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NFL STRIKEBREAKER GAMES: WEEK 3 : A First-Place Battle for the Last-Chance Players : Raiders, Chargers Look for AFC West Lead in Final Game for Non-Regulars

October 18, 1987|MARK HEISLER | Times Staff Writer

It's a last tango in the National Football League for about half the Raider squad that will take the field at the Coliseum today, and perhaps all the players now representing the San Diego Chargers, but not before they play to determine which team goes back to regular football in first place in the AFC West.

The Raiders will suit up 13 members of their regular 45-man roster and 4 more players who started the season on injured reserve.

The Chargers? Their numbers are 0-2.

Both teams have 3-1 records. The Chargers are 2-0 in strikeball but in San Diego last week, the talk was basically defeatist. Coach Al Saunders, asked how he hoped to deal with the Raiders, said: "With clubs and sticks and rocks."

Of course, anyone who can remember a week back will recall that the Broncos took a similar posture before escaping with their 30-14 win.

So, who are these guys, Week 3?

The Chargers' entire active roster stayed out during the strike. Only two players on injured reserve, punter Jeff Dale and defensive end Mack Moore, crossed the line.

The Chargers will start former Bruin Rick Neuheisel at quarterback. They also have nine ex-Raider training camp hopefuls, reflecting the impact of their new director of football operations, Steve Ortmayer, also an ex-Raider. One is Tim Moffett, who was washed away by the Raider wide receiver glut. He caught three passes last week.

The non-union Chargers won, 10-9 over the Bengals and 17-13 at Tampa Bay, and to them go the thanks of a grateful franchise. Monday, Saunders is throwing a party for them. Friday they had a team picture taken. It would probably be best not to hang it in the locker room, though.

Meanwhile, the strike ended on the same carefree note seen around the rest of the league. The returning Chargers marched single-file around Jack Murphy Stadium Thursday, with their player representatives in front, the group mooing and barking. When they heard they weren't being paid, they marched back out, single-file.

What can you expect in such a situation, with so many players looking at their last chance?

Remember, there still has been no word that the rosters will be expanded to 49 players. Management was offering that but when the strike ended, the union had yet to accept it, so 45 remains the limit.

"It's kind of like training camp, where you see guys coming in, coming out," said Raider quarterback Vince Evans last week. "The human behavior factor is very interesting. You can see a lot of things going on just on peoples' faces: 'Man, am I going to be cut? Am I going to stay?' "

Of the Raider strikebreakers, only Steve Wright, lured back with a guaranteed contract, has any assurance of staying. Evans has impressed the Raiders but that's as much as he knows.

"I really don't think about it," he said. "This whole thing has been like a miracle for me, just being here. If it happens, great. If it doesn't, great. I'll go back home to Denver."

But surely, his chances of sticking look good?

"I've seen that before," Evans said, laughing. "I've seen it where they stare you dead in the eye and say, 'You're our guy, we can't win without you.' Then you come to camp and the cards turn in another direction."

Where would the strike have been without former UCLA quarterbacks, Matt Stevens at Kansas City, David Norrie with the New York Jets, Neuheisel in San Diego?

In his first start, Neuheisel was given the hook.

In his second, he came off the bench and completed 18 of 22 passes, leading scoring drives of 66, 80 and 57 yards. So far, the experience has been not only memorable for him, but positive.

A two-year USFL veteran, axed on the final cut by the Chargers, he was attending law school at USC when the call came. He turned it down. It came again. He went.

"At first, I didn't think it was the right thing to do," Neuheisel said from San Diego. "In the end, I just couldn't bear the thought of 28 other quarterbacks getting a chance to play while I was sitting in law school.

"When I'd go by the guys with their signs, I'd ask myself if I was doing the right thing. But if I hadn't done it, I think I would have what-iffed myself to death.

"The guys who have come in, we've just been living with uncertainty. We don't know day to day what's going to happen. I think it's brought us closer together. We're all in the same boat.

"I think if you'd asked our players after the last game if they thought we'd play another one, 80% would have said no. That's always the way it's gone. After the game, you couldn't imagine you'd play another one.

"If this Sunday is the last game I ever play, so be it. I proved to myself--and that's what allows you to sleep at night--that I could play. Hopefully, somebody out there who's in position to give me a job will agree."

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