OXNARD — It is football season, merciful football season, once more for tonight's Raider exhibition opponent, the defending AFC champion New England Patriots.
For them, vacation brought the cruelest months.
The Patriots are 3-0 in exhibitions, having beaten the St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Redskins and New Orleans Saints. Quarterback Tony Eason has completed 62.5% of his passes and hasn't thrown an interception.
All but forgotten is the dreadful Patriot off-season that followed their Super Bowl rout by the Chicago Bears; the drug scandal in which players' names were revealed; the players claiming they were betrayed by management.
The Patriots have become so sensitive that even lighter questions such as "Who is the No. 1 quarterback?" and, "Does General Manager Pat Sullivan plan to watch this game from the press box?" seem to cause undue pain. Instead of standbys like "Back to the Super Bowl" or "We've Got Red-White-and-Blue Fever," this season's Patriot slogan ought to be, "No Comment."
Coach Raymond Berry, asked last week about his plan to let backup quarterback Steve Grogan call Eason's plays from the sideline, answered this way:
"I've told the writers in our camp that's a subject I don't want to get into. It's just a decision I made and that's it."
OK, how about choosing Eason as No. 1 over the popular Grogan?
"That's another subject I don't want to get into," Berry said.
At that point, the writers were running out of subjects fast and someone asked Berry about his top draft choice. Berry used that as a platform to talk for three minutes about every draft choice the club had, down to No. 7.
Tonight's exhibition brings together two of last season's AFC playoff semifinalists. The Raiders, who would have been at home through the playoffs, thought they would be the ones going on. They had beaten the Patriots in Foxboro. They took a 17-7 lead last January, then fell, 27-20, surrendering touchdowns on a fumbled punt by Fulton Walker and a fumbled kickoff by Sam Seale.
That was also the game in which Sullivan needled Howie Long from the sideline, walked up to him later and wound up getting hit by Matt Millen.
Millen says, "I was a fool."
Sullivan has the photo of Millen in mid-follow-through hanging in his office.
A week later, the Patriots pulled another surprise at the Dolphins' expense in Miami. After that came the Super Bowl and the off-season.
As Friedrich Nietzsche and Raymond Berry say, anything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
"Well, I think the main result has been to make our football team stronger and more unified," Berry said last week. "When you have individuals and teams with character and they run into trials and adversity, you've got a chance to come out of it stronger."
The Raiders are 1-1 in exhibitions. . . . Quarterback Marc Wilson, who sprained his right wrist tackling Dallas' Steve DeOssie after DeOssie had intercepted a pass last Saturday night, will start, and Coach Tom Flores is hoping that Wilson can play the first half and perhaps a little more. Wilson's wrist was so sore that it was X-rayed Tuesday and he received a cortisone shot for it. Jim Plunkett and Rusty Hilger will split the second half. Flores said that the quarterback competition is still open but tonight's rotation is one more suggestion that Wilson retains a solid grip on the No. 1 spot. . . . Cornerback Lester Hayes, who missed two practices last week with an abscessed tooth, is expected to start. Safety Mike Davis, who has a sore knee, and punt returner Fulton Walker, who has a sprained ankle, will probably be held out. . . . Flores said that Napoleon McCallum probably will not play.