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The Los Angeles locker room was quiet, with little finger-pointing. The Raiders are an old team, "well seasoned," they like to call it. Twenty-eight players have five or more years pro experience, 20 of them are 30 or older. The quotes you got were of the "We're in this together; we win or lose as a team" variety. Leaders abound: Lott, Marcus Allen, Bob Golic, Howie Long. You could almost sense that in the locker room before the press was allowed in, they had decided, Hey, no finger-pointing, O.K.? We're still 9-5, and we're going to the playoffs.
Privately, though, the players have to wonder. Schroeder has one of the strongest arms in the game, but it still gets him into trouble. The Raiders hired Mike White in April 1990 to be Schroeder's private tutor, and 1990 was one of Schroeder's steadiest seasons in his eight years as a pro. But in recent weeks he had regressed, the streaks of wildness and the strange decisions reappearing. The fans have been booing Schroeder, but so far none of them have hollered for 36-year-old Vince Evans or 22-year-old rookie Todd Marinovich.
The only effective backup L.A. had, Steve Beuerlein, was traded to the Dallas Cowboys a week before the season started. Now he's ably subbing for the injured Troy Aikman and beating teams such as the Washington Redskins and the New Orleans Saints. The Schroeder-Beuerlein rivalry had been trouble from the beginning. The Raiders traded tackle Jim Lachey to the Redskins for Schroeder one week into the 1988 season and then watched with embarrassment as Beuerlein beat him out for the starting job midway through the '89 season. Then L.A. stripped away the competition. Beuerlein became embroiled in a contract dispute that extended into last season, and the Raiders kept him off the active roster after he rejoined the team. The trade to the Cowboys followed, and it didn't sit well with Los Angeles's veterans.
But, O.K., they figured, we'll win it with what we've got. We'll beat people with our defense and with our running game. The Raiders already had one of the league's best offensive lines. And you can't have too many quality backs, so this year Los Angeles picked up Roger Craig, a Plan B free agent from the San Francisco 49ers, and drafted 255-pound Nick Bell out of Iowa in the second round, to go with Marcus Allen. Just don't screw it up, Jay.
Schroeder has had his moments. When he directed a comeback that gave L.A. a 23-20 win over the Seattle Seahawks on Oct. 13 at the Kingdome, he looked as if he was on his way. Lately, though, he has been slipping. The passing game was an afterthought—four completions for 19 yards—in a 38-14 rout of the Cincinnati Bengals on Nov. 24. What the hell, the Bengals gave the game away anyway. Who needs passing? On Dec. 1, Schroeder threw three interceptions against the San Diego Chargers, who committed three turnovers of their own, and L.A. barely won 9-7.
All along, the Raiders' defense had been first-rate. So was their running game, and that's what they would bring in against the Bills, who were suspiciously soft against teams with a heavy hammer. "That's not really a fair assessment," said Buffalo coach Marv Levy last Thursday. "Our whole line was banged up: [starting ends) Leon Seals, Bruce Smith; Phil Hansen, our rookie end; Jeff Wright, our noseguard. For a while the only healthy guy we had was [nosetackle] Mike Lodish. Now that Wright is back, and Smith, we've been playing better."
Smith, last season's NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is the strangest story. In July he had arthroscopic surgery to remove bone particles from his left knee. The Bills announced that he would be sidelined for six to eight weeks. Two months later he tried to go against the Chicago Bears but had to quit in the second half when the knee swelled up. He missed seven more games before playing against the New York Jets on Dec. 1. While he was sidelined, some fans let him have it. "Not the ones who come to the games," said Smith before Sunday's action. "It's the screwballs and rednecks, the guys who watch football in the bar. They sent letters to my home. They got my wife upset. There was some racial stuff. What they didn't know was that there was a hole in the bursa sac behind the knee, and fluid was building up. I couldn't run on it. They had to wait until the opening closed.
"Sure, all those letters bothered me. Wouldn't they bother you?"
Smith showed signs of his old self against the Jets, getting six tackles and one sack, but most of the time he was coming on an inside rush. "The knee wouldn't let me get around the corner," he said. "Plus they kept a back in to get me from the outside. No, I'm not 100 percent yet."
The Raiders would soon find that out. For a week they had been reading and hearing revenge-oriented hype—an LA. payback for last season's 51-3 humiliation by Buffalo in the AFC championship, in which the Bills scored 41 points in the first half. But that's not how the Raiders saw that game. "An anomaly, an aberration" was the way Golic described the AFC championship fiasco. "It was over so quickly. It was like one of those neighborhood softball games where one team gets so far ahead that after five innings you say, 'Ah, hell, let's call it off and go drink beer.' " Raider defense coach Dave Adolph didn't even bother to show his players film of that lopsided game last week. "There was nothing to be gained from looking at that mess," he said.