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Bugel
New Raiders coach Joe Bugel says he'd like to spend two hours a day talking with team president Al Davis. Thanks, Davis replies, but two hours a week of face time with his coach will suffice.

Either way, Davis will certainly have more involvement with the Raiders under Bugel than he had in the past two seasons with Mike White, who, with his 15-17 record, was jettisoned last Christmas Eve. Bugel, who joined the Raiders as an assistant in 1995, became the team's third head coach in four years. He got off on the right foot with the boss. "I don't mean to embarrass him, but I love Al Davis," Bugel said at his introductory press conference. "This love affair has been going on for 22 years."

That's how long Bugel has been in the NFL. His first job was as an assistant with Detroit from 1975 to '76. He later worked with the Redskins as an assistant head coach and offensive line coach during their three 1980s Super Bowl appearances and was head coach of the Cardinals from 1990 to '93. During his tenure in Oakland he had become a favorite among the players to take over the top spot. Davis said guys he hadn't seen in his office for a year stopped by to tell him to give Bugel the head job. One of those who trumpets Bugel is running back Napoleon Kaufman. "A lot of coaches sugarcoat things, but he just tells it like it is," Kaufman says. "You have to respect someone who shoots from the hip like that."

Oakland finished 7-9 last season and has made the playoffs just three times since 1986. Now Bugel and Davis vow a return to "Raider football," which presumably involves a bit more winning. "Raider football is getting the ball to your star players," Bugel says. "The Raiders have always been known for a crunching running game, and we're not going to get away from that. Raider football has always been based on big, thick offensive linemen. We're going to get back to that. We've got people who can run down the football field. We've got to find a way to get the ball to those players."

Kaufman is one of those guys, and Bugel wants to get him the ball 20 times a game. The third-year back out of Washington has always displayed spectacular speed and flair; now the Raiders want to see more of it.

But the key to returning to the Raiders style of old is strong-armed, strong-willed quarterback Jeff George. After being chased out of Atlanta because of his differences with Falcons management, George signed a five-year, $27.5 million contract in February. The Raiders, George's third team in eight years, say they did plenty of homework on the temperamental QB before offering him the deal. "We checked as much as we can check, short of bringing in listening devices," Davis says. "We might have done that, but we can't admit it."

For his part, George has lofty ambitions. "I'll be embarrassed if at the end of the year we're not playing for the AFC championship," he says. "Because we have the talent. We're going to win."

The Raiders also signed Green Bay's return man extraordinaire, Desmond Howard. He joins cornerback Larry Brown, late of the '95 Cowboys, as the second straight Super Bowl MVP inked by Davis.

Oakland's off-season moves weren't limited to free agency. Three weeks before the draft, and in need of a top offensive lineman, the Raiders traded up for the second pick, with their sights on Ohio State's Orlando Pace. Alas, shortly before draft day, St. Louis, which also wanted Pace, traded up to No. 1 and snared the big man. Thwarted in their efforts to get Pace, the Raiders tapped two tackles in the third round, Nebraska's Adam Treu and Iowa State's Tim Kohn.

The No. 2 overall pick was spent on USC defensive tackle Darrell Russell. That raised the eyebrows of ESPN analyst Mike Gottfried, who drew the Raiders' ire when he said North Carolina tackle Rick Terry was a better player than Russell. "He might be suffering from burnout," Bugel said of Gottfried. "He needs a vacation. Something may be seriously wrong with him." If Russell, who Bugel says reminds him of a young Reggie White, racks up 10 sacks this season, nobody will care what the draft mavens said.

Russell is happy to be in Oakland with Davis. "It makes me more comfortable knowing that I'm under a person with a mind like his," Russell says. "He has an impeccable record. Everywhere you go, everyone either fears or doesn't like the Raiders."

Lately it's been more of the latter than the former. This year, the Raiders are hoping to again inspire some fear.

— by Dana Gelin