Relocated Raiders search for lost art of winning football

After 22 years as pro football's Oakland franchise, the Raiders will play their home games this season (and probably forever more according to Owner Al Davis) in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The question is: How well will they play?

Last year the Raiders gave up 70 more points than they scored; got only seven starts from injured quarterback Jim Plunkett; and had their first losing season since 1964. They also had three consecutive games (against Detroit, Denver, and Kansas City) in which they put absolutely nothing on the scoreboard, tying a 38 -year-old National Football League record.

Basically the 1982 L.A. Raiders are a mystery team, or at least will remain in that category until they open the regular season on the road against the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers Sept. 12.

If they show they can handle San Francisco, not necessarily win but perform with power, style, and discipline, then maybe they are capable of a wild-card berth at playoff time. However, at the moment they are definite underdogs in the AFC West to both the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos.

For the Raiders to regroup successfully and reestablish the offense that made them Super Bowl winners two seasons ago (the only wild card team ever to win the championship), they need a healthy Plunkett at quarterback.

When Jim is right, or rather when his throwing arm is right, he is ideal for the Raiders' deep-pass offense. But if the old magic is gone, then the skills of reserve quarterback Marc Wilson probably won't be enough.

What Davis and Coach Tom Flores have always liked about Plunkett is his poise under fire and his willingness to take what the defense gives him. If there is a sudden change in an opponent's defensive set at the line of scrimmage, Jim has the know-how to read this and make the proper adjustment.

But Plunkett can't do it alone. He'll need more protection from his offensive line; a better running attack than the Raiders had last year; and a return to form by wide receivers Bob Chandler and Cliff Branch. The injury that sidelined Chandler for much of the first half of 1981 meant almost constant double coverage for Branch, who still caught 41 passes but who normally would catch many more. This year both should have a lot more space in which to roam and whipsaw the defense.

Where the Raiders might surprise their critics is with an improved ground game, where fullback Mark van Eeghan and Kenny King are expected to share more and more of their playing time with Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen of Southern California.

Even though Allen is a rookie, the position of running back in the pros is not that difficult to master. Dozens of good college backs have come into the league and done well their first year, and at 6 ft. 2 in. and 203 pounds, Marcus has the physical tools to do the job. Allen is also an excellent pass blocker.

While Marcus is not a breakaway threat in the mold of Tony Dorsett, his quickness and his ability to change directions netted him 4,682 yards during his years with the Trojans, and you don't reach those kind of figures without breaking a few tackles.

Last year the Raiders' defense often came unglued, partly because of injuries , but mostly because it had to spend so much time on the field that it simply ran out of gas. This season, whether Flores goes with man-to-man coverage, a zone, or a combination of both, he seems to have the personnel to make it work.

John Matuszak, at 6-8 and 285 pounds, is still one of the most intimidating defensive ends in pro football, and opposite him will be 6-5 Dave Browning, who is almost as strong. The off-season acquisition of Lyle Alzado from the Cleveland Browns has created instant depth at this position. The team also has a solid set of cornerbacks in Pro Bowler Lester Hayes and Monty Jackson.

''Our priorities going into training camp were to eliminate the kind of mistakes we made last season; build more continuity into our defense; and create an offense with more flexibility,'' Flores said. ''Having to open the season with three consecutive road games is tough on any club trying to come back from a losing situation, but if the Raiders do well, we will have accomplished something positive right away, and good starts are very important in pro football.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.