He's a $27.5 million investment with a shaky reputation, and during his eight months with the Oakland Raiders, Jeff George has been obsessed with justifying the expenditure. Besides being the Uzi-armed quarterback of owner Al Davis's white-hot fantasies, George has served as a cheerleader, attitude adjuster and makeshift offensive coordinator. In each of those capacities on Sunday, with the NFL's best team, the Denver Broncos, threatening to spoil a remarkable day for the Raiders, George paid dividends.
If Oakland uses its 28-25 victory over the previously undefeated Broncos as a catalyst for turning its season around, credit George's powers of persuasion more than his powerful right arm. At the two-minute warning, with the Raiders endeavoring to protect a three-point lead and 57,006 fans in the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum dreading the specter of another John Elway comeback, George strode from the huddle to the sideline and took charge. The Raiders faced a second-and-10 at their 12; the Broncos had no timeouts left. Two running plays and an intentional safety, the course of action favored by coach Joe Bugel and offensive coordinator Ray Perkins, would have given Elway the ball with no more than 30 seconds remaining. George wanted no part of that scenario. Asked to pass only 11 times up to that point—his fewest number of attempts in a game since his peewee football days—George preferred to hand off on second down and, if necessary, throw for the clinching first down on the following play.
"Come on, Ray, let's run the Boot," George urged as he communicated on a headset with Perkins, who was in an upstairs coaching booth. After the Broncos stuffed Raiders halfback Napoleon Kaufman for no gain on second down, Perkins relented and sent in the play for which George had lobbied throughout the second half. Its name, Toss 19 Boot Right, is nothing more than a fancy moniker for Get the Ball to Tim Brown. George faked a pitch to Kaufman, took a step to his right and looked in only one direction before rifling the ball up-field. Was Brown, Oakland's Pro Bowl wideout, the first read? "In the clutch," George said afterward, "Timmy's the only read." Darting left to right, Brown dived past Broncos cornerback Darrien Gordon and snagged George's low throw. With that against-the-grain act of bravado, the Raiders (3-4) regained their grip on a season that seemed to be slipping away.
The Broncos (6-1) have the luxury of writing off Sunday's game as a speed bump on the road to glory, though All-Pro tight end Shannon Sharpe was concerned as he walked off the field. "We've got some weak areas," Sharpe said, alluding mainly to Denver's league-worst average of 5.7 yards allowed per rush. "I mean, we weren't thinking of going undefeated, but we got exposed in many ways today."
As for Oakland, there's no way the significance of the victory can be underestimated. For the first time in 1997, perhaps for the first time in several seasons, the Raiders put together a complete performance that fulfilled their prodigious potential. With two huge plays from Kaufman, who broke Bo Jackson's team record with a 227-yard rushing day, and one from free safety Eric Turner, whose 65-yard return for a touchdown of an Elway fumble in the third quarter turned the game around, Oakland proved that its best effort is as good as any team's.
"I don't think people around the league will be surprised by this victory," said Turner, the former Cleveland Brown and Baltimore Raven who signed with Oakland last May. "This is the first time the Raiders showed up to play—not in spurts but for an entire game." Added Oakland's Pro Bowl guard Steve Wisniewski, "If we can bottle this and reuse it next Sunday and beyond, then we're in good shape."
The problem, of course, is that the Raiders have been about as consistent over the past few seasons as Michael Jackson's appearance—a big reason that Oakland has failed to make the playoffs and has had to endure two coaching changes since 1993. A '97 off-season that included the promotion of Bugel, the hiring of Perkins and the signing of George was supposed to bring a return to what Davis likes to call Raider Football. Yet until Sunday this once-proud franchise was more messed up than Todd Marinovich.
Three losses by a total of five points—to the Tennessee Oilers, the Kansas City Chiefs and the New York Jets—put Oakland in a 1-3 hole. Then on Oct. 5, the Raiders bottomed out, absorbing a 25-10 home beating by the San Diego Chargers. In that game the Raiders seemed devoid of pride and poise, a situation dramatized by a bizarre episode early in the fourth quarter in which, according to team sources, Perkins dropped off the radar screen like a plane in the Bermuda Triangle. Perhaps upset by play-calling suggestions from Davis and/or by George's propensity to call audibles, Perkins stopped communicating with Bugel and George from the coaching booth while Oakland had the ball. Alien abduction? Forgot to turn off the car lights? "No one knows where he went," says one of the sources, "but he probably left to smoke a cigarette." What a drag: Perkins wasn't heard from during the discussion of a crucial fourth-and-four call. The play that was called without his counsel was unsuccessful. He returned to his headset later without offering an explanation for his disappearance. On Monday, Perkins said he never went incommunicado.
The natural assumption is that this was yet another side effect of Davis's well-documented overinvolvement. But it's tough to finger Davis for Oakland's struggles in 1997. Organizational insiders are far more critical of questionable coaching decisions, particularly on defense, and of the unspirited effort of players like defensive tackle Chester McGlockton. At the very least, Davis must be credited for his acumen as a personnel evaluator. He fortified the Raiders by signing George and Turner, and two years ago he used a first-round draft pick on Kaufman, a 5'9", 185-pound blur considered by many front-office types incapable of holding up as an every-down back.
It's fair to say Kaufman has shed that tag as convincingly as he shed three would-be tacklers on the 83-yard touchdown sprint that gave the Raiders a 28-17 lead with 7:54 remaining. He also raced for a 57-yard gain on the game's first play from scrimmage, sprung by the counter-pull of Wisniewski, who makes that block better than anyone in the business. "I blocked for Bo Jackson and Marcus Allen," Wisniewski said later, "and Napoleon's in the same category—a guy who can turn an up-the-middle-and-a-cloud-of-dust into a spectacular play."