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Memo to Al Davis: It’s Time to Give the Ball to Hilger

I went to the corner market Monday morning to get some quarters to feed the newspaper racks outside.

The clerk who gave me the change is a Raider fan. We briefly discussed Sunday’s game, a Raider disaster.

His last comment was: “At least we got rid of Plunkett.”

If you think Siberia is cold this time of year, you should spend an hour in Jim Plunkett’s shoes.

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The veteran Raider quarterback was carried out of the Coliseum Sunday after a 49er lineman separated Plunkett’s left arm from his left chest. A few fans cheered Plunkett’s obvious agony.

And a lot of fans watching on TV, like my market friend, obviously were glad the Raiders will be forced to change quarterbacks next week.

I pass along his comment not as an illustration of the cruel and sadistic nature of football fans, but because I think it demonstrates the level of frustration to which the Raiders have pushed their fans.

And it’s not just the fans. The players aren’t taking it too well that they have weathered a brutal two-week storm and find themselves peacefully docked next to the Titanic.

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Some of the Raider defensive players have been grumbling for weeks now about the Raiders’ inoffensive offense. And some of the offensive players have been grumbling, more quietly, about the offense itself, the team’s plan of attack, for want of a better phrase.

There is no joy in El Segundo.

The situation is not hopeless, however. It is not time to panic. The Raiders can still salvage a season, but only by making a bold move, by shaking up the players and fans.

The Raiders should put Rusty Hilger in at quarterback.

The Raiders won’t do this, of course.

They will start Marc Wilson at quarterback and stay with him until either he has his body parts rearranged by opposing linemen, or until doctors can plug Plunkett’s left arm back into the socket, a job that will take half the season.

And Hilger, the kid who should be starting, will ride the pine.

I’ll tell you why Hilger should be given the ball, even if Plunkett gets healthy tomorrow.

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Because the team needs a new hope, a jolt, and because the two other quarterbacks don’t seem to be the answer.

Believe me, I hesitate to write off Plunkett as washed up. I’m two months older than the Plunker, and I can type faster now than when I was a kid.

But Plunkett has absorbed 13 years of hard NFL knocks and is operating mostly on raw courage. He has had a glorious career, and he is the very symbol of Raider spirit. But he is playing behind a shaky line, and Jim can’t dance much anymore.

Marc Wilson? I love the man. In the ugly sports world of drugs and thugs, Wilson is Jack Armstrong, a genuine nice guy. He even talks to sportswriters. He has talent, too, and it’s not his fault he gets hurt at the wrong time, or that Plunkett keeps coming back from the dead and jamming Wilson’s quarterbacking momentum.

Still, Wilson hasn’t yet demonstrated the magic the Raiders need at quarterback.

That leaves us with Hilger, the rookie from Oklahoma State who earned himself a uniform by impressing the coaches in training camp.

Does Rusty have that intangible quality that makes a great quarterback? Does he have the magic the Raiders need?

If he does, it will surprise a lot of experts. Hilger was a sixth-round draft pick. Of course, nobody thought much of Dan Marino a couple years ago, either.

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Starting Hilger would be a big gamble. But the Raiders are a gambling team, remember? Go long, baby.

The owner and the players don’t play by the book. This team prides itself on discovering superstars nobody else wanted.

There would be criticism. When Philadelphia Eagle Coach Marion Campbell benched veteran quarterback Ron Jaworski two weeks ago in favor of a rookie with a slightly crazed playing style, controversy erupted. It is still erupting, even though the crazy kid, Randall Cunningham, won a game Sunday. It’s time for the Raiders to make a similar move. Give the ball to Hilger. Let others call it panic. The Raiders can call it decisive, positive action.

The Raiders won’t do it. Even if they have considered starting Hilger, which they probably haven’t, they wouldn’t now because there’s nothing the brass hates more than listening to advice from sportswriters, who are considered to be active members of the great anti-Raider conspiracy network. Still, Al Davis, you have my opinion, and this pledge:

If you start Hilger and he wins the league MVP award, I promise never, ever, to say I told you so.

Also, I promise to try to convince my market checkout clerk buddy to have a little compassion for Plunkett and the Raiders.

Further, I promise to listen attentively to any advice you may wish to offer me on column writing, whenever my record dips below .500.


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