Al Davis, the Los Angeles Raiders' managing general partner, used to call it the Summer of Discontent. He would survey the annual July-August madness—rookies who wouldn't sign, veterans who wouldn't report, walkouts, holdouts, dropouts—and he'd say, "Wait. Just wait until the regular season starts. These things always sort themselves out."
Last Sunday, as he watched L.A. destroy the Cincinnati Bengals 20-10, he had to wonder. Not about his Raiders. Oh no, they came out of the box right smartly, putting together two long, tortuous drives on their first two possessions to take the starch out of Cincy before the game was midway into the second quarter. It was the team on the other side of the field, the Bengals, that led one to believe that the off-season malaise this year was deeper and more incisive than summer discontents of the past.
Cincinnati sagged both offensively and defensively. It lacked muscle on defense. The Raiders converted five of six third-and-short situations, short being defined as three yards or less, and on the sixth, L.A. got the first down on the next play anyway. The Bengals' goal-line unit didn't hold when the Raiders got in close. Los Angeles junked its regular 3-4 defense and went to a 4-2-nickel on every down early in the game, and the Cincy offense looked confused. Rookie Center Dave Rimington could not cope with the stunts L.A.'s defensive tackles were pulling. The Bengals made mistakes. In the first half they let the Raiders off the hook in long-yardage situations four times, three of them with penalties. They piled up more penalty yardage than L.A. did, something that happens very seldom in a Raider game.
"I thought we were ready to play," Bengal Coach Forrest Gregg said afterward. "I really thought the attitude was good going into the game, and for the most part we played hard but not well."
September 11, 1983
An air of defeatism hung over the Bengals, and it all came into focus in one brief episode near the end of the first half. The Raiders were up 17-0. Cincy had put together a pretty good drive on its first possession only to have it evaporate when Matt Millen, L.A.'s massive inside linebacker, swooped in from Quarterback Ken Anderson's blind side to intercept a pass on the nine-yard line. Another Bengal mini-drive ended when Raider Linebacker Rod Martin stripped the ball away from Anderson on a scramble. The rest of the time, Cincy's offense had shown zilch.
Now the first half was winding down, bodies were starting to sag in the soggy Riverfront Stadium heat, and L.A. had a third-and-10 on Cincy's 45 with 1:30 left and the clock running. There was still time for the Bengals to get something on the board. They could call time-out, stop the clock and hope Los Angeles missed on third down. The Bengals needed an upper, and if they could get something before the half.... It was a long shot, but what the hell, they were getting whipped anyway. Time was not called. The clock ran. Jim Plunkett's pass misfired and Ray Guy punted, but there were only 35 seconds left when the Bengals got the ball on their 20 and they ran off five futile plays, never crossing midfield. Cincinnati could have taken over with almost a minute and a half remaining, and when someone mentioned that to Gregg afterward, he looked at the guy as if he were crazy.
"I'm sorry, but I just don't recall what you're talking about," he said.
An assistant coach put it a little stronger. "We were down 17-0," he said. "Start fooling around and you might be down 24-0."
Such was the lack of confidence the Bengals, who took a Super Bowl trip in 1982, projected into the 1983 season. It wasn't good, and one wonders just how deeply all the off-season discontent and misfortune that came their way will be felt on the field—and for how long.
Ross Browner and Pete Johnson were suspended for four games because of drug involvement. Browner's replacement at defensive right end, second-year man Glen Collins, was a target. L.A. aimed most of its short-yardage stuff at him, including Marcus Allen's pair of one-yard TD runs. Collins' statistics for the day read no solo tackles, two assists. Johnson's place at fullback was taken by Charles Alexander, who moved over from halfback. Alexander was fairly effective catching swing passes—he had four for 35 yards—but the running game got nowhere, which wasn't really his fault. There was nowhere to run. The stunting Raider front four controlled the line of scrimmage. Only twice in their last 26 games have the Bengals rushed for less than the 58 yards they got Sunday.
Rimington's inability to handle the inside stunts—"We put in a lot of tackle-tackle games to take advantage of his inexperience," said L.A. Defensive End Howie Long, who switched to tackle in the four-man line—underscored the grumbling that was heard in Cincy when six-year veteran Center Blair Bush was traded to Seattle. The theory: When you're a playoff-caliber team, you don't trade away a solid guy if his replacement isn't as good as he is. In other words, no on-the-job training.
No one's saying that Rimington won't be an effective NFL player someday, but on Sunday, deprived of the anchor in the middle, the Bengals' offensive line came apart. Raider Defensive End Lyle Alzado, who always had difficulty against All-Pro Tackle Anthony Munoz, got two sacks. "The first time I've ever had a decent game against him," Alzado said. Missed assignments left the feeling that a steady diet of 4-2-nickel was something the Bengals weren't ready for. "We'd been preparing for the 3-4," Left Guard Dave Lapham said. "We had to throw it all out."
In July, when Cincinnati's offensive coordinator, Lindy Infante, signed to coach Jacksonville in the USFL in '84, he was promptly fired—and sued—by the Bengals. Many players felt that the club should have kept Infante around for a few weeks anyway, because it was his offense they'd be using.
"The players see things from a very narrow point of view," says Mike Brown, the Bengals' assistant general manager. "Part of his mind would have been here, part of it with his new employer. Do you really want someone like that on your staff?"
Nevertheless, there was no Infante in the press box Sunday to make adjustments in Infante's offense when the Raiders gave it fits. Anderson had a typically high percentage day, completing 26 of 35 passes for 226 yards, but nothing much got done. It was dink stuff, gimmes, in a game that was decided early. He got sacked four times and hammered a lot after he had gotten the ball off, and afterward, his elbow skinned, his ribs sore and aching, he moved slowly and painfully in the locker room. "We had opportunities to attack; we made too many mistakes," he said. "The Millen interception? I just didn't see him. I thought we could get on top of them, but we just didn't work it out.
"You know," he added, pausing for a moment, "I think it's the first time I ever lost my helmet on a sack."
There are 10 Cincy players who are in either the last year or the option year of their contracts. Tight End Dan Ross will be playing for the USFL Boston Breakers next year, and Wide Receiver Cris Collinsworth will jump to the Tampa Bay Bandits in '85. Every day new rumors circulate about which of the other Bengals will be joining Ross and Collinsworth in the new league. The names of former Bengals come back—Lemar Parrish, Bill Bergey, Coy Bacon, Charlie Joiner, the Pro Bowlers who were traded away from the Bengals after contract disputes. The feeling is that the old Paul Brown hard line on veterans' salaries is harder than ever. In a strange, rambling address at Friday's Meet Your Bengals Luncheon, the elder Brown, who is Cincinnati's general manager and part owner, did nothing to dispel that belief.
Brown's message was addressed more to the players on the dais than the fans in the room. Its essence was that there's a new collective bargaining agreement that sets salary standards and that's the way it's going to be. "We play by the rules, and we expect others to do so without hard feelings," he said. "So be in the spirit and play with a full heart."
Now it's difficult to translate all this into performance on the field. When Raider Linebacker Ted Hendricks stripped the ball away from rookie Running Back Stanley Wilson in the third quarter, ending Cincinnati's last hope of getting back in the game, was it because Bengal hearts weren't full enough? When Cincy Linebacker Reggie Williams committed a third down roughing-the-passer foul to launch the Raiders' first drive, which covered 84 yards, was it because his mind was on the higher salaries being paid around the league? Did the Bengals have trouble getting things going offensively because Infante wasn't there in the press box?
The Raiders haven't had such headaches. Buoyed by the promise of a $34.6 million damages award in their suit against the NFL, they can afford to be generous. They've always been one of the higher paying teams anyway; Davis says that veterans who perform well for the silver and black will have their contracts automatically upgraded after two years. This year he claims to have the highest payroll in the NFL—$7.2 million, an average of $138,500 for each of the 52 full-time players under contract.
The only shortcoming he could find in Sunday's game was that the traditional Raider trademark—the lightning strike down the field, the long pass—was missing. The success Plunkett enjoyed was the result of a dink attack that ate up the clock and wore out the Bengals in the oppressive heat. Plunkett aired the ball out deep eight times and got no completions. One was dropped by Wide Receiver Cliff Branch. Another was intercepted by Left Cornerback Louis Breeden, whose 39-yard runback set up Cincy's third-quarter field goal. "Maybe I got impatient at times," said Plunkett, who had a low-percentage (14 for 29) and low-yardage (158) afternoon, "but after all, it's our style."
There were a lot of things to make Raider Coach Tom Flores happy. Charley Hannah, the converted tackle he got from Tampa Bay to take over at guard while Curt Marsh recovers from back surgery, had an outstanding day, spearheading the heavy left-side attack. Don Mosebar, the No. 1 draftee out of USC, who was a holdout, will help fortify the offensive line when he joins the roster next week. And after the game Davis was rhapsodizing about a trade he was making that would bring in New England Patriots Tight End Don Hasselbeck and Right Tackle Shelby Jordan for reserve Tight End Derrick Ramsey and a high '85 draft choice.
All summer long Flores and Davis have been ecstatic about the play of two rookie defensive linemen, Greg Town-send, the Raiders' fourth-round draft choice out of TCU, and second-round pick Bill Pickel, who might be the best Rutgers lineman since Paul Robeson. On Sunday, Townsend and Pickel showed why their bosses have been extolling them. Both were regulars on the four-man line and both were active and effective against one of the NFL's most solid offensive units. Pickel collected the Raiders' other two sacks. "It's making me feel young again, playing alongside these guys," the 34-year-old Alzado said. "Hey, they're for real. Our defense is going to be hell on wheels."
Well, maybe the Raiders are that good. And maybe the Bengal team that they beat on Sunday just had an off day and will settle down into something a lot more formidable. But then again, maybe the game was an omen, a hint of darker things to come for Cincinnati, a reminder that this summer's discontent was unlike the troubles of the past, that this time it might cast long shadows over the 1983 NFL season.