Raiders of the lost passing art struggle with instability at quarterback

This has not been the best of times, but more like the worst of times for Al Davis, the flamboyant owner of the National Football League's Los Angeles Raiders. Davis, who usually moves quickly, decisively, and often in spectacular fashion to right whatever is wrong with his waterfront-image Raiders, currently resembles a man chasing his cap in a windstorm.

After back-to-back season records of 8-8 and 5-10 (the league lost one game last year because of the strike), the Raiders were supposed to begin turning things around in 1988.

Instead, they are 3-5 with a mini-controversy at quarterback, a suspect defense, and a rookie head coach in Mike Shanahan who may be feeling a little pressure. That media-generated controversy put on weight Thursday, though, when Shanahan named rookie quarterback Steve Beuerlein to start Sunday's game against the Kansas Chiefs.

Actually, the Raiders put themselves in a bind this summer when Davis was either unable or unwilling to trade for a veteran quarterback before the season started. Result: The job was won by Beuerlein, a fourth-round draft pick out of Notre Dame who spent last year on the club's disabled list.

Beuerlein's starting job ended four games into the regular season when the Raiders traded with the Washington Redskins for strong-armed veteran Jay Schroeder.

Since the Raiders have always liked to throw deep to their receivers and had acquired Willie Gault from the Chicago Bears during the summer, this looked like a terrific marriage of speed and power. That is, until Gault was injured. With no training camp to learn the Raider system and few reference points in regard to personnel, Schroeder has frequently dialed wrong numbers since a spectacular debut against the Denver Broncos. He led the Raiders back from a 24-0 halftime deficit to a 30-27 overtime victory. The problem is that not much has gone right for him since.

Schroeder, who since 1985 has completed 34 passes each good for 40 or more yards, had eight interceptions in his next two games with the Raiders. While this might be acceptable from a rookie, it was not expected from someone with his reservoir of experience.

The result is that twice now Shanahan has pulled Schroeder late in games and inserted Beuerlein in his place. Although some people have called this a controversy, the Raider coach objects to the label. ``All you have to do is consider Schroeder's situation to understand what has been happening,'' Shanahan told reporters. ``Remember, Jay never had a training camp with us, got hit with a new system right away, and was basically unfamiliar with our personnel. Even a veteran needs time to get his act together.''

That statement, however, was made before Shanahan's Thursday announcement that he was now giving the job back to Beuerlein. When reporters questioned Schroeder about the switch, he told them, ``You have to look at the situation realistically. I'm the first one to admit that I haven't been playing well.''

While the Raiders are trying to get all their players going in the same direction, they are entering a period when they get a terrific break in the schedule. Three of their next four opponents have losing records.

On Sunday they meet the Kansas City Chiefs (1-6-1), whom they have already defeated once this season. Then they sandwich games against the San Diego Chargers (2-6) and the Atlanta Falcons (1-7) around a date with the San Francisco 49ers, who are considered championship caliber despite a 5-3 record.

The Raiders have a good chance of winning three of those games if Schroeder regains his timing, the defense improves even a little, and running back Bo Jackson recovers from leg injuries.

Jackson, who spends his summers playing the outfield and hitting home runs for the American League's Kansas City Royals, is like a sports hero out of an old-fashioned dime-store novel.

Switching from one pro sport to another without breaking stride is no more complicated to Jackson than changing uniforms.

Despite missing the Raider training camp and the first six games of the season, Jackson carried the ball 21 times in his first start against the Chiefs on Oct. 16 and gained 70 yards, including one on a touchdown run. Basically, what Bo resembles is a Mack truck that can corner like a sports car.

As for Davis and the 36-year-old Shanahan, the league's youngest head coach, they seem to be getting along fine. But even though this is Mike's team on the field, he must still submit his game plan each week to Davis for Al's approval.

While most general managers don't require this, not many are like Davis, a former Raider head coach in the 1960s who has keep abreast of all the technical developments happening down on the field.

Coaches who work for Davis, the architect of three Super Bowl champions, never complete their education, because Al is always teaching them something new.

In Davis's 25 years as the Raiders' managing general partner (another name for general manager), the silver and black has had 22 winning seasons, including 16 in a row from 1965 through 1980.

Success to Davis, who has made darker than dark glasses fashionable in the afternoon, is any game the Raiders win. Ecstasy is when they win by two or more touchdowns.

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