In July, just before training camp opened, Los Angeles Raider quarterback Jay Schroeder went in to see Al Davis with one of the most unusual proposals that Davis had heard in his 28 years as boss of the Raiders. Schroeder was coming off the last year of a three-year contract that he had signed while still with the Washington Redskins, and he was set to make $1 million this season, his option year. In two seasons with L.A., his career had taken some wild swings. There were remarkable highs, when the yardage seemed to fly from his arm in chunks—he seemed made for the push-it-deep game that Davis so dearly loves—but there were lows too. Schroeder had seen his share of three- and four-interception games, had heard the boos at the Los Angeles Coliseum, had read all the stories about how the Skins had gotten rid of him because he was a malcontent. What's more, he had ended the 1989 season on the bench.
"I'm not a million-dollar quarterback," he told Davis in July. "I'm not worth that kind of money. Take something back. Take $200,000."
"We'll cut it in half," Davis told him. "You keep a hundred, I'll keep a hundred." And that's how Schroeder the Raider became a $900,000 quarterback.
"It wasn't any big deal," said Schroeder after the Raiders had beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-3 in L.A. on Sunday to become one of five teams with a 3-0 record. "When I came in, I felt I wasn't in any position to demand anything. I wanted to play. I felt that if I treated him fairly, then when the time came, I'd be treated fairly too. This team has a reputation for taking care of the people who perform well for it."
September 30, 1990
This team, however, hasn't always treated its fans very well. So, for the first home game since the Raiders announced on Sept. 11 that they would be remaining in Los Angeles—instead of returning to Oakland—no one was sure what the fans' response would be. The game against the Steelers drew 50,667 in the 92,488-seat Coliseum, compared with 54,206 for the season opener against the Denver Broncos. The Raiders had Greater Los Angeles to themselves in Week 1—the Rams were on the road—but on Sunday the Rams were also at home, against the Philadelphia Eagles.
A Raider official said last Friday that since the announcement, season-ticket sales had increased by 1,500-2,000 to almost 25,000. Still, that's not much. "We ask all the people who come to the games to sit in every other seat," Raider noseguard Bob Golic says. "Then they're all given cardboard cutouts of people, and they just set them up in the empty seats."
But there's a chance some of those seats might fill up soon, because these Raiders are a together outfit right now. And if you're looking for a reason that the turmoil that surrounded them in 1988 and '89 has finally eased, look no further than the man who wears the coach's hat, Art Shell, who took over before the fifth game last year. "He made football fun again," says defensive end Howie Long. "He's the reason I still have a career."
Shell, 6'5", weight unknown. The Big Brahma they called him when he joined the Raiders in 1968 and started a 15-year career that would land him in the Hall of Fame. Greatest Raider offensive tackle ever, maybe the greatest ever of any team. Everyone has stories about Shell.
"Nobody ever hit me harder," says former Bronco, Browns and Raider defensive end Lyle Alzado.
"First time I ever lined up against him, he head-butted me and split my check-bone," says Long.
"The weight—everyone always wanted to know what he really weighed," says Al LoCasale, the Raiders' second in command. "In 1977 we went to Hawaii for the Super Teams competition. Everyone had to weigh in for the tug-of-war, which had a 1,500-pound-per-team weight limit. When Art stepped on the scale, Gene Upshaw started yelling, 'Don't let Lokie [LoCasale] see it!'
"The weigh-in was on the porch at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, and I ran around to an upstairs balcony and hung over the side, with my wife holding on to my legs, just to see what the scale said. It said 318."
They talk about Shell's presence on the field, his aura of command. The Big Brahma, scowling, with his arms folded, is not to be messed with. They talk about his feel for his players, and that's a nice angle. But is it really enough to succeed in the complex world of big league coaching?
"The first thing I felt I had to do was restore that old-time Raider feeling," Shell says. "Many of our winning ways came from the feeling we had for each other, the way we cared so much about each other. There was a lot of heart on those teams.
"Ever since I was in high school I've wanted to be a coach. I felt I learned something from every coach I played for. I watched and listened and learned. My high school coach [in North Charleston, S.C.], James Fields, taught me that you could be tough with your players but still get them to do what you wanted them to do. My college coach [at Maryland State], Roosevelt Gilliam, taught me organization. John Madden in Oakland taught me that you always have to listen to the players, to find out how they're approaching the game and what's bothering them. He also taught me to do away with some of the silly rules that have nothing to do with winning or losing. His only rule was to be on time.
"I want to be known as a coach who listens to his players, but doesn't take any bull, either."
Schroeder the Raider and Uncle Art. It didn't hurt Schroeder's chances to regain the starting quarterback job that the competition, Steve Beuerlein, the man who had beaten him out in 1989, was having contract difficulties of a different kind in the preseason. A fourth-round draft choice in '87, Beuerlein was coming off a modest three-year deal. He had made $140,000 in '89. He was ready for something serious. The Raiders said, "Do something first."
The sides were deadlocked, and Schroeder was taking the varsity snaps in camp. In the locker room, a cynical rumor started making the rounds. The team was said to be deliberately lowballing Beuerlein so Schroeder could breathe easier in camp, with no one pressing him for his job. "That's the most ridiculous damn story I ever heard," says Davis, who finally came to terms with Beuerlein on Sept. 3.
Maybe Davis is right, because he has been talking to the New Orleans Saints about their unsigned quarterback, Bobby Hebert. If that doesn't put pressure on Schroeder, what does? "I know they're talking about Hebert," says Schroeder, "but as long as we keep winning and as long as I keep playing as well as I can, I'm not worried."
Schroeder has learned to do what he is told, which is why we saw the kind of game from him on Sunday that we did. It was a strange, un-Schroeder, un-Raiderlike game indeed. Los Angeles played trick-'em football. The Raiders went no-huddle; they used an unbalanced line, putting two tackles on the same side; they dinked the ball underneath the Steelers' two-deep zone, canning the long passing game almost entirely.
Well, all right, they did try one long pass in the first half, a trick-'em throw, with Marcus Allen passing deep on a halfback option. He released the ball just as he was about to get hit by noseguard Gerald Williams, and up stepped Rod Woodson, the best cornerback in the league, to make the interception.
What L.A. had to show for the half was three points, 17 snaps, 68 yards of offense and 8:41 of possession time. The only reason the score was tied 3-3 was that the Pittsburgh offense specializes in self-destruction—long drive, screwup, long drive, screwup. The Steelers have yet to score a touchdown on offense this season, and quarterback Bubby Brister, a down-the-field thrower, has been put in a box.
Get a load of this Pittsburgh attack. Late in the third quarter, Brister had completed 18 of 20 passes, yet the Steelers had only three points and were on their own 26. They would penetrate Los Angeles territory only once more in the game.
Here were two guys, Brister and Schroeder, with live arms throwing dink passes and handing off. It was like watching two heavyweights with knockout power spending 14 rounds trading jabs. Sooner or later somebody had to throw the first right cross, and it wound up being Schroeder. After the Raiders got a field goal and Allen scored on a one-yard run, Schroeder connected on a 66-yard touchdown pass to wideout Mervyn Fernandez to put Los Angeles ahead 20-3 with 8:32 to go. That's the one that ended the fight.
In the locker room afterward, Davis was muttering that his club had not played Raider football at all: only one deep completion, nothing but take-what-they-give-you stuff. Raider football is to make the other guys take what you give them, he said, "but what the hell, we're 3-0."
Schroeder was smiling as people came by and said, "Great game, Jay." He completed nine of 19 throws for 148 yards—hardly dazzling but serviceable—and he had no turnovers. He explained that he didn't throw deep because the Steelers were laying back to protect against long passes. Then why the deep one to Fernandez? "Well," said Shroeder, "the corner-back missed the bump on him, and the free safety was late in getting over."
What he didn't say was that four seasons ago, when he went to the Pro Bowl as a bomb-throwing Redskin, he would have come out of the box firing deep against any kind of coverage. But it's a new era now, a new Schroeder. Schroeder the Raider—the name has a nice ring to it. He has a terrific defense, which will get the ball back for him in field position, and a surprisingly good offensive line. So if the coaches tell him to dink it around for a while and play trick-'em football, why, that's fine.
"There will come a time when you'll have to open up," someone told him, and he smiled again. "I can open up when I have to," he said.
That might happen sooner than he thinks. Injuries are chopping away at the defense. The Raiders lost their No. 1 draft choice for the year when pass rusher Anthony Smith tore up his right knee in the preseason. Long, who was off to his best start ever, went down in Week 2 with a dislocated toe and a broken toe. He's out for six weeks. On Sunday, Garry Lewis, the sensational rookie cornerback, broke his clavicle, which puts him out for six weeks too. Finally, the Raiders' sack-happy rookie linebacker, Aaron Wallace (he had two on Sunday), suffered a deep shoulder bruise against Pittsburgh that might keep him out of this Sunday's game against the undefeated Chicago Bears.
The injuries may affect Shell, too. The history of the NFL is filled with nice-guy coaches who were beloved by their players but were taken advantage of when tough times came. The human organism is strange indeed. "Oh yeah, it could happen," Long says, "but there are guys here who won't let it happen. I won't let it happen, and I don't care how many people think I'm an ass. Marcus Allen won't let it happen. We've got a good thing here. Nobody wants to screw it up."