Midway in the second quarter of the Los Angeles Raiders' 28-23 win over Seattle Sunday in the L.A. Coliseum, Running Back Marcus Allen, the NFL's most exciting newcomer, took a pitchout at his own 44-yard line from Quarterback Jim Plunkett and set off on a sweep right. Fullback Kenny King applied the spring block on Cornerback Keith Simpson, and Allen cut behind it as swiftly and cleanly as a hot knife through cold butter. When Wide Receiver Bob Chandler gave him another block downfield, Allen slanted to the sideline, eating up yardage with long, graceful strides. Hemmed in momentarily near the Seattle 20, he cut back toward the center of the field, leaving Defensive Back Dave Brown ludicrously clawing air. This last deception, however, gave Linebacker Bruce Scholtz time to catch up, and Allen was brought down at the three. No matter. He scored the Raiders' fourth and last touchdown of the day on the very next play. Allen and the Raiders were one step closer to capturing the hearts of their still skeptical new fans.
Actually, the 53-yarder was Allen's second long gainer of the first half. On the Raiders' third play from scrimmage, he neatly reversed his field on another sweep, eluded four tacklers and raced for 33 yards. He gained 121 yards on 12 carries in the first half alone and finished the day, his best yet in the NFL, with 156 yards and two touchdowns. In five games Allen has now rushed for 415 yards, the third highest total in the AFC, and scored a conference-leading seven touchdowns to spark the Raiders, a disappointing 7-9 team last year, to a 4-1 record.
Granted, Allen wasn't exactly devastating in the second half Sunday, but by then he had lost two key blockers, King (pinched nerve) and Tackle Henry Lawrence (strained knee) to injuries. Besides, the Raiders seem able to play only one half of every game. Against San Diego on Nov. 22, it was the second half, during which they came from behind, 24-7, to win, 28-24. Sunday, it was the first. In the final two quarters against Seattle, they scored not at all and were saved from defeat two minutes from the finish by Burgess Owens' interception on the Raider three of a Jim Zorn pass. Behind 28-0 at one point in the second quarter, the spunky young Seahawks, now 2-3, had nearly pulled out a win on 16 fourth-quarter points. "We let Seattle come back to keep the fans in the stands," joked Linebacker Ted Hendricks, albeit hollowly, for there weren't that many fans—42,170 (9,866 no-shows)—in the stands to begin with.
But if the NFL ever regains its popularity, the Marcus Aliens in its ranks will be the cause. The 1981 Heisman Trophy winner from USC not only leads the Raiders in rushing but also is their second-leading pass receiver, with 21 catches. He's the thrill runner the Raiders have long sought, and he plays with verve and guts. "You can't drag Marcus Allen down with one arm," lamented Seattle Defensive Tackle Manu Tuiasosopo after Sunday's game. "I know. I had three or four missed tackles. You've got to hold him up and nail him. To slow a runner like that down you've got to hit him and continue to hit him. That boy's remarkable. He just keeps coming at you." Added the Seahawks' defensive coordinator, Jackie Simpson, "Marcus is the best cutback runner I've ever seen."
He's not a bad comeback runner, either. The week before, the Cincinnati Bengals, whose defense against the run was the league's best, held Allen to exactly zero yards in eight attempts. The Raiders' huge offensive line—269-pound average tackle to tackle—never solved the Bengals' shifting, stunting three-four defense, and L.A. suffered its only loss of the bifurcated season, 31-17. "Marcus Allen?" inquired Bengal Defensive End Eddie Edwards. "Why, he's just another rookie." Allen was undismayed. His pal and fellow USC alumnus, O.J. Simpson, had had worse days. "O.J. told me he once had a game against the Colts where he carried seven times and ended up with minus-10 yards," said Allen after the Cincy debacle. "At least I broke even."
When the Raiders drafted the 6'2", 210-pound Allen, cynics hinted it was merely for cosmetic purposes. Managing General Partner Al Davis needed a local attraction to sweeten his bitterly protested move from Oakland to Los Angeles. Allen may have rushed for 2,342 yards in his senior year at USC—an NCAA single-season record—but Woody Allen could have done nearly as well behind the crack Trojan line. With a 4.6 40, Marcus wasn't fast enough for the NFL, it was said. And who knew if he could catch the ball? If you carry it 30-40 times a game, how often can they throw it to you? Alas, there's no profit in underestimating Davis. The Raider maestro knew what he had. And he knew that Allen was the key to his planned return to an old and treasured style of play. The other key was King, who had been the Raiders' starting halfback in 1980 and '81 and their leading ground-gainer last year, with 828 yards.
The 5'11", 205-pound King is a speedy, breakaway back but in college at Oklahoma he was a wishbone fullback—he had averaged 7.8 yards on only 99 carries as a senior in 1978—and was, therefore, an experienced blocker. As a teammate of, first, Billy Sims (at Oklahoma) and then Earl Campbell (at Houston in 1979) and finally Plunkett and Allen, King often wears a T shirt on which is inscribed, I BLOCK FOR THE HEISMAN. "Maybe someday they'll give me a replica of the trophy in recognition of the part I've played," he says. Davis, Raider Coach Tom Flores and King himself all agreed that, with Allen on the team, fullback was the spot for King. "I like quick-hitting plays where I don't have to wait for things to develop," says King. "Kenny is more of an explosive type of runner than a move type," says Flores.
Allen, quintessentially, is a move man. When King first saw him dance away from tacklers in training camp, he knew immediately that he was watching his replacement at halfback. "There was no question in my mind then," King says, "that that man should be our number one ball carrier." But nine-year veteran Mark van Eeghen, the Raiders' career rushing leader, was back at fullback after missing most of 1981 because of injuries, and Allen, for all his apparent brilliance, was still an untried rookie. Two preseason games convinced Flores that Allen was ready, and in the third quarter of the third exhibition, King was told to go in at fullback. "I didn't even know all the plays," King says. "I also didn't have any choice in the matter and I knew it was good for the team." King was there to stay, and Van Eeghen was released one week later. He now plays for New England.
The switch has returned L.A. to an offensive concept pioneered by Davis. "Remember, the Raiders developed the five-man pass game with the backs going deep," says Davis' executive assistant, Al LoCasale. Not since the team had Halfback Clemon Daniels and Fullback Hewritt Dixon together in the mid-'60s have they had two backs playing at the same time with the speed to run deep pass patterns. Van Eeghen and his predecessor, Marv Hubbard, were power fullbacks who locked the Raiders into a backfield style alien to Davis' original everybody-go-long scheme of things.
"We didn't create new plays for Marcus," says Flores, the Raiders' original quarterback. "We just dusted off some old ones." In truth, Los Angeles, for all its dedication to the long passing game, has played against so many deep zones lately that it has had to shelve it, for the most part, in favor of shorter patterns. "Some of the safeties are so far back that I can't even see them," says Plunkett. "But we're still deep conscious." Anyway, adds Plunkett, Allen has "increased our options. We have two backs now, in Marcus and Kenny, who are capable of going all the way on either a run or a pass. And we aren't afraid anymore to hand the ball off on second-and-seven."