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PRO FOOTBALL '87 : COACHES, PLAYERS, TEAMS AND TRENDS TO WATCH THIS SEASON : RAIDERS : Trying to Rebuild on the Run, They Look for a Quick Start

September 11, 1987|MARK HEISLER | Times Staff Writer

All eyes are on Al Davis, this vision in white with the shades and the rockabilly hairdo, standing mysteriously alone on the sideline, plotting a return to the estate he so favors that everyone in the organization is instructed to mention it in all public statements:

"The greatness of the Raiders."

Ooh, he picked a tough one this time.

Difficulty notwithstanding, when has anyone seen him in a better mood? During practices at Oxnard, he jokes and banters with reporters, who have gone months without hearing the sound of his voice.

Why not? First he steals Bo Jackson right from under the noses of 27 competitors. After a month of holding his sides and laughing about that one, he settles the Coliseum Commission's hash, approving a move to a nearby community, which gives him $10 million for nothing more than holding a press conference to announce it, well above the actual cost.

Not only that, he has millions of dollars of new receivers prancing around the lot; thousands of pounds of new linemen shaking the earth; old Raiders squirming in the night lest they find their names on the list of the outward bound. Can the new Raider Age be far behind?

Well, yes.

Sports Illustrated picks them fourth in the AFC West, and there are only five spots.

It could happen, too. The quarterback position has never looked shakier. The offensive line may have potential but has yet to approach it. The exhibition season has been what you might term, of concern. One of the matched pair of one-time superstar cornerbacks has just been obliged to open the season on injured reserve. You bet your greatness it could happen.

A.D.

Last season was a great disappointment. We were 8-4 and let our entire football season slip away in the last four games. We might not have had the best team in football and that's my fault because we have to have the best personnel. But we were good enough to be there and we weren't. --AL DAVIS

Since people trying to explain what has happened to the Raiders keep getting stuck on that old saw--"They went Hollywood"--some review is in order.

First, there is the matter of Davis' distractions. The house explanation is that he has been preoccupied by his many court fights, which is true enough, as far as it goes.

But did he need to indulge himself so fully in all of them? A Davis intimate says he had to go against his fellow owners in the USFL suit to protect his legal position in his own case against the NFL. But did he have to go the last mile, testifying, trying to arrange a settlement?

Davis, the personnel wizard, had a long, cold run. He seemed wedded to his prophecy after the 1984 Super Bowl: "I believe the greatness of this team is in its future." He was loath to do anything dramatic at quarterback or on the offensive line. Opportunities came and went.

Jim Everett to the Rams? That astonished observers of the Rams and Raiders, alike. The Rams had always been super-cautious, the Raiders the ones to pounce.

The Raiders, in fact, were asked if they were interested. They loved Everett at draft time but didn't like the Houston Oilers' asking price: Howie Long.

What they failed to do was try to make another deal: how about this guy, that guy and two draft choices? Word leaked that Davis said that Marc Wilson looked as good coming into the league as Everett did. Of course, Wilson was up to seven years and no longer looked as shiny and new.

If quarterback was a thorny problem--good ones are rarely traded and, with everyone convinced the Raiders had to deal, Davis probably felt that everyone was trying to hold him up--he also let his offensive line get old. It aged visibly in the three seasons after the 1984 Super Bowl but none of the top five picks in the next three drafts went for an offensive lineman.

Coincidentally, mad-dog blitzing became the new vogue on defense.

Voila! The Raider line sagged in 1984, rallied in Raiders-go-basic '85, then went down in '86, taking with it whatever quarterback happened to be standing behind it.

Well, everything goes in cycles. If you're smart enough and lucky enough, you might be able to head off or cut short your down cycles. The one the Raiders are in, however, has swung dangerously low.

Back in the game in a big way, Davis has added James Lofton, Mervyn Fernandez, Bo Jackson, Brian Holloway, Lionel Washington, Chris Woods, John Clay, Bruce Wilkerson and Steve Smith since the end of last season. The cost of the entire package was negligible, except for the cash involved and that, as we've seen, is a renewable resource.

Now we're about to see how lucky Davis is this time around.

RUSTY AND RE-DESIGN

As always, no hint of the Raiders' concern about their quarterback is made public, although one leaked out a couple of days ago when Flores, talking of the Green Bay Packers, said:, "They're having quarterback problems, themselves, obviously."

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