The pirates were walking the plank. The Los Angeles Raiders were 0-3 and close to the edge of oblivion. And it wasn't even Sunday yet. Sunday? It wasn't even October. It was last Thursday afternoon, and they had just heard Al Davis's feelings about their record. The Boss was prowling the sideline at the Raider practice field in El Segundo, hurling expletives and entreaties at his employees in a 2-to-1 ratio. "Gotta win," Davis grumbled, almost to himself. "It's all that matters."
The Raiders, good employees, went on to beat the Chargers 17-13 on Sunday at the L.A. Coliseum. There was shock, joy and relief in El Segundo and other places where Raider watchers need their bad boys to be good. But will Davis's old refrain—just win, baby—eventually be lost in the winds of adversity? Has lawsuit after lawsuit (in the latest, former Charger owner Gene Klein is suing Davis in San Diego County for "malicious prosecution") eaten too much into Davis's time? Has he lost it?
Davis's great advantage had always been that he was the only NFL owner who was also a brilliant football man. Not for nothing does cornerback Lester Hayes call him Coach Davis. When Davis the owner issued orders, nothing was lost in translation to Davis the general manager, or for that matter (with apologies to Tom Flores, the Raider coach of record), to Coach Davis. So didn't Coach Davis know he was shy at quarterback? Didn't he know that all-out blitzes and green receivers had caught up with his basic thrust, his calling card: the long pass from the deep pocket? Hadn't the holy Vertical Stretch been defiled?
Nothing was holy at Thursday's practice when Davis's quarterback of choice, Marc Wilson, threw up one that did everything but quack. "Lay the bleeping ball in there, Marc!" yelled Davis. Then he turned away in disgust when wide receiver Rod Barksdale dropped a perfect long pass. "We can't establish the deep guy downfield. Eventually, one of these guys will do the job. But now, ahh, we're too young. Maybe I didn't get enough players," he sneered. Time would tell.
October 5, 1986
Time told on Sunday, and the tale looked grim early in the game as the Chargers bolted out to a 13-0 lead. Wilson had apparently taken Davis's instructions literally. He was laying it in there—to the Chargers. He lobbed up two Hindenburgs deep in Charger territory that San Diego safety Gill Byrd had enough time to fair catch—interceptions that stopped Raider drives.
With time running out in the second period the Raiders had gone 10 quarters without scoring a touchdown. Worse, their star, Marcus Allen, the league's most versatile back, was out of the game with an injured ankle. The Raiders' four infant wideouts had caught only nine passes in three games. By process of elimination, then, it had to be the quarterback's fault, right? But the Raiders have $2 million worth of quarterbacks in Wilson, the ancient Jim Plunkett and the callow Rusty Hilger.
And Davis needs to get his money's worth. Though well off, he is not a man of Trumpian wealth, hence his lack of interest in Jim Everett, whom the Rams got from Houston; or in Doug Williams, whom the Redskins signed as insurance; or in Doug Flutie, who wouldn't fit in Davis's pocket in any sense. Davis is self-made, Raider-made, and the $34.6 million in damages he was awarded from the NFL over the team's move to L.A. may not finally be settled for years. So Davis is also a man on a budget. And Wilson is his starter, for better or worse. Last week, worse was odds-on.
Then, in 41 ticks of the game clock, Wilson threw two touchdown passes to wide receivers. Under fire, he floated a 12-yarder that Dokie Williams plucked inside the back line of the end zone with :16 left in the half. And when Tim Moffett—a receiver, no less—recovered Lionel James's fumble of the second-half kickoff, Wilson hit Jessie Hester streaking down the left side for a 40-yard touchdown, the winning score, as assured by that armor plating the Raiders call a defense. "The offense had scored points," said Hayes. "It was a shock."
After Wilson's throw to Hester, guard Mickey Marvin, who had helped give Wilson time to make the deep set and the long throw, stood at midfield, roaring and throwing left and right haymakers at what was, luckily, thin air. He looked like King Kong did against the biplanes. "Just a lot of emotion coming out," Marvin said. "That wasn't an end, it was a beginning. We've got tradition to fall back on."
That tradition might be spelled pride and poise. But after the 0-3 start there was mention of another set of P's. "You can call it parity and preparation," said Raider tight end Todd Christensen, who made eight receptions for 105 yards Sunday. "There's not one team above the rest in the NFL anymore."
Pace and presence also are demanded of an NFL quarterback today. Without them, he's, well, Marc Wilson. It's not that Wilson (19 of 28 for 314 yards) is a bad quarterback; it's that he's bad by comparison. Any self-respecting contender or team of the future has a quarterback named Elway or Schroeder or McMahon or Archer or O'Brien or Kelly—a big, thick guy who can throw it through that brick wall from 25 yards and then throw the next three through the hole he just made. By comparison, Wilson often throws changeups.
The other knock on Wilson is that, in the words of one former NFL All-Pro, "He can't play with pain." He sat out against the Giants with a slightly separated shoulder, and, when asked how the protection was against the Chargers, said, "It was O.K.... at times." He was sacked on eight plays and fumbled once. Half the sacks could be blamed on Wilson's inability to get the ball off quickly. Says Plunkett, now a 39-year-old backup to Wilson, "The way it is now you have to throw quickly sometimes. You have to against blitzes or you'll go through two or three quarterbacks a year."
With the Raiders' step back from the brink, maybe Sunday was indeed not an end but a beginning. Williams awakened Wilson with eight catches for 143 yards, and Hester atoned for early-season drops at Denver. An NFL center once said that potential is a French word meaning you aren't worth a damn yet. And if the Raiders don't realize their potential soon, they may end up with Plunkett at quarterback again. No offense to Marc Wilson. In fact, hardly any offense at all.