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PRO FOOTBALL : The Silver and Black Is Turning to Brown

November 26, 1991|BOB OATES

Tim Brown, the Raiders' No. 1 draft choice in their big 1988 haul, ranks about 40th in minutes played this year for a division leader. But as a key-play contributor, he's in the club's top five.

When coming in as the third wide receiver, Brown, more often than not, has been the go-to receiver. And in Cincinnati Sunday, his 75-yard punt return was the gem that broke the game open.

Against a team that apparently decided not to play when its quarterback, Boomer Esiason, couldn't play, some Raider, sooner or later, was going to break it open. Even so, it was no surprise that when it happened, Brown did it.

He seems to have wholly recovered, physically and emotionally, from major knee surgery two years ago.

After losing 1989, he wasn't the same Tim Brown in 1990. But this year, the speed he had at Notre Dame has come all the way back.

Most knee victims lose something. So far as the eye can tell, Brown hasn't lost anything.

Balanced production: If the Raiders can handle the Chargers at San Diego Sunday night--no simple assignment--they can begin thinking about getting even with the Buffalo Bills at the Coliseum Dec. 8.

Although their December schedule is probably the NFL's most demanding, the Raiders are going into it in what is virtually a three-team first-place tie in the NFL's closest division race.

On the days quarterback Jay Schroeder is producing, Coach Art Shell has the AFC's best-balanced team, considering the soundness of their defense and special teams.

With John Elway, Denver has more offense. And Kansas City perhaps has more defense. But balance is better.

Club rates half: Running back Bo Jackson, who has sat out most of the time in his time with the Raiders, will get more than $1 million from the club--all guaranteed--for sitting out another season this year.

Shouldn't Jackson, in all justice, give about half of it back?

"That's one way of looking at it," agent Leigh Steinberg said. "Another way is to consider the risk that Jackson took. That risk should be, and was, shared by the club.

"There are only a handful of fully guaranteed NFL contracts, and in all instances they are a function not of ability, but of bargaining power."

For a while, sure enough, Bo had that.

Roomy secondary: After three months of pro football, the suspense remains in only two of the NFL's six divisional races--those in the AFC West and NFC Central. And it will be over in the NFC Central, too, if the Chicago Bears (9-3) can get past the Detroit Lions (8-4) in their Thanksgiving Day showdown at the Pontiac Silverdome.

The Lions were operating mostly out of the run-and-shoot system in the first three quarters at Minneapolis Sunday, when they handed off to running back Barry Sanders for draw plays or trap plays about half the time.

The result was, if not predictable, not much of a surprise. As Detroit won, 34-14, Sanders had 220 yards and four touchdowns.

"The (touchdowns) came on draw plays (on which) I had a lot of room to run," he said. "That's when I'm best--when I have room to run."

It is the run-and-shoot machinery that gives him that. Even with backup Erik Kramer at quarterback, the Lions throw the ball well enough to their four wide receivers to overburden any defense that must worry about runs and passes, too.

Trouble has come to the Lions this year mainly when they have abandoned four wide receivers to attempt power football with two tight ends. At such times, Sanders' game-day net has dropped as low as 26 yards.

For example, at Chicago Nov. 3, the Lions took a halftime lead with run-and-shoot football, tried to protect it with power football, and failed, 20-10. On the key series, Sanders carried the ball nowhere on three consecutive blasts behind two tight ends.

Detroit's record--8-0 indoors and 0-4 outdoors--could have been, with a different approach, at least 1-3 outdoors, and possibly 2-2.

The tipoff: Displeasing some of their players, the Atlanta Falcons also mix two kinds of offense.

"Every week, we've (tried) to establish the run, and play smash-mouth football," Atlanta quarterback Chris Miller said. "But I think think we're a better team in the four-wide receiver (run-and-shoot) set."

That was proved again Sunday night, when, just in time, the Falcons gave up on what their coach, Jerry Glanville, calls smash-mouth--a game that requires extra blockers.

Changing to the run-and-shoot--an offense offensive coordinator June Jones prefers--the Falcons finally caught the New Orleans Saints in the fourth quarter and upset them in overtime.

The trouble with alternating power formations with run-and-shoot football is that the alignment of offensive players tips off what's coming. Depending on what they see, defensive players can mass against power running plays, or spread out to cover pass plays.

"We have some key-breakers that we can call," injured Detroit quarterback Rodney Peete said. "You can't assume that Barry Sanders will get the ball every time with two tight ends."

Not every time--but most of the time. Too often.

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