His sideburns will need work. However, should Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis ever choose to moonlight as an Elvis impersonator, he will not have to spend a cent on the wardrobe. Despite 98° heat Davis showed up for one of his team's afternoon practices last week at St. Edward's University in Austin sporting a black jumpsuit. "Al," said Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, incredulous at the sartorial decision of his fellow maverick. "Black?"
Came the reply, "My men are in black, so I'm in black."
By choosing to suffer, Davis achieved solidarity not only with his players but also with Raiders fans, who have watched the Silver and Black miss the playoffs eight times in the last 11 years. Assisting Davis in his efforts to return the franchise to its past glory are new quarterback Jeff George, who has set passing records while alienating teammates and coaches wherever he has played, and Joe Bugel, the team's third coach of the '90s. Bugel's chief qualifications for the job were strong support from the players—he joined the coaching staff in 1995 as assistant head coach—and an eagerness to implement, to a tee, the policies of Davis, whose lips, surprisingly, do not move when Bugel speaks.
Last week marked the fifth time in six years that the Raiders have traveled to Texas to work out with the Cowboys. Having spent three days bludgeoning one another in the sauna that was central Texas, the two teams trekked 200 miles north to Irving for a Sunday-night exhibition game at Texas Stadium. Injuries to five Dallas cornerbacks and the excused absence of another (Deion Sanders went 1 for 4 for the Cincinnati Reds in an 8-3 loss to the San Francisco Giants that afternoon), combined with Oakland's determination to reestablish a vertical passing game, resulted in a 34-27 Raiders win.
Working against scrub corners, Oakland quarterbacks completed 11 passes for 264 yards and three touchdowns. Which is not to say the George Era began with a bang. The man who has been entrusted to resurrect the Raiders was 3 of 9 for 47 yards and no touchdowns, bailed out early a couple of times in the face of a stiff rush and was flagged for intentional grounding. When he left the game after three series, was he burning for redemption? "I hate the preseason, so I was glad when they decided to take me out," said George, who doesn't think much of two-a-days, either.
In summers past these shared practices have featured fisticuffs and football in nearly equal measure. Last July's main event was sparked by the antics of Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett, who put a late hit on Jeff Hostetler after the Raiders quarterback had released a pass. Hostetler retaliated by throwing a wild punch that slightly injured his own right hand. How times change. Hoss is now with the Washington Redskins, having been displaced by George, and Lett is home in Dallas, tinkling into a cup three times a week. Lett will be out until at least early December as he serves a one-year suspension for his second violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy.
Last week the Raiders and the Cowboys followed the example of their chummy owners. There were no fights to speak of, even though the teams in Austin were two of the NFL's most penalized in 1996: Oakland on the field, Dallas off it. Both clubs embarrassed themselves last season and have too much at stake in 1997 to be wasting time brawling. Also, as Oakland strong safety Lorenzo Lynch pointed out, "It's hotter than it was last year. Heat like this takes the fight right out of you."
If the Raiders seemed more focused than in seasons past, it's because after missing the playoffs for three years running and leading the AFC in penalties for two straight seasons, they are out of excuses. The players got the coach they wanted, and the owner got the quarterback he wanted. Davis also plucked Super Bowl MVP Desmond Howard off of the free-agent market, although a strained hamstring sidelined the return specialist for most of the week in Austin. Thus no light was shed on the mystery of whether Howard, a Heisman Trophy winner who has already Hopped as a receiver with three NFL teams, will succeed as a wideout in Oakland.
Standing with Jones last week, Davis remarked on what he perceived to be the Cowboys' "sense of urgency." It was an accurate read. Dallas began the 1996 season with two players serving substance-abuse-related suspensions and ended it with an upset loss to the Carolina Panthers in the NFC divisional playoffs. In an emotional speech the following day, Jones pleaded with the players to keep their noses clean in the off-season, adding that there would be far less tolerance than in the past for those who did not.
This was welcome news to quarterback Troy Aikman. "Every organization has off-the-field incidents; we had them when Jimmy [Johnson] was here," he said before last Friday's practice. "What bothered me more was the way the organization dealt with them, which basically was to bury its head in the sand."