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SPORTS EXTRA / NFL 2000

Silver (and Black) Lining

First Georgia Frontiere and the Rams and Now the Prospect of Al Davis and the Raiders Hoisting the Lombardi Trophy After Winning the Super Bowl. It's Not All That Far-Fetched

August 26, 2000|MIKE PENNER

How many pro football fans in the Los Angeles area raised their beer mugs last January and flung them in blood-boiling disgust at their television screens as they watched Georgia Frontiere fondle a shiny new accessory called the Vince Lombardi Trophy and bray shamelessly into the microphone that "This proves we did the right thing" by carjacking the Rams from here to St. Louis?

Los Angeles' relationship with pro football has been mostly sadomasochistic, but what could be worse than the the sight of the woman who gutted a franchise and sold out a city claiming credit for a Super Bowl championship that fell into her lap when the NFL went haywire last season?

The vision of those moving vans carrying the Rams and the Raiders into the sunset in the spring of 1995?

No, by then, after years of mutual disdain and mistrust, all of us needed to take a break.

The news that Houston had outmaneuvered Los Angeles for the 32nd and last-for-the-foreseeable-future NFL franchise?

Not when the going rate for spackling over a civic inferiority complex is $700 million.

Year after year of stomach-wrenching playoff defeat when the Rams had the best team in the NFC but could never get a handle on the maddening scrambles of Fran Tarkenton and Roger Staubach?

Not even close. Christmas holidays in Los Angeles might have been ruined like clockwork, but each time, at least the effort and the intent were noble.

How about this then:

January 28, 2001, on a platform at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue smiles unconvincingly for the cameras and hands over another silver trophy . . . to Al Davis.

Yeah, right.

The Raiders haven't been within two time zones of the playoffs since 1993.

And the Super Bowl champion Rams went a full decade--1989 to 1999--between playoff appearances.

The Raiders, with their rewritten team motto, "Commitment To Mediocrity," went 8-8 in 1999 . . . and 1998 . . . and 1995.

And the Tennessee Titans, before winning the AFC title last season, finished 8-8 in 1998, 1997 and 1996.

The Raiders have a 30-something journeyman starting at quarterback.

As did the Atlanta Falcons when they reached the 1999 Super Bowl with Chris Chandler in the lineup.

This is not your father's NFL, when teams could be trusted to adhere to clearly defined roles, when the Cowboys always contended and the Falcons always lost and it took years to progress from doormat to apprentice to challenger to champion. Success was built the old-fashioned way, through careful drafting and clever trading and patient trial-and-error in the playoffs.

That playbook was dependable and reliable, but it didn't make it to the end of the 20th century. Now, teams go from worst to first as fast as you can say "fifth-place schedule," and nobody even seems worked up about it any more. The Rams and the Falcons played in the last two Super Bowls. The 49ers finished 4-12 and the Broncos wound up in last place last year. Up is down, down is up, and no one is a sure bet to win the Super Bowl, which is why the Raiders are as good a bet as any.

Once, the keys to winning in the NFL were offense, defense and special teams.

Now, the building blocks for success are schedule, divisional alignment and a league that underestimates you.

The 2000 Raiders, as with the 1999 Rams and Titans and the 1998 Falcons, have it all.

Schedule: Last year, the Rams completed a nine-game turnaround, improving from 4-12 to 13-3, largely by capitalizing on a last-place schedule. During the 1999 regular season, the Rams played only two teams that would wind up with winning records, the Titans and the Detroit Lions, and lost to both of them. With a 13-3 record, the Rams received a first-round bye and the home-field advantage in the playoffs, resulting in victories over Minnesota and Tampa Bay that might have been reversed had the games been played outside St. Louis.

At the same time, the Raiders were burdened with the NFL's most difficult schedule in 1999, based on opponents' 1998 won-lost records, and lost five games by a total of 14 points. The Raiders finished 8-8, same as the Chargers, but wound up with a fourth-place schedule in 2000 because San Diego had a better record within the AFC West.

So this season, the Raiders will play only two teams that made the playoffs in 1999, Indianapolis and Seattle, and three teams that finished above .500, Indianapolis, Seattle and Kansas City. Overall, the Raiders' 2000 opposition combined for a winning percentage of only .427 in 1999.

Division: Last year, the Rams belonged to the weakest division in the league, with no other team finishing with a winning record. That meant two games with the 8-8 Carolina Panthers, two games with the 5-11 Falcons, two games with the 4-12 49ers and two games with the 3-13 New Orleans Saints. Bottom line: the Rams went 8-0 within their division, 5-3 outside it.

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