A TRIO AT THE TOP

The Raiders edged the Broncos to create a logjam in the AFC's mild mild West
December 12, 1988

The price of glory keeps getting marked down in the AFC West. Playoff spots are going cheap. Ten and six? Forget it. Nine and seven? Nah. Bring in your 8-8 record and make 'em an offer.

Two more teams in the mild mild West lost on Sunday to drop into the Misfortune .500 yet still hold on to shares of first place. The only other way you can lose this much and still feel this good is to join Weight Watchers.

On Sunday, the Seattle Seahawks fell 13-7 to the New England Patriots, and the Denver Broncos were upended 21-20 by the Los Angeles Raiders. Denver, L.A. and Seattle are all 7-7, and we're down to a two-game season. Experts are almost certain now that somebody will win the division.

And don't look now, but the Raiders are beginning to live up to their W-2 forms. Led by their quarterback, Jay Schroeder, who made the most of a Mulligan, and their unstoppable scoring machine, defensive end Greg Townsend, the Raiders hopped right back into the race. What's more, the victory at the L.A. Coliseum was a salve for the Raiders' first-year coach, Mike Shanahan, a moral vindication for Townsend, a one-play nightmare for Denver quarterback John Elway and another step toward the gold watch for Tony Dorsett.

Looking out on the two teams before the game, one couldn't see all that. As Raiders linebacker Matt Millen put it, "We all stink. It's just who's going to stink less."

All of which leaves us with this: L. A. plays at Buffalo on Sunday then gets the Seahawks at home. Seattle takes on the Sierra Club—Denver, which has lost 11 straight games on fake grass and five straight under domes—at dome this Sunday and then goes to L.A. After the Broncos finish with the Seahawks, they get the New England Patriots at home. One of these three could be only the second NFL team in history to win its division with a .500 record. The champion, of course, earns the right to get folded up like an old wallet in the playoff.

Or maybe not, because the Broncos and the Raiders seem to play better (at least sometimes) against better teams. L.A. beat the formidable San Francisco 49ers but lost to the lousy Atlanta Falcons. Denver beat San Francisco and the mighty Cleveland Browns but lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs, both dogs. After the Broncos looked impeccable two weeks ago against the L.A. Rams, somebody asked Denver wide receiver Mark Jackson if the team had gotten over its schizophrenic act. Said Jackson, "Yes. No. Yes. No."

Nor is first place a particularly happy place for the Raiders and Broncos. The Raiders are especially rife with strife. For one thing, owner Al Davis, who hired the 36-year-old Shanahan away from Denver, where he had been the offensive coordinator, wants Shanahan to have his quarterbacks look deep first, short last. Shanahan wants the reverse. Davis wants the Raiders to play vintage Raider football: match strength against weakness and just burn 'em, baby. Shanahan wants to play scheme football: let the players fit the scheme, and let the scheme beat the other team. Davis wants to get the ball deep, especially to wide receiver Willie Gault. Shanahan won't start Gault.

Coming into Sunday's game, the rope between owner and coach was fraying fast. When the Raiders faced the Broncos on Sept. 26, they fell behind 24-0 before pulling out a 30-27 victory. In the first half of that game, Davis, who was sitting in the Mile High Stadium press box, hollered, "He doesn't know——about football!" A few weeks later the Los Angeles Times reported that Davis even called around the league to see what others thought of Shanahan's methods. You get the feeling the honeymoon was over just after they brushed off the rice.

Is Shanahan ready to wear Davis around like an overcoat? Maybe not. Word is that earlier this season Shanahan twice called his old employer, the University of Florida, to check the status of its wobbly coach, Galen Hall.

Look at it from Shanahan's side. He was allowed to hire only two of his 12 assistants. Here, son, the car is all yours tonight. Mind if I drive? And now that staff has shown signs of coming un-sprung like a cereal-box watch. Offensive coordinator Tom Walsh is reportedly ready to quit because Shanahan changes so many of the plays that Walsh calls from the press box. Linebacker coach Sam Gruneisen wants the head job at UNLV, and defensive backfield coach Willy Brown yearns for the one at Grambling. Not only that, but after a critical blitz backfired near the end of a 38-35 loss to the Houston Oilers on Sept. 11, Davis had to be talked out of firing two defensive coaches, including the coordinator, Charlie Sumner.

Then again, look at it from Davis's point of view. He gave Shanahan a Learjet—three Heisman Trophy winners (Tim Brown, Bo Jackson and Marcus Allen), plus Schroeder, plus Gault, James Lofton and Swervin' Mervyn Fernandez—and Shanahan uses it to taxi down to the 7-Eleven. Los Angeles has the league's worst pass-completion percentage (42.8%) of the 1980s. Attendance is paltry—this season the Raiders have drawn three of their eight worst crowds since moving to L.A.—and the franchise could lose $7 million this season alone.

True, Brown has been a sensation—was Gale Sayers this exciting as a rookie? But Gault has only two catches in his last seven games. One pass was thrown his way on Sunday, and it was incomplete. Nobody is catching many balls except Brown, who has 38 receptions. Even tight end Todd Christensen, who has been sidelined with a knee injury since Oct. 2, was taken out of the offense. He had only 11 catches.

Denver has had more than the usual snippiness, too. There was talk from Elway that the team is "burnt out" after two long Super Bowl seasons. And for a guy who has rushed for only 617 yards and four touchdowns, Dorsett sure keeps getting mentioned a lot. Before the Broncos-Colts game on Oct. 31, Elway told the press in Indianapolis that maybe coach Dan Reeves was letting the tail wag the dog. "We've gone away from what made us successful to give Tony the football," said Elway. "We're running the ball in some situations where we would have thrown it last year." Elway also wondered what happened to Denver's shotgun, the one that helped the Broncos go 8-2 from the day they installed it last year.

Says Dorsett, "Since Indianapolis, I've only carried the ball in double figures, what, twice? I don't know where the ball is going, but it sure ain't into 33's arms, unless I'm missing something." On Sunday he rushed five times for 18 yards.

So add "feuding with teammates" to the other rumors that have surfaced about Elway this year. One of the most popular is that he has been overweight. (Actually, he has been within three pounds of 215, his normal playing weight, all season.) Another theory is that he has had marital difficulties; this was supported by a Los Angeles Herald Examiner story claiming that Elway was at a striptease bar on his birthday. (In fact, he was at his parents' house.)

The truth is, Elway has been the same off the field as he has always been. On the field, he hasn't been himself. He has completed fewer passes for fewer touchdowns and thrown more interceptions than last year. The source of his trouble, he said, has been his right shoulder, which he injured throwing an exhibition-game bomb about 70 yards. "Three weeks ago was the first time I felt real good all year," said Elway. "It took me that long before I got the confidence to turn it loose again."

So why not tell somebody? "Because it would have sounded like an excuse." Yeah, a good one.

But Elway's shoulder wasn't hurting when he threw his worst pass of the year. With the Broncos trailing the Raiders 14-0 with 5½ minutes to go in the third quarter on Sunday, he was starting to cut up the L.A. secondary like a six-foot-three Veg-O-Matic. Then, with the ball on the Raider eight, he lofted a sloppy little pass toward running back Steve Sewell into the right flat. Townsend, who has been getting plenty of playing time since Howie Long sat down with an injured calf four weeks ago, stepped in front of Sewell and "looked it into my hands, just like a receiver." He took off on an 86-yard touchdown sprint.

Townsend had returned a fumble for a touchdown against Seattle on the previous Sunday night. With two TDs this season Townsend has more than Lofton, Gault and Christensen put together. Davis must have been grinding his molars. You pay millions for Heisman Trophy winners, and who keeps scoring your touchdowns? A 250-pound lummox.

Just talking about the play was emotional for Townsend, who still feels humiliated by his suspension for drug use in the preseason. "I wanted to redeem the name of Greg Townsend," he said afterward, with a tear running down the side of his nose and a friend rubbing his neck. "I didn't want to be known just for the bad things."

To the Broncos, Townsend was a bad thing right between the retinas. Reeves, who called the interception "huge," said, "We're down 14 and have a chance to get back in the game, and all of a sudden we're down 21."

He shouldn't have been surprised. All told, in its last four road games. Denver has been down 111-0 before it scored. But then things started to go Elway's way. On the Broncos' next three possessions, he got two field goals and completed a six-yard touchdown pass to tight end Clarence Kay to make the score 21-13 just as the third quarter ended. There was plenty of time left, especially because L.A. hadn't earned so much as a first down in the second half.

The next time Denver got the ball, Elway used seven plays to go 93 yards for a TD. The finale was a four-yard flip to Kay, and it made the score 21-20. Elway lined up in the shotgun on all seven plays and passed five times. Tony Who?

The Broncos, who 10 weeks before had allowed the Raiders to stage their biggest comeback ever, were now plotting their own Lazarus act. That's when Los Angeles did something outlandish. Taking over at its own five, it simply refused to give Denver the ball. "We knew that if we gave the ball back to Elway, he was going to score," said Schroeder. The Raiders got their only first downs of the half, and they got most of them by running. Strangest of all, the man doing most of the damage was Schroeder; he made two firsts on two naked bootlegs. Fernandez also kept the drive alive with a Nureyev move along the sideline while making a catch 15 yards downfield. L.A. finally relinquished possession, but with only six seconds left and the ball sitting at the Denver five. Go ahead, John. Knock yourself out.

Reeves was understandably grim after the final gun. Here was a ripe chance to take over first place in the division, and his team blew it. "We're not out of it yet," he said. "But we certainly took a big step backward."

In the giddy Raider den, Davis said, "I'm not going to second-guess my coach." Then he added, "I'm just trying to get used to that."

You think 9-7 could get him used to it, Mike?

PHOTORICHARD MACKSONFreddie Gilbert & Co. held Jackson, one of L.A.'s three Heisman winners, to 49 yards. THREE PHOTOSANDY HAYTL.A. safety Russell Carter cut under Denver wide receiver Mark Jackson on this play but Jackson, who made a game-high six catches, for 138 yards, held on to the ball. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAL.A. sacked Elway thrice and nailed him several other times just after he threw the ball. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERThis Raiders' upending of Gerald Willhite didn't make him drop this first-half pass. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERTownsend, a scoring machine, returned L.A.'s second interception 86 yards for a TD. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERJeremiah Castille picked off this rainbow from Schroeder, but he landed out of bounds.

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)