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The Raiders Don't Need Brown-and-Out Pattern : AFC: Receiver makes another big play, but will it be his last with the team?


ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Finally thawed after the coldest loss in his greatest season, Tim Brown packed up his silver-and-black duffel bag and secured the zipper.

The last zip?

The thought crossed his mind.

"Of course," Brown said. "It was very difficult. I came off the field and we were in there praying with the guys, and I was thinking, 'Is this going to be my last time or what?' "

Brown's magical Raider mystery tour--which began with such promise in 1988, took a turn into the abyss, saw him sweat out the trading deadline last October, then turn in the best-ever season by a Raider wide receiver--might have come to a stop.

Brown did what he could Saturday, catching five passes for 127 yards--remarkable considering the chill factor.

Brown's 86-yard touchdown reception gave his team a third-quarter lead it couldn't hold. The Buffalo Bills came back to beat the Raiders, 29-23, in a divisional playoff game at Rich Stadium.

So much for the lead. Can the Raiders now hold on to Brown, a first-rate free agent?

The obvious answer is: They must.

Brown completed the season of his life, with 80 receptions for 1,180 yards and seven touchdowns. He was voted the team's most valuable player by his peers. He willed the Raiders to victory after victory.

But nothing is simple with the Raiders. When Brown signed a contract two years ago, he negotiated an "out clause" if a new collective bargaining agreement was reached that included free agency.

That happened, but there were complications. Brown thought he should have been a free agent this season. But Raider owner Al Davis named Brown a transitional player, meaning the team could retain him by matching any offer.

The case went to the NFL, which ruled Brown had to play this season as a Raider.

Under this cloud, Brown reported to training camp. There were trade rumors and rumblings, but Brown put it out of his mind long enough to become a star.

Whatever the Raiders thought of him in the past, he must now be considered a top priority in the off-season.

"The decision won't be up to me," Brown said. "It's going to be left up to Mr. Davis."

As a transitional free agent, Brown can seek the best available offer by another team. The Raiders can keep him by matching the offer.

If the Raiders choose to make Brown their franchise player, he cannot sign with another team but will have to be paid the average salary of the league's top five receivers.

"I don't feel like the pressure's on me to make any kind of a decision," Brown said. "But it has been a great year. I've really enjoyed working with Jeff (Hostetler). If I have to work with him for the next four or five years, I think I could live with that."

Could the Raiders live without it?

Brown said he and Davis have not discussed his future: "We haven't talked about anything."

Encouraging to Raider fans was that, after the game, Brown spoke as a Raider in the present tense.

"We're going to be OK," Brown said. "We're a young football team. Everybody will bounce back and we'll be ready to roll next year."

While he might have once jumped at a chance to leave the Raiders, his success with Hostetler this season could change his thinking.

It appeared Saturday the combination of Hostetler-to-Brown might bail the Raiders out of another fine mess.

With the Bills leading, 22-17, in the third quarter, Hostetler scrambled on second down from the Raider 14 and tossed a short pass to Brown, who caught the ball while breaking free of defender Mickey Washington at the 25 and found open field in front of him.

Brown ran uncontested down the field, made an inside move at the Bills' 20 on the last man with a chance to stop him, safety Mark Kelso, and scored untouched.

It put the Raiders up, 23-22, with 29 seconds left in the third quarter.

"I was hoping that would get the defense going," Brown said of his touchdown, "and they (the Bills) would go three and out and we'd get the ball again and maybe get some more points."

But that's not the way it worked out. On their next drive, the Bills drove 71 yards in nine plays, taking the lead on a 22-yard pass play from Jim Kelly to Bill Brooks with 12:05 remaining.

"It sort of deflated all the momentum of my play," Brown said.

And, in a sense, his season.

But Brown wouldn't mind coming back to try it again next season.

"Not at all," he said.

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