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ANALYSIS : Raiders Set Course for Calmer Seas


When the Raiders sailed into San Francisco to open the season, many people figured this team was on the first leg of a voyage to Miami for the Super Bowl.

When the Raiders left, many of those same people believed the team was on a voyage of the damned.

Crisis piled upon crisis in the ensuing weeks. The quarterback couldn't throw a spiral. The starting tailback couldn't gain any yardage. The backup tailback couldn't get any carries. One fullback was lost because of a season-ending injury. One defensive end was marching in and out of camp as if he had a part-time job.

And there were blowups everywhere. Player vs. player on the practice field. Assistant coach vs. assistant coach in the press box. Head coach vs. quarterback on the sideline.

Who had time for football?

Even by Raider standards, this was ridiculous.

But now, halfway through the 16-game season, the turmoil seems to have subsided and the Raiders appear to be back on course.

At 4-4, a game behind the three conference teams that would be wild cards if the season were to end today, the Raiders have to be considered a contender.

But they'll have to show more than they did Sunday in struggling to defeat the 1-7 Houston Oilers.

Serious concerns remain about the power struggle waged in recent weeks over offensive philosophy between Coach Art Shell, offensive coordinator Tom Walsh and quarterback Jeff Hostetler. The offense has been inconsistent, the defense has had alarming lapses at crucial times and the special teams were not so special early in the season.

A position-by-position breakdown:

QUARTERBACK--Hostetler's arm seemed to be hurting in the first two games and he looked like a pitcher who had lost both his fastball and his control. The fastball is back, but the control remains questionable. Hostetler already has thrown nine interceptions, one short of his season total last year, a career high. But he also has thrown 11 touchdown passes and seems to have genuinely made peace with Shell after their infamous sideline argument in Miami.

Prognosis: Optimistic. Hostetler showed the skills are still there with his game-winning touchdown pass to Tim Brown on Sunday. With his arm and philosophical problems apparently healed, there seems to be no reason he can't be as good as ever in the second half.

RUNNING BACK--The question is why it took the Raiders six games to realize Harvey Williams should be the starting tailback over Ty Montgomery. In his last two games, Williams has established career highs in rushing with 107 and then 128 yards.

Prognosis: Good, as long as Williams keeps getting the ball.

WIDE RECEIVER--The Raiders assembled a track team, but, so far, Hostetler seems willing to hand the baton to only one man, Brown. He has caught 44 passes. The rest of the wide receivers have shared 33.

Prognosis: Troubling. Hostetler and Brown keep operating via radar, but, sooner or later, the defenses are going to intercept the signal--and the passes. Hostetler has to spread the ball around more.

OFFENSIVE LINE--Who would have thought the Raider line would be most effective opening holes with Gerald Perry in a cast and Robert Jenkins and Greg Skrepenak in the starting lineup?

Prognosis: Surprising. Looking deeper than ever, this line might be able to keep the offense on track. A little better protection for Hostetler wouldn't hurt, though.

DEFENSIVE LINE--The comings and goings of end Scott Davis could have been a distraction. But the ability of tackle Jerry Ball to make the starting lineup as a pass rusher has been a pleasant surprise.

Prognosis: Solid. They're not racking up lots of sacks but they are putting pressure on the quarterbacks. If Davis regains his form, watch out.

LINEBACKER--The questions of training camp have been answered. Greg Biekert was ready to take over at middle linebacker. Top draft choice Rob Fredrickson was able to make the starting lineup.

Prognosis: Promising. The young linebackers only figure to get better.

SECONDARY--Another Pro Bowl year by Terry McDaniel and the addition of Albert Lewis have made a good unit better.

Prognosis: Strong with no discernible soft spots.

Among the special teams players, only kicker Jeff Jaeger's numbers are appreciably down, and that has more to do with the new rules than anything else.

So when broken down by unit, the Raiders look better than a .500 team. But, factor in the turmoil, the penalties, the dropped passes and the defensive lapses and the record becomes understandable.

If the Raiders can somehow factor all those things out in the second half, they might yet have a bon voyage.

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