come back to keep the fans in the stands," joked Linebacker Ted Hendricks, albeit hollowly, for there weren't that many fans—42,170 (9,866 no-shows)—in the stands to begin with.

But if the NFL ever regains its popularity, the Marcus Aliens in its ranks will be the cause. The 1981 Heisman Trophy winner from USC not only leads the Raiders in rushing but also is their second-leading pass receiver, with 21 catches. He's the thrill runner the Raiders have long sought, and he plays with verve and guts. "You can't drag Marcus Allen down with one arm," lamented Seattle Defensive Tackle Manu Tuiasosopo after Sunday's game. "I know. I had three or four missed tackles. You've got to hold him up and nail him. To slow a runner like that down you've got to hit him and continue to hit him. That boy's remarkable. He just keeps coming at you." Added the Seahawks' defensive coordinator, Jackie Simpson, "Marcus is the best cutback runner I've ever seen."

He's not a bad comeback runner, either. The week before, the Cincinnati Bengals, whose defense against the run was the league's best, held Allen to exactly zero yards in eight attempts. The Raiders' huge offensive line—269-pound average tackle to tackle—never solved the Bengals' shifting, stunting three-four defense, and L.A. suffered its only loss of the bifurcated season, 31-17. "Marcus Allen?" inquired Bengal Defensive End Eddie Edwards. "Why, he's just another rookie." Allen was undismayed. His pal and fellow USC alumnus, O.J. Simpson, had had worse days. "O.J. told me he once had a game against the Colts where he carried seven times and ended up with minus-10 yards," said Allen after the Cincy debacle. "At least I broke even."

When the Raiders drafted the 6'2", 210-pound Allen, cynics hinted it was merely for cosmetic purposes. Managing General Partner Al Davis needed a local attraction to sweeten his bitterly protested move from Oakland to Los Angeles. Allen may have rushed for 2,342 yards in his senior year at USC—an NCAA single-season record—but Woody Allen could have done nearly as well behind the crack Trojan line. With a 4.6 40, Marcus wasn't fast enough for the NFL, it was said. And who knew if he could catch the ball? If you carry it 30-40 times a game, how often can they throw it to you? Alas, there's no profit in underestimating Davis. The Raider maestro knew what he had. And he knew that Allen was the key to his planned return to an old and treasured style of play. The other key was King, who had been the Raiders' starting halfback in 1980 and '81 and their leading ground-gainer last year, with 828 yards.

The 5'11", 205-pound King is a speedy, breakaway back but in college at Oklahoma he was a wishbone fullback—he had averaged 7.8 yards on only 99 carries as a senior in 1978—and was, therefore, an experienced blocker. As a teammate of, first, Billy Sims (at Oklahoma) and then Earl Campbell (at Houston in 1979) and finally Plunkett and Allen, King often wears a T shirt on which is inscribed, I BLOCK FOR THE HEISMAN. "Maybe someday they'll give me a replica of the trophy in recognition of the part I've played," he says. Davis, Raider Coach Tom Flores and King himself all agreed that, with Allen on the team, fullback was the spot for King. "I like quick-hitting plays where I don't have to wait for things to develop," says King. "Kenny is more of an explosive type of runner than a move type," says Flores.

Allen, quintessentially, is a move man. When King first saw him dance away from tacklers in training camp, he knew immediately that he was watching his replacement at halfback. "There was no question in my mind then," King says, "that that man should be our number one ball carrier." But nine-year veteran Mark van Eeghen, the Raiders' career rushing leader, was back at fullback after missing most of 1981 because of injuries, and Allen, for all his apparent brilliance, was still an untried rookie. Two preseason games convinced Flores that Allen was ready, and in the third quarter of the third exhibition, King was told to go in at fullback. "I didn't even know all the plays," King says. "I also didn't have any choice in the matter and I knew it was good for the team." King was there to stay, and Van Eeghen was released one week later. He now plays for New England.

The switch has returned L.A. to an offensive concept pioneered by Davis. "Remember, the Raiders developed the five-man pass game with the backs going deep," says Davis' executive assistant, Al LoCasale. Not since the team had Halfback Clemon Daniels and Fullback Hewritt Dixon together in the mid-'60s have they had two backs playing at the same time with the speed to run deep pass patterns. Van Eeghen and his predecessor, Marv Hubbard, were power fullbacks who locked the Raiders into a backfield style alien to Davis' original everybody-go-long scheme of things.

"We didn't create new plays for Marcus," says Flores, the Raiders' original quarterback. "We just dusted off some old ones." In truth, Los Angeles, for all its dedication to the long passing game, has played against so many deep zones lately that it has had to shelve it, for the most part, in favor of shorter patterns. "Some of the safeties are so far back that I can't even see them," says Plunkett. "But we're still deep conscious." Anyway, adds Plunkett, Allen has "increased our options. We have two backs now, in Marcus and Kenny, who are capable of going all the way on either a run or a pass. And we aren't afraid anymore to hand the ball off on second-and-seven."

Allen's running talents have been so well documented that it's easy to forget how truly versatile he is. He was a quarterback at Lincoln High in San Diego, and he is a constant threat now on the option pass. In the 38-14 pre-strike win over Atlanta, he completed a 47-yarder to Cliff Branch to set up a Raider touchdown. He was a fullback his first two years at USC and, like King, blocked for a Heisman winner, Charles White. And for all of the student body rights and lefts, the Trojans threw the ball often enough for Allen to develop considerable receiving skills. "He's a complete back," says King in admiration. LoCasale likes to cite a touchdown Allen scored against Atlanta as evidence of his all-around capabilities. "The Falcons were in a blitz," says LoCasale, "and Marcus picked it up and just creamed this linebacker. Then he was clear in the flat and Jimmy threw to him. He put on a burst of speed to run away from two tacklers, and as he neared the goal line, he just vaulted over two more to score. So in one 14-yard play, you saw his tremendous blocking ability, his great acceleration, his jumping skills and, above all, determination."

Because Allen and King both block so enthusiastically, they are especially popular with their offensive linemen, and Allen never fails to credit a teammate for a good block. "Marcus is a very unselfish player," says Flores. "When linemen see a guy like him, a Heisman Trophy winner, go in there and stick somebody the way he does, they absolutely love it."

"When we see those two guys blocking their hearts out for each other, it makes all the difference in the world," says Guard Mickey Marvin. "Then, too, they're both such explosive runners. All we got to do is get a piece of our man and they're gone. Not that we don't want to make a perfect block, you understand." Allen draws as many cheers in team film sessions for his blocking as for his uncanny moves. "I think he's as good a blocker as he is a runner," says Guard Curt Marsh.

Allen is apparently unmoved by the kudos heaped on his shoulders. "I came here to play football," he says, "to contribute in small ways or large." He was prepared, he says, for the confusion of this peculiar season. "I knew there was the possibility of a strike," he says, "and, of course, I knew about the team's move to L.A." He was equally prepared for an organization fabled for eccentricity from top to bottom. "Bobby Chandler told me to expect to meet a bunch of individuals, not 49 look-alikes. He was right. And contrary to popular belief, they're a great group of guys. What they do here is incorporate all these different personalities into a common cause."

If it has been an unsettling season for all NFL players, it has been absolutely discombobulating for the Raiders, the displaced persons of football. They play their home games in the L.A. Coliseum but practice 365 miles away on a field only a 10-minute drive from their old home, the Oakland Coliseum. Davis prowls his practice grounds, protesting to any Bay Area newsmen who happen on the premises that "I didn't want to move." Then he will gesture in the direction of the vacant stadium nearby and say, "But they wouldn't give me a facility competitive with the times." He will then wander off to deliver a presumably different pitch to Los Angeles writers. It's a situation rife with absurdity. The Raiders, who for more than two decades were a big part of the Bay Area sports picture, are still around and yet they're not. The players cannot expect to read much about themselves in the local papers because they no longer play on a local team. Daily stories are written about them in Los Angeles papers, to be sure, but the Raiders rarely see these. When they played their regular-season home opener against San Diego on Nov. 22, the visiting team practiced closer to the home field than the home team. The nearest the Raiders have played to their home base was in their road opener against San Francisco.

This, of course, is the ideal situation for a Davis team. When the Raiders won the Super Bowl two years ago, the controversy over the L.A. transfer was just heating up. Davis was vilified almost daily in the Bay Area press. More news was coming out of courtrooms than stadiums. The circumstances couldn't have been more salubrious. No team in any sport is as indoctrinated with a "them and us" philosophy as this one, and the more the public rose up against them, the happier the Raiders were. "We thrive on adversity," says Marsh. "It's an ingredient on this team. It makes us closer. We have to clear these roadblocks together." What could be better for players of this nature than a season in which every game is essentially a road game?

Davis' decision to keep the Raiders' training camp in Oakland, at least until his Southern California operation is in better shape, has worked little hardship on many of his players, however, since they already resided in the Bay Area. Allen is an exception. After he signed, he bought a home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. He hasn't been able to move in yet because of his working conditions. His folks live in San Diego. When the Raiders play at home, he stays with the team at an L.A. hotel. In Oakland, he lives in a hotel about a mile from the training camp. The Oakland airport is just across the street. His is a lonely regimen: practice during the day, television in his hotel room at night and travel every weekend. It's not the sort of life a rich and famous young football star might choose, but Allen has adjusted to it as easily as he has to Sunday football. "I have no control over these things," he says, "so why worry about them. I just want to play ball."

The L.A. fans haven't exactly clasped the Raiders to their collective bosom. For too many years, after all, the Raiders were the bad guys from up north. And they still aren't really in L.A., even if Davis has got one of his COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE signs painted across from FIGHT ON use on a wall of the L.A. Coliseum's players' tunnel. But for Allen this is home turf, and if the fans respond to no one else, they respond to him.

After the Seattle survival test, Allen mused about the vicissitudes of this strange game. He had gained not a single yard rushing one week and more than 150 the next. "Well, I feel I'll have more good days than bad," he said. Then he laughed. "You know, I don't know what the hell I'm doing out there most of the time. It's all instinct." That, perhaps, and lots of talent.

PHOTOPHOTOKing (33) became a blocking back upon Allen's arrival; but when King does carry the ball, Allen (32) becomes a willing blocker.PHOTOWith a good ground game and two backs who can go deep, Plunkett is a winner again.PHOTOAt the end the Raiders almost let the Seahawks out of their grasp.PHOTODavis mingled with Sunday's disappointing crowd of 42,170, 30,830 short of capacity.PHOTOOwens cut off the Seahawks' last drive at the three.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)