The Los Angeles Raiders were officially welcomed back to the ranks of the living Sunday. With the specter of no postseason football staring them in the face, they pulled themselves together and beat the Miami Dolphins 45-34 in the Orange Bowl, a place where it's practically impossible to win, unless you've got a Flipper lookalike on your helmet.
The Raiders stand at 10-4, and one win in their final two games will give them a wild-card berth in the playoffs, where they'll meet either Seattle or Denver, with the winner to face the Dolphins in Miami. Does L.A. welcome another shot at Dan Marino and his boys? "Ask me when my legs come back," said cornerback Mike Haynes, one of the focal figures in a game that lasted 17 minutes short of four hours.
When this season opened, the Raiders were practically handed a ticket to the Super Bowl. They had the best corner-backs in football, Haynes and Lester Hayes, the whole way, which would make their defense even better; their offensive line had more depth than at any time in their history; and all the other parts of a team that was coming off the biggest Super Bowl win in history were in place, too.
The only team to beat Los Angeles in the first eight games was the Broncos, in Denver, but what of it? The Raiders usually blow one of their early-season road games. When the Broncos beat them again in the ninth game, in L.A., and then, when Chicago and Seattle made it three losses in a row, the dark clouds gathered. The champs were hanging on the ropes. One more big right-hand would do it.
Los Angeles's main trouble was the one that haunts every NFL team—injuries. Pulls mostly, groin pulls—wideout Cliff Branch, linebackers Matt Millen and Rod Martin and noseguard Reggie Kinlaw all went down with groin pulls. "It was like trying to play football on Manhattan Beach," Millen said.
The offensive line lost Don Mosebar (back surgery) and Shelby Jordan (knee) for the season. The quarterback position also became vacant. Jim Plunkett tore a stomach muscle. Marc Wilson got his thumb badly sprained against the Bears, and then his backup, David Humm, went down for the season with yet another knee injury.
Wilson was forced to play with a hand that could barely grip the ball. Gradually it improved—from worse to merely bad. The Raiders struggled along with him. He could dump the ball off, but this team traditionally lives by the long pass, and even when Wilson got so he could heave the ball, he couldn't direct it. The week before the game against the Dolphins, the word was put out that Wilson was "fully recovered." Privately, he put it a little differently. "When I grab the ball like this," he said, closing his fingers tightly, "there's a sharp pain. I don't feel like I have a real hold on the ball. It makes you tentative. Sometimes I feel that it's going to fall out of my hand—and then it does, and that makes you even more tentative."
The wounded gathered themselves together for the battle with Miami, knowing it was a back-to-the-wall affair in a stadium where the Dolphins had lost only one regular-season game in three years. The game was a must, but so had been the previous two—against Kansas City (a 17-7 L.A. win) and Indianapolis (a 21-7 victory). "Now every one's a big one for us," said tight end Todd Christensen. "The aura of invincibility is gone."
Miami, with its own list of defensive unit injuries, was vulnerable to a pressure offense, but the Dolphins had a point machine at quarterback who had already tied the NFL record for touchdown passes in a season (36). You had to score an awful lot of points to beat them.
"The answer is to attack on defense," Millen said. "We're going to throw everything we have at them—blitzes from the strong safety and nickel back, two-linebacker blitzes, combination blitzes. Marino will get the whole package, which will tend to leave our cornerbacks in single, bump-and-run coverage. I don't think anyone has ever taken it to Marino like that before. It'll be interesting to see how he handles it."
The answer was a performance that lit up the muggy Orange Bowl and sent Marino into uncharted territory in the record books. When it was over, he had broken the Miami records for single-game passing attempts, completions and yards (35 for 57, for 470 yards), and his four TD throws gave him 40 for the year.
Marino responded to the Raiders' bump-and-run strategy by going at Hayes and Haynes aggressively, almost disdainfully; he threw into their coverage 26 times for 13 completions. "I never thought I'd see a second-year quarterback testing Mike and me so many times," Hayes said.
But the tone was set very early: Marino might get his completions, but he was going to pay for each one. The Raiders got the opening kickoff, ran three plays and punted. The Dolphins took over on their 35, and eight plays later they were on the L.A. six, first-and-goal. Marino had tight end Dan Johnson open in the right corner for a TD, but Johnson dropped the ball, one of the six drops by Miami receivers in the game. On third-and-goal from the three, the Dolphins came in with four wideouts. Mark Duper, the outside man on the left, slanted in, a pattern that hurt Los Angeles throughout the day, with either Duper or Mark Clayton running it, but this time Haynes read it all the way. He picked off the ball at the three. Ninety-seven yards later the Raiders were on the scoreboard first.
No problem for Marino. On Miami's next possession, he drove the Dolphins 72 yards in 12 plays for the TD that tied it. Haynes watched most of it from the bench. "It was humid, unbearably humid," he said. "I couldn't get my wind back after that run. My legs felt wobbly. It took me a long time to get back."
The score was 7-7, but there were ominous signs for L.A. Miami had run off 23 plays to its three. Things got worse in the next quarter when Wilson had a pass get away from him, deep in his own territory, and Dolphin cornerback William Judson picked it off and ran it back to the Los Angeles six, setting up a TD.
The Dolphins' extra point was blocked, and the Raiders went up 14-13 on their next drive, mostly on the cutback running of Marcus Allen. They stopped Miami twice and added a field goal. But with time running out in the half, Marino took the Dolphins on an 89-yard march that wound up with a first-and-goal at the one. Two shots by Pete Johnson, the Dolphins' 250-pound short-yardage import, were stiffed, and now there were nine seconds left. Miami called time out.
The chalk call was a pass, maybe off a roll-out—miss the TD and there's still enough time for a field goal. But Dolphin coach Don Shula called for a run, Woody Bennett diving off his left side. Lyle Alzado and Martin submarined the play, a gang of black-shirted tacklers met Bennett before he could get airborne, and the clock ran out before Miami could get off another play. L.A. defensive end Howie Long termed the decision to run for the TD "kind of arrogant in a way...but who am I to second-guess a man like Shula?"
"What was it, half a foot, six inches?" Shula said afterward. "I felt we could run it in, period."
"Hey, you should have seen our locker room at halftime," Long said. "I mean it was just bubbling."
The Raider defensive unit had been on the field for 44 plays, compared to 27 for Miami, but L.A. led 17-13. No one wants to get into a shootout in 80° weather, but that's what the game had turned into. The Dolphins scored twice in the third quarter, L.A. once. Then the Raiders added three more TDs in the final period, the second one set up when Haynes fell off his outside coverage on Duper, swooped down on a Marino pass to slot man Jimmy Cefalo and returned this interception 54 yards, setting up the TD that made it 38-27 in L.A.'s favor with 6:07 left. Allen ultimately finished off the Dolphins on a play called Sprint Draw Five Half, the half standing for halfback. It was one of Allen's patented cutbacks that started left and came back right. Mickey Marvin and Henry Lawrence did the blocking, Allen hurdled noseguard Bob Baumhower, and he was gone, 52 yards for the crusher. It gave him 155 yards and three TDs for the day, his biggest regular-season game in two years. Perhaps that was the biggest difference between the two teams: L.A. could run the ball when it had to, the Dolphins couldn't. And Marino, who had been sacked only seven times all season, went down three times against the Raiders and felt heavy pressure all day.
So, Round 1 is over. The Raiders are alive. Round 2 is coming up.