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PRO FOOTBALL / Week 2 : Raiders Get Paper Lions in Home Opener : It's Been a Real Struggle for Detroit Since Losing Sims to '84 Knee Injury

September 20, 1987|MARK HEISLER | Times Staff Writer

Week 2 throws the Detroit Lions to the Raiders, pitting the silver and black against another old National Football Conference Central Division power that seems to have been rebuilding as long as East Germany, and with less success. If a long strike were to follow, the Raiders could end their season without seeing a real football team.

It's been 14 years since the Lions managed anything better than 9-7. They're in their third year under Darryl Rogers, who has posted records of 7-9 and 5-11, with the big turnaround still to come.

How about their chances to contend this season?

"When we took over the program, it was a little further down than what I'd anticipated after one year, because of the many injuries we suffered," Rogers said last week. "I think we're building our way back up to a situation where we will be contender, yes."

Or, don't hold your breath, Motor City.

It was Billy Sims' 1984 knee injury that launched the Lions into the latest dark age. The house line is that Rogers' 7-9 debut was a miracle of patchwork, that last season's 5-11 record was a truer indication of the strength of the team.

Rogers, at least, operates with ever-better draft positions, enabling the Lions to snag a couple of stars who'd been expected to go higher in the last two years--Iowa quarterback Chuck Long in 1986, marked down because his arm is merely accurate rather than howitzer-like, and Washington defensive end Reggie Rogers in '87.

Long held out, played little and last week said of his rookie season: "I really didn't get much out of it."

Reggie Rogers? He didn't hold out and is arriving slowly, anyway.

Originally regarded as an immediate-impact sack man in the mold of the Leslie O'Neal of the San Diego Chargers, Rogers was tabbed to go third in the draft, to the Green Bay Packers, behind only Vinny Testaverde and Cornelius Bennett. Shortly beforehand, however, Rogers' stock plummeted and on draft day, teams got out of his way in droves, all the way down to the Lions, who got him with the eighth pick.

After which, the new Packer personnel director, Tom Braatz, was quoted by Rob Schultz of the Madison (Wis.) Capital Times as saying of Rogers:

"I can't tell you how many times we flew to Seattle. We had a bunch of people meet face up with him. We had people talk to (Washington Coach) Don James. We even went underworld almost to find out about the guy."

The "underworld" reference was taken as a suggestion that the Packers hired a private detective. Braatz later denied having made the entire statement and apologized to the Lions. Schultz says he has it on tape.

Now Rogers is a Lion but a second-stringer, and his coach is keeping the heat off him.

"He's like a lot of other rookies," Darryl Rogers said. "They come in and they don't turn it on right away."

In the opener at Minnesota, the Vikings staked the Lions to a 19-10 lead, as Anthony Carter turned two perfect passes into interceptions by batting them high into the air. The Vikings rallied to win, 34-19, the key play a 73-yard scoring pass to Carter. The Lions were blitzing and thought Wade Wilson should have been sacked, but Reggie Rogers, out of position, knocked over teammate Ricky Smith. Reggie said later he hadn't heard the play called in the huddle.

Ah, kids.

On the Raiders, young players rarely make the starting lineup, but if they do, they're expected to produce.

Which brings us to Rusty Hilger.

The Raiders have suggested--softly as ever--that Hilger's 2-for-7, 6-net-yards-passing effort at Green Bay was due to the bruised left shoulder he suffered on the second possession and that success might be just around the corner.

"You can see," Coach Tom Flores said last week, "we're inches away at certain times."

What the Raiders won't say are things like, "He's a young guy, we're just going to have to take the bad with the good and ride with him for a while." This would not be the Raider Way, which precludes discussing anything substantive publicly.

Also, who knows how true it is?

Washington Coach Joe Gibbs last week confirmed the report that Al Davis renewed his offer of a No. 2 pick for Doug Williams. And in camp, Davis told Sports Illustrated, "If Jimmy (Plunkett) can just give us six games this year, we'll be all right."

The Raiders' Commitment to Excellence is unmistakable, since it's emblazoned on everything they own or lease. The depth of their Commitment to Hilger is only now being plumbed.

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