Al Davis figured that if his team was going to miss the
playoffs, as it has in four of the past five years, it might as
well miss them playing Raiders football. So he fired Mike White,
his coach of the last two seasons, and promoted assistant head
coach Joe Bugel. Discarded also was quarterback Jeff Hostetler
and the West Coast offense, which Davis had long associated with
those Chardonnay-sipping dandies across the Bay. In its stead we
will see (cue the NFL Films kettledrums, please) a return to the
vertical passing game.

With Daryle Lamonica presumably declining an offer to attempt a
comeback, Oakland signed free-agent quarterback Jeff George, the
former Falcon who perfectly fits the Raiders profile--talented
yet misunderstood. Understand this about George: He can throw
the ball as far as anyone in the league. And as Bugel says, "The
thing that sets him apart is accuracy. He can make a good player
great because he puts the ball where you can catch it. There are
no circus catches with him."

There are, alas, circus drops. During the Raiders' annual
weeklong visit to the Cowboys' training site in Austin last
month, fifth-year wideout James Jett, whom the Raiders had
penciled in as the starting wide receiver opposite Tim Brown,
found new and amusing ways to drop the ball. One pass went
through his hands, bounced off his knee and went high in the
air; another hit him in the face mask.

Considering Jett's difficulties and the fact that tight end
Rickey Dudley dropped 17 passes last year as a rookie, the
question is, Do the Raiders have the receivers to make the
vertical viable? The answer is yes, because Dudley seems to have
rediscovered his hand-eye coordination and wideout Kenny Shedd
was among the most impressive players in camp. In a preseason
game against Dallas, Shedd caught two passes for 117 yards,
including a 74-yard touchdown during which he blew past a
Cowboys safety who had an angle on him.

"Kenny Shedd is going to be a big-time player," Bugel said
afterward. "It's just a matter of getting him on the field."
Which will not be as simple as it seems. Jett, with his
sprinter's speed, is a Davis favorite, and there is also Desmond
Howard to consider. The former Packers return specialist and
Super Bowl MVP, idle for a week of the preseason with a strained
hamstring, was promised a shot at a regular wideout spot.

Even if Howard is underwhelming as a receiver, as he was with
his three previous NFL teams, he will give the Raiders' passing
game a shot in the arm. With Howard returning punts--he set an
NFL single-season record with 875 return yards in '96--Brown,
who has performed that task in each of his nine NFL seasons,
will finally be able to focus on catching passes. "I never
hugged and kissed a man in my life until Desmond walked in the
gate," Brown says. "Now I can be the best receiver I can be."

Brown caught 90 passes last season and pronounced himself
disappointed because he averaged just 12.3 yards per catch, a
number certain to spike up this season. When the Raiders say
they're going back to a vertical passing game, that doesn't mean
a bomb on every series. But it does mean receivers will be
lengthening most routes to at least 15 yards. Last year, in the
West Coast offense, Brown was catching a lot of balls in the
eight- to 12-yard range, then getting buried by linebackers.

As the season wore on, Hostetler lost confidence in other
receivers and tended to look exclusively for Brown. Says Bugel,
"Now we have a quarterback who understands we have to throw the
ball all over the field, not just to one guy."

It helps when more than one guy can catch the ball. Five days
after the exhibition game against Dallas, Jett snagged a
redemptive 52-yard bomb from George in a game against the
Packers. "Other guys are going to make the plays," says Jett,
acknowledging that Shedd is putting heat on him, "so I have to
be ready."

While Jett tries to keep an eye on the ball, keep an eye on


COLOR PHOTO: MICKEY PFLEGER With punt-return chores out of his hands, Brown can focus on being an even better wide receiver. [Tim Brown in game against Philadelphia Eagles]