FOXBORO, Mass. — In a little trick of history, the Raiders are back to play the New England Patriots today in straits that are dire but not dissimilar to those during their last visit in 1985.
They won that day, and 10 of the following 12 games, vaulting into the playoffs and onto a road they thought would surely lead to their opposite numbers from the other conference, the Chicago Bears.
Don't ask who stunned the Raiders in the very first playoff game (the Patriots), or how many playoff games the Raiders have won since (none).
The Raiders in '85 were coming off their worst loss in Los Angeles--34-10 to the San Francisco 49ers--and had a new quarterback--Marc Wilson, after Jim Plunkett injured his shoulder.
And in that '85 game, Wilson was hurt and replaced by . . . Rookie Rusty Hilger!
Hilger, even then known to be a favorite of Al Davis, sprayed throws all over Massachusetts, six in all, before recording his only completion, a touchdown pass to Todd Christensen who dug it out of the turf, that put the game away.
Today, Hilger is still a favorite of Davis, which may explain why he's No. 1 after a shaky exhibition season and two hooks in three NFL starts. The Raiders (3-3) have lost three games in a row, including last week's 35-13 loss to Seattle, the Raiders' second-biggest loss in Los Angeles.
Can this be turnaround time for the silver and black? After all, they're famous for rocky starts, 1-2 in '85 and 0-3 in '86, and then just when everyone is hopping off the bandwagon, dramatic rallies, 11-2 in '85 and 8-1 in '86.
On the other hand . . .
Their offense is a mess. The running game that bailed them out in '85--the Patriot game was the first in Marcus Allen's record-setting string of 100-yard days--is non-existent and the passing game is worse.
The question that must be answered: Is the young offensive line that bad? Or is the problem that Hilger just doesn't see what's happening downfield, fails to pick up receivers and just boogaloos around in the pocket until the rush arrives and falls on him?
The Raider defense, which scored three touchdowns in the '85 game here--Lyle Alzado's fumble recovery in the end zone, interception returns by Lester Hayes and Sam Seale--isn't doing so hot, either.
The bulwark that used to make up for the offensive follies, got turned inside out by the Seahawks, who are no scoring machine outside the Kingdome.
Lionel Washington, Hayes' successor on the left corner, has yet to prove that he can handle the outpost, and the formidable Raider rushing defense got hit for 144 yards. Was the problem malaise, brought on by the strike and the offense's woes? Or has the unit slipped?
And the schedule isn't what you'd call forgiving.
After today, the Raiders are at Minnesota, at San Diego, at home against Denver, and at Seattle. They figure to be underdogs in three and possibly all four.
Optimists say that a good Raider performance in these five games would be 2-3.
Optimists are in short supply these days, though, when Raider officials are whispering such things as, this team looks like 5-10.
"Let's not lie," said Sean Jones last week. "I'd say from here on in, it's pretty much do or die.
"Anything short of the playoffs and the whole El Segundo facility may blow up."
In New England, Patriot observers like . . . the Raiders?
The Patriots are another 3-3 team in turmoil, which was exacerbated by the strike. Coach Raymond Berry and General Manager Pat Sullivan called 14 or so players during the strike to, um, urge them to return. Berry is said to have expressed a fatherly disappointment in the strikers, reportedly angering some important ones, such as star linebacker Andre Tippett.
When the strikers returned, Berry took play-calling duties back from Steve Grogan, prompting speculation that Grogan decided he wasn't going to help management, or that Berry was angry at Grogan.
Berry says it was his idea.
"I just had some questions about the state of mind of Steve and the other players coming back off the strike," he said last week.
Whatever, Berry, who took over at the behest of the players after their '85 putsch claimed Ron Meyer, isn't considered so much of a "players' coach" anymore. And, in their first game after the strike, the Patriots were walloped, 30-16, by the Indianapolis Colts, who hadn't beaten New England since they left Baltimore.
Did the strike take a toll of Patriot spirits?
Berry said he saw no evidence of it, but then introduced possible evidence:
"I watched pregame warmups in Indianapolis. I stood on the 50-yard line and there was absolute silence on the field coming from both sides--no voices, no emotion, extremely quiet. It was very strange."
Yeah, well things have been strange all over.