Trapped By the Past

Time has finally caught up with the Raiders and Cowboys, the NFL's fallen superteams
September 08, 1987

Have you noticed that the old icons in sports just aren't holding up the way they once did? The center of things is falling apart. Take the NFL. Take the Irwindale Raiders. How can you persuade your knees to start clattering in anticipation of a team from Irwindale? Sounds like Beaver Cleaver's hometown.

But the unraveling is worse than that. Lately, the Los Angeles (at least for the next two years) Raiders haven't come close to living up to their usual high standards of depravity. The last big off-turf Raider brawl was two years ago when linebacker Matt Millen punched the G.M. of the New England Patriots, Pat Sullivan. You want to know what the most recent real Raideresque flagrancy was? Last summer Mike Ornstein, the team's marketing and promotions director, punched John Herrera, a Raiders senior executive. It's a sorry day when the ribbon clerks are meaner than the guys in the trenches. And who was the last Raider alumnus to turn up on the wrong side of society? Safety Odis McKinney was charged with battery against a peace officer after allegedly refusing to put a leash on his chow in an L.A. park.

But if the bad haven't been all that bad, the good have been downright ugly. Take the Dallas Cowboys, the white hats. Ed Jones, Jeff Rohrer, Eugene Lockhart and Randy White have all been busted on DWIs. Kicker Rafael Septien pleaded guilty to indecency with a child. Mike Hegman passed some bad checks, Tony Dorsett fought with the IRS, and Harvey Martin filed for bankruptcy. Hollywood Henderson, Bob Hayes and John Niland have all done time since 1980. Larry Bethea robbed his mother and then killed himself. These are the Eagle Scout Cowboys? Somebody better start checking some IDs.

So, like everything else these days, pro football doesn't have white hats or black hats so much as a lot of gray hats—and a lot of parity. Does it seem possible that the Raiders:

•Were 8-8 last year, were 2-5 against playoff teams, lost their last four games, lost to Indianapolis and haven't won a playoff game in three years?

•Are getting so old that one day last year they benched the oldest offensive tackle in the league only to replace him with the second oldest?

•Have lost their last two games in the Seattle Kingdome by a combined score of 70-3?

Do you believe that the Cowboys:

•Went 7-9 last year, lost their last five games and had their quarterback sacked 11 times in one game by San Diego?

•Put nobody in the Pro Bowl for the first time in their history?

•Haven't been to the Super Bowl in the 1980s, haven't won a playoff game since 1982 and haven't won a playoff game against a team without a "Bay" in its name since 1980?

Of course, things are looking up. After all, the Raiders are plotting a comeback with: 1) a quarterback who attended pass-happy Oklahoma State and who has thrown 51 NFL passes in his adult life; 2) two backup quarterbacks who are, respectively, a 39-year-old coming back from arthroscopic rotator-cuff surgery and a guy who once lost a Worst Quarterback in Los Angeles competition to Dieter Brock; 3) an offensive line that gave up just slightly fewer sacks in 1986 than Safeway; 4) their second-leading rusher, Ensign Napoleon McCallum, swabbing decks; 5) their best pure athlete shagging flies in Kansas City until October.

The Cowboys plan to start the year with: 1) a 35-year-old quarterback with a bad wrist; 2) nobody to back him up; 3) their best receiver out for the season; 4) their second-best wearing a San Francisco 49er uniform; 5) a defensive line of which only one member was not alive during the Truman Administration.

So, after dominating pro football for nearly 20 years, the league's two most antithetical, yet prepotent, franchises finally have something in common: mediocrity. How did it happen? It's kind of like when they asked the guy who got run over by the parade what happened. "Well," the guy said, "it was a combination of things."

One day during the off-season, a finalist in the Raiderette cheerleader contest announced that she was working as a process server. "You never know," she told Raider executive Al LoCasale. "I might be serving one on you."

LoCasale just shrugged. "Why not?" he said. "Everybody else has."

Such is life the last four years for the Raiders. Nowadays, when America thinks of a renegade Raider, it thinks of T. Boone Pickens before Al Davis. And when one thinks of Davis, one sees him in a three-piece suit, being solemnly sworn in once again as a witness. Oh, Davis still has some of that Howard Hughes style. He has his perpetually reserved booths in certain restaurants, complete with his personal tableside phone. He still lifts weights in his silver-and-black suite. He still wears a huge, black, diamond-studded bracelet that says AL, and he doesn't like to be either quoted or photographed. But there must be moments when Davis yearns for the good old days.

Oh, for Oakland. Oh, for the days when process servers didn't know Raider executives on a first-name basis. You think Davis is still glad he came to L.A.? Forgetting the money, which is considerable, where has his role as NFL Public Enemy No. 1 gotten him in the one category he cherishes—winning? After eight years in court, he has a 1-2 record; he won his antitrust suit against the NFL only to come up empty both in his support of the USFL's antitrust suit against the NFL and in the malicious prosecution suit that former San Diego Charger owner Gene Klein won against him, which could cost him $2 million.

The L.A. Coliseum did not build his cherished luxury boxes nor make his proposed millions of dollars' worth of renovations to get the seats closer to the field. He has never broken 70,000 average paid attendance there, and in a 92,516-seat ball yard, 70,000 fans sound like 70. "The stadium is a concern to me," Davis says, "because it affects the team. Players need to hear the roar of the crowd. That place just swallows the noise up."

That won't be a problem in Irwindale, where Davis is planning to build a 65,000-seat stadium and hopes to be playing by 1990. For those who don't make Rand McNally bedside reading, Irwindale (pop. 1,038) is located just off the 210 Freeway in the San Gabriel Valley, 25 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. It's primarily known for its abundant rock and gravel deposits. Says Herrera, "The West would never have been settled if people were not willing to cross the Rockies in a covered wagon. Irwindale has never scared us." The town was so excited after the official announcement was made that city officials quickly promised to buy season tickets for every resident.

The Raiders were 3-5 at the Coliseum last fall. "I remember when teams used to hate to play us in Oakland," says the ultimate Raider, Lester Hayes. "It was the old silver-and-black mystique of intimidation. Now teams actually like to play us in L.A."

Sure, the Raiders won Super Bowl XVIII after moving to Los Angeles, but they still trained in northern California. You remember those Raiders. On Super Bowl Sunday, the ornery Mr. Ornstein kicked CBS broadcaster Irv Cross off the field while Cross was on the air.

"I remember," says Raider Howie Long, "coming off that field in Tampa and saying to myself, We've got such great talent. We're going to be back here every year."

However, it hasn't happened that way and nobody is exactly sure why. Maybe all of this political punting and deposition-giving has taken a little bit of Davis's heart out of his team. Or maybe the team has lost too much Oakland and gained too much Melrose Avenue. But one thing is a lock. The old black eye-patch image has gone phhhhhht.

Mystique: The Raiders take whatever they want. Mistake: Last year opponents generally took whatever they wanted from the Raiders, especially the leather object. The Raiders had more fumbles (24) than any other team in the league.

Mystique: The Raiders fall somewhere between Ozzy Ozbourne and a pit bull. Mistake: There are no more Ted Hendrickses, Dave Dalbys, Lyle Alzados or John Matuszaks. "No more bizarre characters," says one player. "No guys you just want to say, 'Damn. This guy makes things fun. I want to win for him.' " Independent, yes. Todd Christensen may be the only tight end in the league whose camp library contains, left to right, James, Dostoyevsky, Joyce and Davis. But demented, desperate, delightful types? No.

Long is delightful—but definitely not desperate. He's famous for Campbell Soup ads, eight-page Nike spreads and making the cover of GQ. Can you see Hendricks on the cover of GQ? "The Mad Stork Talks about the Tie He Once Wore." "I remember," says Alzado, "I'd start a fight in the game to get something to happen, kick someone in the face, something to get something going.... Now, I don't think they have that guy that will do anything, anytime, anywhere to make the momentum change."

Mystique: The Raiders may sput and chug for most of the game, but when it comes down to Winning Time, the defense, which was No. 1 in the AFC last year, will come through. Mistake: No. 1 or not, with the playoffs on the line last season, the Raiders suffered their first four-game losing streak since 1964 by forking over 33 points to Philly, 37 to Seattle, 20 to Kansas City and 30 to Indianapolis.

Mystique: The Raiders own the fourth quarter. Mistake: In fourth quarters last year the Raiders were outscored 80-43.

Mystique: From the way they dress to the way they think, the Raiders are unlike any other team in the league. Mistake: Thanks to the NFL, it's not true anymore. The league has announced that it is cracking down on the sartorially sloppy this year, a move that Hayes sees as Raider-bashing. "Sunday is like a war day," Hayes told reporters. "You go to war. It's not like you're going to the Beverly Hilton for a function. You don't want to wear a tuxedo and look all neat and clean. You want to look nasty and vicious, like the Oakland Raiders. The Oakland Raiders used to have half jerseys, slobbering, spitting, scratching, fighting. That was silver-and-black football.... This team is definitely going L.A. now."

Davis shows signs of nostalgia for the Oakland days. On his roster this year are Henry (Killer) Lawrence, 36, the oldest offensive tackle in the league, and Jim Plunkett, 39, the oldest player in the league. Both helped Davis win his 1981 and '84 Super Bowl rings. Davis still has 15 starters from the '84 game, 11 of whom are 30 or older. Davis is sentimental that way. Dalby stayed on until he was 35, Cliff Branch until 37. Guard Mickey Marvin is 31 and badly injured, and Charley Hannah is 32 and still playing. A wonderful old group of guys and here's to 'em, but judging by the 64 sacks the line gave up last year—worst in the AFC—they are not so good at keeping large, colorfully dressed men out of the quarterback's nostrils. Even Lawrence was replaced last year by Shelby Jordan, who is four months younger than Killer. Some youth movement.

"So what?" says Long, who is 27. "I don't see that as a fault. I want to know that if I bust my butt all those years, I'll be remembered, too." So it's funny, but the same thing that makes the Raiders Paradise Found for players also occasionally makes the Raiders an 8-8 team. Says Long, "It's called loyalty." Davis finally succumbed this year; he took two linemen with his first and second picks and, against all Raider tradition, he may be starting them before the season is half complete.

Davis's one-man campaign against the league has cost his team dearly. Some believe the rest of the league is conspiring to keep Davis from acquiring a top quarterback. Is it just coincidence that Davis, a man who was always ready with a great quarterback, wouldn't offer enough to get Neil Lomax of St. Louis this off-season? When Davis became interested in Doug Williams, who has thrown only one pass in the NFL in five years, the Redskins wanted a first-round draft choice for him. Raider insiders still say that the league moved to keep Davis from making a 1983 trade with Chicago that would have put the Raiders in a position to get John Elway from Baltimore. "I'm not saying it's true or not," says Elway's agent, Marvin Demoff. "But I don't think it's farfetched."

Davis and his staff also have made some quarterback blunders. For starters, they could have had Dan Marino—but so could 25 other teams. "I think we just got too much information on Marino," says Raider personnel director Ron Wolf. "We kept hearing his arm was dead." They also watched Jay Schroeder work out before he was drafted, and passed on him. Schroeder led the NFC in passing yards last season for the Redskins. They made no attempt to get Jim Everett from Houston, and the Rams signed him.

So here's what Davis is left with. Marc Wilson had a better year than Plunkett in '86 (Wilson was 5-3 as a starter, Plunkett 3-5), but Davis has no confidence in Wilson and neither do the fans. In a cruel L.A. Herald-Examiner write-in poll in late 1985, Brock defeated Wilson as the worst quarterback in L.A. Whether Davis voted we don't know, but word is he went down at half-time of a game in Dallas and told coach Tom Flores to take Wilson out, that he didn't want to see him the rest of the season. And, indeed, he scarcely did.

Plunkett won the next two games, but then something decidedly un-Raiderish happened. "We're 8-4 and then we blow the season," Davis says. "It's the first time we've cracked in a long while."

Now the Raiders say they will come bounding back with—write this in pencil if you like—Rusty Hilger, which is not a drink you order in a frou-frou bar but a third-year quarterback with whom the Raiders are stuck. The Raiders say they are ready to follow Hilger all the way, but then Davis says something cryptic like, "If Jimmy [Plunkett] can just give us six games this year, we'll be all right." And Plunkett, who will be 40 before the season is over, is eating it up. "When are you building that new stadium?" he asked Davis one day.

"Maybe by 1990," Davis said.

"Good. Then my quote is, 'I want to play in the new stadium.' "

You have to figure his odds are better than Hilger's.

As Mike Sherrard, Dallas's brightest young receiver, was being carried off the field in an ambulance on the afternoon of Aug. 5 with two broken bones in his leg, Cowboy safety Michael Downs turned to teammate Everson Walls and sighed. "It'll be a long winter," he said.

Faced with a ruinous recent history of drafting, freak injuries and personnel goofs, the once-indomitable Cowboys will be lucky to equal last year's 7-9 finish. They face the first total rebuilding job in their history. That won't be easy for a team that has never had much practice losing. From 1966 to 1985, Dallas set the record for the longest consecutive-season winning streak in the NFL. Truth is, the rebuilding should have begun two years ago. Dallas committed a major Fram: paying big now for what it should have repaired two seasons ago.

Of the 22 Cowboys who started in the 1982 NFC Championship Game against Washington, 11 are still with the team and nine of those are older than 30, including what has to be the oldest line this side of "Come here often?" on defense: Randy White (34), John Dutton (36), Ed Jones (36) and the youthful Jim Jeffcoat (26). Jeffcoat must feel like the entertainment director at Leisure World. He had 14 sacks last year, and the other three had 17. Jones's 5½ were his lowest total in 10 years. The Cowboys sought defensive-line help in the draft, taking Nebraska tackle Danny Noonan in the first round, but No-No Noonan was still unsigned at press time.

Problem was, three straight NFC title game appearances—in '80, '81 and '82—lured the Cowboys into thinking they were within an eyelash of the Super Bowl. In reality, in '81 and '82 the only postseason games they won were against Tampa Bay (twice) and Green Bay. "We were always right up there, close to the Super Bowl," says Tex Schramm, who has been Dallas's general manager since the inception of the franchise in 1960. "We were always in the fight. Then, suddenly, the whole thing just caught up to us in the '80s."

Says Dallas coach Tom Landry, "You know, it's hard to change a winning pattern like we had. When you go 20 years winning with people, shuffling them in and out, then you're going to live with the older guys." But now Landry admits that those days are gone: "We have to rebuild our club, reshape it."

Which would be fine if Dallas had something to rebuild with. The Cowboys' draft over the last nine years looks sorrier than a Texas oilman's checkbook. If you counted all the players Dallas drafted in the first and second rounds from '78 through '86, you would find seven players still with the team. Two of them start, but neither made last season's Pro Bowl. Compare that with the champion New York Giants, who still have 14 players, including seven starters and four Pro Bowlers, they drafted in the first two rounds over those same years, or with the Chicago Bears, who have 15 players, among them eight starters and six Pro Bowlers.

"We might've could've changed our philosophy," is how Landry puts it. They might've could've five years ago, but they didn't, and the reason they didn't was that they were too good at drafting in the first place. In 1969 the Cowboys took a chance on a talented-but-raw back—Calvin Hill—and turned him into a premier runner. They did the same thing the next year with Duane Thomas. Always picking late in the draft, the Cowboys strove to find what Schramm calls "Super Bowl players who hadn't yet shown it." As one of the most organized franchises in the league, Dallas had the edge. Compared with the Cowboys, everybody else was working from a copy of Street & Smith's. But when the draft was moved from January to April in 1976 the lesser teams had more time to prepare. "Our advantage was taken away," says Schramm. Yet the Cowboys stayed with the old way, trying to find the crown jewels at a garage sale.

The lowlights:

•1978: Defensive end Larry Bethea, the first-round pick, played five years and never cracked the starting lineup. Running back Todd Christensen, the second-round choice, refused to play tight end, was released and wound up starring for the Raiders as a tight end. Bad luck.

•1979: Center Robert Shaw, a first-rounder, blew out his knee and played sporadically for three seasons. Bad luck.

•1980: Traded a first- and second-round pick for John Dutton, then 29 years old, because Jones had quit football to become a boxer.

•1981: Tackle Howard Richards (first round) injured most of the time, ineffective the rest, a sometime starter. Bad pick.

•1982: Cornerback Rod Hill (first round), ineffective, traded. Worse pick.

•1984: Linebacker Billy Cannon (first round), forced out of football by a congenital spinal condition. Bad luck. Defensive back Victor Scott (second round) is still second string.

•1985: Defensive tackle Kevin Brooks (first round), still not starting. Linebacker Jesse Penn (second round), not starting either, and the linebacking core is weak.

"It's a bad job," says Schramm. "Our gambles didn't pay off. We might've gotten to the point of reaching too far." However, as Cowboy vice-president Gil Brandt says, "You got the feeling that Tom Landry was so great that you felt like every player you drafted you were delivering to Superman himself." But in the '80s, there are precious few secrets in the draft and even fewer Calvin Hills. "It used to be," says Landry, "we'd list our top 100 guys on a board on draft day and get five or six out of our top 28. Nowadays, we line up the 100 and then they go just like we had 'em. We just mark 'em off, one by one."

"It was a case of overpreparation," says former Cowboy star Drew Pearson, who was never drafted. "You've got to look at a player for more than how many weights he lifts or what his score on the IQ tests were. You have to look at him as a football player. Does he talk like a football player? Line up like a football player?...Rod Hill just didn't have the heart. He was just a jokester.... And Howard Richards didn't have the heart, didn't have the drive. He was content if he was hurt.... Same with Larry Bethea. And I think Kevin Brooks could be another one of those guys—guys that don't have the drive to be the best."

With the players the Cowboys passed up, you could win a few Super Bowls. To get Richards they passed on Mike Singletary, James Wilder, Cris Collinsworth and Long. Indeed, had it not been for great trades that brought Dallas Tony Dorsett, Jones, Randy White, and great luck, like getting Herschel Walker with a fifth-round pick, the Cowboys would be flatter than Amarillo.

Dallas could have had Marino, too, but the most unforgivable goof was in the third round in 1979, when the name at the top of the Cowboys' list when their turn came around was Joe Montana. Now, the Cowboys never go against philosophy. And the philosophy dictated that they always take the guy at the top of the list. So what did Dallas do? "We jumped him," says Schramm remorsefully. The Cowboys went instead for tight end Doug Cosbie. "We just didn't think we needed a quarterback," says Schramm. "It just kills me. Of all the times not to follow our own system and our own intelligence. Cripes."

Now their quarterback is an aging, ailing Danny White, whose wrist was broken in Game 9 last season and is still sore. White will start, but he cannot even throw a dump-off pass without great pain. Also painful for White lately is picking up the newspaper. A recent series of stories in the Dallas Morning News detailed how three companies in which White is a primary partner accrued at least $230,000 in debts. Lawsuits await, sleep abates. "I've always gone to bed thinking about making great plays, throwing touchdown passes," says White. "Lately, I go to bed thinking about bills and newspaper stories. I'd call that a distraction."

Behind White is the polite but quite forgettable Steve Pelluer, who is supposed to be a great scrambler but last year was sacked 47 times in 10 games and looked at times as if he would have a hard time getting out of the way of a cold front. Backing up Pelluer is a short (5'11½") long shot, rookie Kevin Sweeney, the NCAA Division I-A career passing yardage leader. Don't be surprised to see Sweeney across the bottom of your set this fall.

"All right, we don't have a quarterback right now," says Schramm, "but the Raiders and Pittsburgh don't, either. How many good ones are there?"

Not many. Maybe just enough to fill the playoffs. But even if Dallas had one, to whom would he throw? Sherrard is gone for at least this year, and the Cowboys' alltime leader in reception yardage (7,998), Tony Hill, was released before camp began because he failed to lose weight. Hill reportedly refused three times in the off-season to get on a scale. He also refused to work out hard in the team's "voluntary" off-season program. "It's so voluntary," says Pearson, "that they kicked him out for not showing up."

Strict by-the-bookness doesn't play as well as it used to for Dallas. Nobody practices longer or harder than the Cowboys do, but does it pay? Over the last four years, the Cowboys are 3-10 in December. Last year they never overcame a halftime deficit. By the first exhibition game of this year, they had suffered more than 25 injuries. Five receivers went down within 30 hours.

"With the Cowboys, the more you lose the more you run," says former Dallas defensive back Ron Fellows, who was traded to the Raiders last month for receiver Rod Barksdale. "In the third quarter of a lot of games last year, I was just beat."

Says Barksdale, "There are so many ways to get fined here. I was getting so paranoid that by the end of the first day, I almost saluted one of the coaches.... We practice for so long and so hard, I don't see how anybody can be ready for a game. You're so sore." No wonder after only one year in Dallas, Herschel Franchise was already talking about retirement.

We should have seen all of this coming. After all, last year was the first in history that neither Don Shula, Chuck Noll nor Landry made the playoffs. Because the NFL is so sophisticated now, because it has no free agency and because the league is hopelessly over-weighted toward parity in everything from drafting to scheduling, it's getting harder and harder to stand out. For every ship that comes in, one must go out.

Still, Davis, in particular, has shown signs of his old rapacious self this year. He acquired Swervyn' Mervyn Fernandez, a wide receiver who in 1985 was named MVP of the Canadian Football League, and the former Green Bay Packer wide receiver, James Lofton. The latter move is vintage Davis: signing the great troubled player late in his career and giving him new hope for a ring, a la Plunkett at age 30 and Alzado at 33. Of course, Davis also signed the world's most expensive Kelly Boy, running back Bo Jackson. An outfielder with the Kansas City Royals, Bo will fill in for a couple of months a year.

Davis is probably just buying time in order to convince Jackson he's better off in a game in which only the punts curve. "Once again," says Long, "the best owner in pro sports has dipped into his pocket—his bag of tricks—and come up with four jacks."

As for the Cowboys, their return flight will be delayed longer, but they do have the best young offensive brain in the game, pass offense coordinator Paul Hackett, and Landry seems possessed this year. "Hey," says Hackett, "we're teed off."

Finally, we must face the sociological question: Do we really want to see the Raiders and the Cowboys on Skid Row? Would Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays be the same? "I think the media and the fans want to see the Cowboys go down," says Schramm. "But they damn sure don't want to see us go very far down and they don't want to see us go away. I think it's the same with the Raiders.... After all, you can't have cops if you don't have any robbers."

ILLUSTRATIONROBERT GROSSMANIt's symptomatic that Long has looked good while L.A. has played shabby. ILLUSTRATIONROBERT GROSSMANThe Raiders of yore were slightly demented, but players like Alzado, Hendricks and Matuszak are just a manic memory. ILLUSTRATIONROBERT GROSSMANSince moving to L.A., Davis has seen mostly smog in his crystal ball. THREE ILLUSTRATIONSROBERT GROSSMANLatter-day Raiders include hobbyist Bo Jackson, who bats in K.C., and Napoleon McCallum, who is out to sea. ILLUSTRATIONROBERT GROSSMANHis remarkable record of success made the Cowboys think Landry was Superman. ILLUSTRATIONROBERT GROSSMANBrandt and Schramm need to rebuild the Cowboy machine with fresh parts. ILLUSTRATIONROBERT GROSSMANOnce the Cowboys' fair-haired boy, Danny White is now bedeviled by an injured wrist and creditors. ILLUSTRATIONROBERT GROSSMANThe fact that Cowboy practices are so arduous may be why after a year Walker was hinting at retirement. ILLUSTRATIONROBERT GROSSMAN

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)