He's a $27.5 million investment with a shaky reputation, and
during his eight months with the Oakland Raiders, Jeff George
has been obsessed with justifying the expenditure. Besides being
the Uzi-armed quarterback of owner Al Davis's white-hot
fantasies, George has served as a cheerleader, attitude adjuster
and makeshift offensive coordinator. In each of those capacities
on Sunday, with the NFL's best team, the Denver Broncos,
threatening to spoil a remarkable day for the Raiders, George
If Oakland uses its 28-25 victory over the previously undefeated
Broncos as a catalyst for turning its season around, credit
George's powers of persuasion more than his powerful right arm.
At the two-minute warning, with the Raiders endeavoring to
protect a three-point lead and 57,006 fans in the
Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum dreading the specter of another
John Elway comeback, George strode from the huddle to the
sideline and took charge. The Raiders faced a second-and-10 at
their 12; the Broncos had no timeouts left. Two running plays
and an intentional safety, the course of action favored by coach
Joe Bugel and offensive coordinator Ray Perkins, would have
given Elway the ball with no more than 30 seconds remaining.
George wanted no part of that scenario. Asked to pass only 11
times up to that point--his fewest number of attempts in a game
since his peewee football days--George preferred to hand off on
second down and, if necessary, throw for the clinching first
down on the following play.
"Come on, Ray, let's run the Boot," George urged as he
communicated on a headset with Perkins, who was in an upstairs
coaching booth. After the Broncos stuffed Raiders halfback
Napoleon Kaufman for no gain on second down, Perkins relented
and sent in the play for which George had lobbied throughout the
second half. Its name, Toss 19 Boot Right, is nothing more than
a fancy moniker for Get the Ball to Tim Brown. George faked a
pitch to Kaufman, took a step to his right and looked in only
one direction before rifling the ball upfield. Was Brown,
Oakland's Pro Bowl wideout, the first read? "In the clutch,"
George said afterward, "Timmy's the only read." Darting left to
right, Brown dived past Broncos cornerback Darrien Gordon and
snagged George's low throw. With that against-the-grain act of
bravado, the Raiders (3-4) regained their grip on a season that
seemed to be slipping away.
The Broncos (6-1) have the luxury of writing off Sunday's game
as a speed bump on the road to glory, though All-Pro tight end
Shannon Sharpe was concerned as he walked off the field. "We've
got some weak areas," Sharpe said, alluding mainly to Denver's
league-worst average of 5.7 yards allowed per rush. "I mean, we
weren't thinking of going undefeated, but we got exposed in many
As for Oakland, there's no way the significance of the victory
can be underestimated. For the first time in 1997, perhaps for
the first time in several seasons, the Raiders put together a
complete performance that fulfilled their prodigious potential.
With two huge plays from Kaufman, who broke Bo Jackson's team
record with a 227-yard rushing day, and one from free safety
Eric Turner, whose 65-yard return for a touchdown of an Elway
fumble in the third quarter turned the game around, Oakland
proved that its best effort is as good as any team's.
"I don't think people around the league will be surprised by
this victory," said Turner, the former Cleveland Brown and
Baltimore Raven who signed with Oakland last May. "This is the
first time the Raiders showed up to play--not in spurts but for
an entire game." Added Oakland's Pro Bowl guard Steve
Wisniewski, "If we can bottle this and reuse it next Sunday and
beyond, then we're in good shape."
The problem, of course, is that the Raiders have been about as
consistent over the past few seasons as Michael Jackson's
appearance--a big reason that Oakland has failed to make the
playoffs and has had to endure two coaching changes since 1993.
A '97 off-season that included the promotion of Bugel, the
hiring of Perkins and the signing of George was supposed to
bring a return to what Davis likes to call Raider Football. Yet
until Sunday this once-proud franchise was more messed up than
Three losses by a total of five points--to the Tennessee Oilers,
the Kansas City Chiefs and the New York Jets--put Oakland in a
1-3 hole. Then on Oct. 5, the Raiders bottomed out, absorbing a
25-10 home beating by the San Diego Chargers. In that game the
Raiders seemed devoid of pride and poise, a situation dramatized
by a bizarre episode early in the fourth quarter in which,
according to team sources, Perkins dropped off the radar screen
like a plane in the Bermuda Triangle. Perhaps upset by
play-calling suggestions from Davis and/or by George's
propensity to call audibles, Perkins stopped communicating with
Bugel and George from the coaching booth while Oakland had the
ball. Alien abduction? Forgot to turn off the car lights? "No
one knows where he went," says one of the sources, "but he
probably left to smoke a cigarette." What a drag: Perkins wasn't
heard from during the discussion of a crucial fourth-and-four
call. The play that was called without his counsel was
unsuccessful. He returned to his headset later without offering
an explanation for his disappearance. On Monday, Perkins said he
never went incommunicado.
The natural assumption is that this was yet another side effect
of Davis's well-documented overinvolvement. But it's tough to
finger Davis for Oakland's struggles in 1997. Organizational
insiders are far more critical of questionable coaching
decisions, particularly on defense, and of the unspirited effort
of players like defensive tackle Chester McGlockton. At the very
least, Davis must be credited for his acumen as a personnel
evaluator. He fortified the Raiders by signing George and
Turner, and two years ago he used a first-round draft pick on
Kaufman, a 5'9", 185-pound blur considered by many front-office
types incapable of holding up as an every-down back.
It's fair to say Kaufman has shed that tag as convincingly as he
shed three would-be tacklers on the 83-yard touchdown sprint
that gave the Raiders a 28-17 lead with 7:54 remaining. He also
raced for a 57-yard gain on the game's first play from
scrimmage, sprung by the counter-pull of Wisniewski, who makes
that block better than anyone in the business. "I blocked for Bo
Jackson and Marcus Allen," Wisniewski said later, "and
Napoleon's in the same category--a guy who can turn an
up-the-middle-and-a-cloud-of-dust into a spectacular play."
That's because Kaufman has speed like Sandra Bullock. "I don't
know how fast he is," said Broncos coach Mike Shanahan following
Sunday's defeat, "but I know one thing: He's faster than we are."
Bugel was hip to that from the get-go. Three days after the
debacle against the Chargers, in the middle of Oakland's bye
week, he began a meeting of offensive players by saying, "We're
gonna run the f------ ball, and it's on you guys." The crisp
display of candor was refreshing, as many Raiders had taken to
mocking Bugel for the corniness of his speeches. Two examples:
"Men, we'll win this week because we have to." "Men, football is
a game of violence."
Bugel also addressed Oakland's shoddy run defense. He reshuffled
his line, essentially replacing end Lance Johnstone, who's
generously listed at 250 pounds, in running situations with
320-pound, first-round draft pick Darrell Russell. Then he went
back to basics in an attempt to curtail the Raiders' penchant
for undisciplined play. For 45 minutes each practice day during
Oakland's two-week wait between games, Bugel had his scout-team
offense run Denver's plays and made his defensive players
practice sticking to their assignments. McGlockton, the biggest
culprit, must have gotten the message. Following the Oct. 15
practice, he offered a mea culpa to his teammates by conceding
that he hadn't been playing well and asserting that he was going
to be more aggressive against the Broncos.
McGlockton, who had five tackles and one sack in the defeat of
Denver, was a major reason for the Raiders' success in their
matchup with AFC rushing leader Terrell Davis, who entered
Sunday's game averaging 5.2 yards per carry but was held to 85
yards on 23 attempts. Davis did run for a pair of touchdowns,
celebrating with his signature salute. Said Oakland strong
safety James Trapp, "I got so sick of seeing that damn salute on
film." Trapp punctuated one sideline tackle of Davis with a
salute of his own. So did Turner following his dramatic runback,
which came with the Broncos threatening to increase their 17-14
lead late in the third quarter. Turner had plenty of help on the
play: from Johnstone, who popped the ball from Elway's grasp
after Elway stepped up in the pocket; from McGlockton, who
knocked the ball forward while keeping Elway from recovering it;
and from Trapp, who made a nice block on Davis inside the 20.
Said Trapp, "We finally came together."
The spirit of togetherness was at least partially triggered by
what some Raiders viewed as a teammate's selfishness. Cornerback
Larry Brown, a colossal bust since signing with Oakland in the
wake of his MVP performance for the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl
XXX, was suspended indefinitely after jawing with Bugel in
practice on Oct. 13. The suspension may not stick--Brown filed a
grievance through the NFL Players Association last week--but his
teammates aren't eager to get him back. According to witnesses,
Brown, playing on the scout team against Tim Brown, was
admonished by Bugel after taking only a couple of half-hearted
steps to cover his man, something that several teammates said
had happened a number of times before.
"Come on, Larry, give us a look," Bugel said.
"I am giving you a look," Larry said.
Witnesses say Bugel responded, "If you're going to pull that
crap, get the hell off the field." Brown did, claiming his
Achilles tendon was sore. Oakland would love to cut him, but it
would cost about $2.1 million against next year's salary cap.
Other than Brown's outburst, the Raiders were quiet, except for
another prescient prediction from backup safety Lorenzo (the
Greek) Lynch. It was Lynch who, after Oakland's 24-19 loss at
Denver last Dec. 15, guaranteed that the Broncos, despite their
top seeding in the AFC, would lose their first playoff
game--which they did, to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Last week
Lynch was at it again, proclaiming that the Broncos had a "glass
chin" and could be beaten if a team matched their intensity.
After the Raiders made him look prophetic, Lynch said, "You've
got to stand up to these guys, just like Holyfield did to Tyson.
You can't be intimidated."
Perhaps Lynch had been inspired by a Bugel speech during a team
meeting last Saturday night in which Bugel slapped his fist into
his hand and said, "This game will be a donnybrook. That's an
old Irish term for when two guys are in a bar, getting drunk and
talking stuff, and then they go outside and go toe-to-toe."
Shanahan, who lost to the team he formerly coached for the first
time in five meetings, saw things from a more analytical
perspective. Poring over the stat sheet, he noted Denver's edge
in virtually every offensive category. Then he pointed out the
Broncos' undoing: two missed field goals, 10 penalties and the
Raiders' average gain of 7.6 yards per run. "It sort of makes
you sick," he said.
A few minutes later in the Oakland locker room, George joked
with Davis about his own statistical shortcomings. For all he
endured in his first seven seasons, George has been remarkably
loose as a Raider. After his five-yard touchdown pass to tight
end Rickey Dudley in the second quarter, George jumped into the
stands behind the north end zone to celebrate with the fans.
In the aftermath of Oakland's victory, George was mindful not to
go over the top with his excitement. "We need to forget about
this game and look at the big picture," he said. "We're 3-4, and
that's hard to accept. But there are reasons we're in this hole,
and it's going to take more than this to pull ourselves out."