Let us rephrase The Cynic's retort as it applies to Cincinnati Bengal coach Sam Wyche: Just because he says his players are injured doesn't mean they're not. In fact, on Sunday the Bengals were pretty well banged up as advertised, with possible airplane food poisoning thrown in as an AFC divisional playoff bonus malady. "I think it was the chicken," said Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason, who by then believed he should have gone with the sirloin tips. Maybe it was just the stomach flu, as officially reported. Either way, the ailment occurred too late for Wyche to add it to his injury reports, which are always greeted with anticipation in the NFL.
"Sam Wyche's injury reports are like cow dung on the roadside" is how Los Angeles Raider defensive end Howie Long puts it. "Just because you see it, you don't have to step in it."
But perennial All-Pro tackle Anthony Munoz, out with an injured rotator cuff, truly didn't play a down for the Bengals on Sunday. Guard Bruce Reimers, on crutches with a sprained ankle, indeed was inactive. Only running back James Brooks, whose thumb bone had dislocated and poked through the skin in Cincinnati's wild-card win over Houston on Jan. 6, kept to form. After announcing early in the week that he was not in the game plan, couldn't possibly grip the ball with the orthopedic appliance the doctors had engineered, but would like the airplane mileage (if not the food) just the same, Brooks still managed to play most of the way. Long was not astonished.
The upshot was pretty much as Wyche would have had everyone believe. Esiason had neither the stomach nor the protection for Sunday's game. And the Raiders, who hadn't won a playoff outing since the 1983 postseason, brought both a pass rush (four sacks) and their appetite. While nobody's idea of a blowout, their 20-10 victory before a rare full house (92,045) at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum should lead some folks to think that maybe the Silver and Black is back. After winning that playoff game seven years ago, didn't the Raiders go on and win the Super Bowl? Attention Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles's host in the AFC Championship Game this Sunday: Yes, they did.
If they can do it again, in Tampa, you'll have to hand it to Al Davis, the President of the General Partner, who rivals Wyche when it comes to inviting suspicion and outdoes him for creating titles, if not injury lists. The Raider honcho (our title) can look at the stat sheet from Sunday's game and smile smugly at a couple of his inventions—quarterback Jay Schroeder and tight end Ethan Horton. The two hooked up on a 41-yard fourth-quarter pass, a beauty that landed on Horton's seldom-used fingertips, and he carried it in for the touchdown that made the score 17-10 with 8:52 to play.
Neither of these guys figured heavily in the Bengals' scouting report. In fact, Cincinnati cornerback Eric Thomas said before the game that a good day for the Bengals might be one on which Schroeder passed a lot. He probably reconsidered after Schroeder connected with Tim Brown on a third-and-20, with Thomas slipping as Brown gained 26 yards, to keep a drive alive for Horton's touchdown. Of course, Thomas was wrong on another count too. He thought if the Bengals stopped Bo Jackson—who had torched them with runs of 92 and 88 yards in the teams' last two meetings—things would be fine. Bo, whose longest gain on Sunday went for 34 yards, left the game early in the third quarter with a hip injury.
Instead, Marcus Allen, who gets overlooked amid the Bo-mania, rushed for 140 yards. Long thought that the Bengals' public displays of pride in having contained Allen in previous games might have backfired. "Anytime you challenge Marcus Allen," he said, "you better be prepared to back it up."
Allen is one of the five veterans from that last Raider team to win a Super Bowl, and since then he has made lots of cornerbacks eat their game plans. What's new is Schroeder, an erratic performer who has benefited from Davis's and coach Art Shell's patience. Steve Beuerlein, who finished last season as the starting quarterback, has been mysteriously left off the active roster on game days since staging a holdout last summer. With no one lurking over his shoulder for the first time in his seven-year career and with a simplified offense and wonder-backs Jackson and Allen behind him, Schroeder has settled into an efficiency that is baffling to defensive backs. In a performance fairly typical of his season, he completed 11 of 21 passes for 172 yards against the Bengals.
But Horton was more reminiscent of Davis's scrap-heap finds, the forgotten and the misunderstood that he turns into Raider institutions (Lyle Alzado, John Matuszak, ad nauseam). Waived four times as a running back, Horton was out of the NFL for most of two seasons, during which he worked as an academic counselor at his alma mater, North Carolina. "The phone didn't ring once," says Horton, until "Mr. Davis" rang out of the blue and proposed he play tight end. "He told me he had a gut feeling I could catch the ball. If Mr. Davis said that, it was enough for me."
That was after the 1988 season. With starter Mike Dyal hampered most of this year with an injured hamstring, Horton was finally allowed to prove Davis right and was Los Angeles's third leading receiver, with 33 catches. He was Sunday's leader, with four receptions and 77 yards.
For its part, Cincinnati was thoroughly inventive in the various faces of calamity. "Oddball formations," sniffed Long. "That's Sam Wyche." Lots of Ickey Woods up the middle, instead of Brooks around end—"because it was working," said Wyche. A dose of penicillin for Boomer. And a make-do offensive line that was inspiration to undersized free agents everywhere. Fact is, for all the injuries up front, the Bengals were pressured but not embarrassed. The 255-pound Kirk Scrafford, undrafted out of Montana, even held his own in place of Munoz. Not even the Bengals knew what to think of him going into the game. "He wears flannel shirts, chops wood and eats bark," said Esiason, helpfully. "Very quick, but legs like this," said line coach Jim McNally, making a small circle with a thumb and forefinger. Another pregame report from Cincinnati, as useful as any.
But it looks as if the Raiders are a team that the NFL must worry about now. Fair warning may be gathered from the Bengals' Leon White, the poor linebacker who was isolated one-on-one on Horton's big catch. "It was way over my head, so I thought it was way over his, too," he explained innocently. Beware in Buffalo: The Raiders may indeed be playing over their heads. Just like the old days.