If it's a Sunday in '87, the Raiders must be underdogs to someone. Sure enough, today it's the Denver Broncos, who are 2 1/2-point favorites on the Raiders' own field.
Are you ready for a new Raider role? Let's have a big welcome for your silver and black would-be spoilers.
Owners of a 3-6 record and a six-game losing streak, their longest in 25 years, the Raiders have yet to be eliminated from the playoffs but that is a mathematic nicety that no one is giving much attention. Besides the division leaders, there are eight American Football Conference teams with better records, seven of which the Raiders would have to leapfrog for a wild-card spot. It's not even anything you hear the players talk about any more.
Now they're reduced to playing for pride. If you're a Raider fan, you would hope it turns out better than last season's Colt game, in which Raider pride wenteth before a great fall. That one turned out 30-24, Indianapolis.
What they're really playing for is next season. They have an offense to revive, which means establishing an offensive line, settling on a quarterback and making sense of the Bo Jackson-Marcus Allen situation.
Since it's wide open whether the Raiders will even bid to retain their current No. 1 quarterback, Marc Wilson, whose contract is about to run out, and since Jackson hasn't indicated any inclination to choose between pastimes any time soon, all they can really work on is the line. However, if they could make anything work on offense, and if it led to that rarest of recent phenomena--victory--they'd all feel so much better for it.
And it ain't impossible.
Jackson and Allen have been playing together more and more. Allen gets to be the fullback.
"Let's just call it two running backs," he says, laughing.
Amazingly, Allen's graciousness toward Jackson has never faltered, and the two block enthusiastically for each other.
And if the Raiders ache to re-establish their ground game, they've come to the right opponent. The Broncos have been coughing up beaucoup yards.
What's happened to the defending AFC champions? In recent years, they've had to finesse their way around the physical attributes they lack. In other words, they're Dan Reeves' and defensive coordinator Joe Collier's mirror job.
Well, the mirror has cracks.
The retirement of cornerback Louis Wright caught them by surprise and left them one quality defensive back short. Star sacker Rulon Jones, never a great run defender, is said to be in a slump. Linebacker-player representative Rickey Hunley is said to be in one too.
The Broncos didn't have to wait for the strike, either. Danger signals had already been spotted.
After their opening win over the Seattle Seahawks, they went to Milwaukee, where the hapless Green Bay Packers were starting Don Majkowski, a rookie No. 10 pick, at quarterback--and were tied in the rain, when Rich Karlis water-skied into his attempt at a winning field goal in overtime.
When the strike collapsed, so did the Orange Crush defense. Denver writers are hard at work on variations of the nickname to describe recent events: Orange Slush, Mush, Ring Around the Collier . . .
The Bronco defense gave up 393 yards (197 rushing and a 5.5 average) in a loss at Minnesota; 428 (258 rushing and a 4.4 average) in a loss at Buffalo, and 446 (146 rushing and a 4.9 average) in last Monday's victory over the Chicago Bears.
Guess which golden boy is expected to ride to the rescue?
John Elway, of course.
After last season's playoffs, and the 98-yard drive at Cleveland, and the 10-9 halftime lead he forged almost single-handedly in the Super Bowl, Elway's stature has never been higher. But, as Chief Dan George says in "Little Big Man": "Some days the magic works and some days it doesn't."
At Milwaukee, Elway threw no touchdown passes and three interceptions. At Buffalo he was 1 for 9 in the first half.
Ah, but on the good days . . .
Against the Bears, Elway broke every rule in the book--you little quarterbacks out there, we don't want to see you trying to throw the ball north while running south--and came up with a stunning performance that saved the Bronco season for the moment.
Now he's John the Great again. Maybe that's his fate, to be like the little girl with the little curl. That seems likely if the Broncos can't improve the situation around him. In five years, they have gotten him a gaggle of speedy receivers but little else.
Of course, with Reeves' playbook, some guys to go deep and his own hot wheels, Elway can do quite a lot.
"I tell you, I was impressed with him during the game," Reeves said last week. "You know, you see things during games where you say, 'Boy, how in the world did he do that?'
"But after looking at the film--it was amazing. Some of the throws he made--on the run, with people on his back, throwing it with just the flick of his wrist about 35 to 40 yards, over a linebacker's head, into a hole, underneath a defensive back. He did that several times."
Ask the Raiders. He's done it to them before, too.
Ask the Broncos. He may have to do it again.
The Broncos won the first meeting, a Monday night strike game, 30-14, as Joe Dudek, who has since been cut again, ran for 136 yards against the star-studded Raider defense. . . . . Since the NFL went to 16 games in 1978, this season series has never been split. The Raiders swept in 79, 80, 83 and 85 and the Broncos swept in 78, 81, 84 and 86. . . . Mervyn Fernandez, officially listed as questionable with a bruised shoulder, was termed doubtful by Coach Tom Flores late in the week, meaning Dokie Williams, who leads Raider wide receivers with four touchdown receptions, will probably start for the first time this season. . . . Inside linebacker Reggie McKenzie, who had a sore knee, was practicing, but there has been speculation the coaches like the present rotation, with Jerry Robinson at McKenzie's inside spot and Linden King outside.