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PRO FOOTBALL '85 : COACHES,PLAYERS,TEAMS AND TRENDS TO WATCH : RAIDERS : Defense Should Be Magnificent, but Offense Will Tell the Tale

September 06, 1985|MARK HEISLER | Times Staff Writer

And on the (for once) quiet side of town:

Harmony reigns among the Raiders, whose training camp was a model of decorum. Marcus Allen came in without signing and Al Davis renegotiated him up to $3.7 million. The new Oxnard training site was comfortable, convenient and within range of downtown mini-cam crews.

The Raiders have a Raider-way-of-doing-this and a Raider-way-of-doing-that and they embarked on a Raider exhibition season. This is another way of saying they didn't look like much.

But they got their work in. The No. 1 defense allowed one touchdown in its six quarters, that on a 45-yard two-minute drill led by the Redskins' Joe Theismann after a pass interception.

The No. 1 offense scored two touchdowns in its seven quarters. That may not sound like much, until you look at other Raider exhibition seasons.

Coach Tom Flores lived in fear of injuries fostered by the earlier cutdowns but kept losses to a minimum. He looked at a lot of players. A rookie fullback named Dan Reeder led the team in rushing and got cut. So what did Flores need to see, anyway?

Now they're set to open the season against the New York Jets, and everyone gets to see which Raider team shows up:

--The Raiders of the '84 Super Bowl, whom Davis called the greatest of his teams?

--The Raiders who started last season 7-1?

--How about the ones who ended it 4-4?

--Surely not the ones who were dumped in the first round of the playoffs and got in some fast finger-pointing before adjourning?

Tune in Sunday. If the exhibitions offered scant indication, the next four games will show more. After the Jets, the Raiders will have three days to prepare before flying to Kansas City. Then they'll play the Super Bowl champion 49ers here. Then they'll play in New England, where they haven't won since 1969.

Make no mistake about it, the Raiders are still no one to mess with. They finished third in their division last season and provided eight of the 22 American Conference starters in the Pro Bowl, including five on defense--Howie Long, Rod Martin, Mike Haynes, Lester Hayes and Vann McElroy. The struggling offense had to be content with three--Allen, Todd Christensen and Henry Lawrence.

But now they have beaucoup questions to answer, too:

--Was injury the offensive line's only problem?

--Is their traditional long-passing game going to stand up to the new-style blitzing?

--Are the quarterbacks OK?

--Are the young receivers ready?

--How about all those yards rushing they allowed late last season?

--And what "other factors" were at work?

There seems to be a consensus that something was missing last year. Davis has said they weren't tough enough in the second half of the season, which he associated with their new status in celebrity-conscious Southern California.

Marcus Allen said last week that the team lost some of its aggressiveness.

And, from Street and Smith magazine's Larry Felser: "A Raider executive mused about his team's absence from the last Super Bowl: 'Quite a number of our guys decided to take off this season.' "

The season ended abruptly in Seattle, where the Raiders, big-game kings, three weeks away from stunning the Dolphins in Miami, went under, 13-7.

Afterward, Lyle Alzado complained that the offense "didn't do enough. . . . Hell, our offense didn't do anything. "

Lester Hayes, another defender, added: "Coach Al Davis will never let this happen again."

Davis complained that his team hadn't challenged the Seahawks, and he spent his top draft picks for all the speed he could find.

The fastest of them, wide receiver Jessie Hester, will become the first Raider rookie to open as a starter on offense since Marcus Allen in 1982. The former premier deep threat, Cliff Branch, is on injured reserve.

Linebacker Reggie McKenzie will become the first rookie to open in the defensive lineup since Matt Millen in 1980. The highly regarded Don Mosebar, 23, has been switched to center, to be ready to take over for Dave Dalby. If this isn't a rebuilding year, let's say the old Raider order is changing faster than usual.

"In 1984, I thought we'd be in good shape," Davis said last week, making a rare exception, speaking publicly at the Greater Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce's first Raider luncheon.

"I thought we'd be great. We started off strong but then injuries to the quarterbacks, other factors--we just didn't get it done. It's the law of the jungle in pro football. You have to win and win that last game.

"I'd like to come before you sometime and say, 'We're going to rebuild, this is a transition year, give us some time.' But we put the pressure on ourselves. The will to win still burns.

"This year we have the toughest schedule in our history. No complaints, but it's the toughest schedule in our history. In this division (the AFC West, 31-9 against outside opponents last season), Denver and Seattle are strong enough to compete with us, day by day, night by night.

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