Mike White, the new coach of the Oakland Raiders, who have returned to their original home after 13 years in Los Angeles, has worked the California coaching circuit exhaustively: Stanford and Cal, the 49ers during the early Bill Walsh years and the Raiders during the last five years as an assistant. Now that he has finally got the job he has always wanted, he's not going to screw it up. There are three ways you can mess up with the Raiders: get out of touch with your quarterback, your team or your boss, Al Davis. At times it's a tightrope act, because if you get too close to Davis, the players figure you're a rubber stamp, and then you've lost them.
That, and worse, is what happened last year to Art Shell, the coach at the time. Shell had a shouting match with quarterback Jeff Hostetler on the sideline during a midseason game in Miami; Hostetler, who was getting the hell beat out of him every week, went into a deep funk; the players packed it in against the Chiefs in the finale; and Davis finally dropped the ax on poor Shell's head.
Enter White. "The weekend that I got this job I got on a plane back to West Virginia and met with Jeff," he says. "I told him, 'We need you to lead this team. If you're not happy with something, raise your hand. Don't get into a shell and pout."
In training camp White concocted an offensive system more like the 49er short-drop approach than the old Raider long-ball-off-seven-steps setup. Under White's formula, the first 15 or so plays are scripted. After that comes lots of no-huddle, with Hostetler making the calls. Man, any quarterback who doesn't like this system ought to get a job in a bakery.
Davis stayed away from the team's training camp in El Segundo, Calif., maybe because he was too busy figuring out the weekly commuting schedule to Oakland, perhaps because he at least wanted to create the impression that White will work without interference. Now even the players appear to have more say in the operation. "We have an eight- or nine-man advisory council, and I'm on it," says Pro Bowl wideout Tim Brown, who has been a severe critic of the organization. "We make suggestions, and sometimes they go through. First time I've ever seen that here."
So far, so good. White's offense should be blazingly fast and productive, and the defense is built around an all-out attack on the pocket by a highly effective front four, plus the best pair of cornerbacks in the business, Terry McDaniel and Albert Lewis.
Did the San Diego Chargers exhaust their quota of miracles in reaching the Super Bowl last season? Let's review their good fortune: The ball slipped out of Bronco quarterback John Elway's hand at the goal line in the season-opening game; Dolphin kicker Pete Stoyanovich's 48-yard field goal attempt went wide right at the end of the playoff game against Miami; in the AFC Championship the following week Steeler cornerback Tim McKyer let wide-out Tony Martin get behind him for a 43-yard touchdown, and Charger linebacker Dennis Gibson knocked down quarterback Neil O'Donnell's fourth-down pass in the shadow of the end zone.
But in the Super Bowl, San Francisco ran up 49 points on a defense that, for the most part, had looked pretty darn sound. Afterward, defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger quit, and the jury came back with guilty verdicts on safeties Stanley Richard and Darren Carrington, who are now earning their living elsewhere.
"Poor tackling," says Bobby Ross, the coach. "Wrong scheme," says Leslie O'Neal, the All-Pro defensive end. Hey fellas, smile, you were in a Super Bowl. This team, though, hasn't forgotten another disappointing year, 1993. The Chargers were coming off a division championship and smiling, and they sank to 8-8. They remember.
San Diego will be a solid playoff contender if rookie Terrance Shaw, subbing for injured Darrien Gordon at the right corner, holds up; if the new safeties, Shaun Gayle and either Rodney Harrison or Bo Orlando, come through; and if third-year pro Raylee Johnson turns into the demon pass rusher everybody says he will become. In other words the Chargers will succeed if the defense is functional, because the offense is sound. Tailback Natrone Means will do his power thing behind a solid drive-blocking line and the best blocking back in the business, 265-pound Alfred Pupunu. Believe it or not, Stan Humphries has the best lifetime winning percentage of any starting quarterback in the game, and his toughness was proved many times last year.