UNDER FIRE : When Wilson's Bad, He's Horrid

There was a little girl

Who had a little curl Right in the middle of her forehead; And when she was good

She was very, very good, But when she was bad she was horrid. --HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW

The game was critical for the Raiders and they knew it. The ball was on their 36-yard line, there were two minutes to play, they were behind, 14-10, and they needed a touchdown.

They knew what to do when they needed a touchdown: Get the ball to ace quarterback Marc Wilson. Marc would know what to do. That's what they pay him millions for.

So, Wilson faded to pass. He threw this beautiful spiral (Wilson throws a nice pass). He found an open man, hit him in the numbers and--bingo!--touchdown!

But the 90,513 fans just sat there. No hats flew in the air, no streams of tissue, no animal roar of triumph, no dancing in the Coliseum aisles.

Wilson had done it again. He had scored for the other guys. Marc had thrown a touchdown for the Denver Broncos. For the fourth time in the game--fifth, if you want to count fumbles--and the 11th time in the season in which he has missed several starts, Wilson had handed the ball over to the enemy. He had scored for Denver. "Here, have a Super Bowl!"

There are times when you think someone should ask Marc Wilson, "Whose side are you on, anyway?" It's not always easy to tell.

No one adds more suspense to a game than Wilson. He is one of the great mountains of indecision in the world of sport today. You watch Marc Wilson play football and you wonder how he gets himself dressed in the morning. You'd think if you handed him a menu, he'd starve to death. Like Jack Benny, if somebody came up to Marc and said, "Your money or your life!" Wilson would have to think about it.

Consider the playoff game against the New England Patriots last year. The Raiders had the ball near midfield in the third quarter. The Patriots lined up on defense. Marc called time out.

Now, timeouts are blue chips in this high-stakes game. You may need them like eyes late in the fourth period.

Wilson squandered one to consult with the bench. Refreshed, he ran back into the game. The Patriots assumed a defense. Marc frowned.

And called another timeout.

Then, he went back into the game. And got sacked for 11 yards. For this he needed two board meetings?

The operative word with most quarterbacks in this league is cocky. Arrogant comes into play. Confident goes without saying.

Marc Wilson runs more to modest. Bashful, maybe. Marc is a very lovely fellow. I'm sure he's good to his mother, the kind of guy you would want to go to a museum with. He's very laid-back. Soft-spoken. Probably likes quiche. Alan Alda gets the part in the movie.

But Bobby Layne, he ain't. Can you imagine Bobby Layne hitting the nine-yard line, first and goal--and calling a timeout? Marc Wilson does it all the time. He turns into a bowl of jelly when the goal posts come into sight.

Bobby Layne would probably not only not go to the bench for a play, he might throw out a guy with the audacity to come in with one. Bobby needed no security blanket. Layne didn't play quarterback like Linus.

Four times Sunday against the Broncos, Marc Wilson came into sight of the gates of heaven, the goal posts. The first time, he threw his first interception. He threw it to Mike Harden, one of his favorite receivers, since he was to throw the touchdown pass to Harden in the fourth quarter, too, on this afternoon.

The next time, Marc got his promised-land jitters when he was on the Denver seven, third and goal. He got sacked for 14 yards. The team settled for a field goal.

The next thrust, Wilson did his job. He completed a pass in the Denver end zone. Unfortunately, it was not to the man he was--presumably--aiming for, Tim Moffett. It was to Denver safety Dennis Smith. Three of Marc's passes ended up in the end zone for the afternoon. Only one was in the hands of a guy in Raider silver and black.

Wilson got to the Denver 26 at the end of the second period when, in his anxiety to get a touchdown play off with 35 seconds to go, he forgot one small detail--the ball. He neglected to get it from the center and Denver's Karl Mecklenburg got it instead.

Wilson threw another interception at the Denver 13, but there were only 13 seconds to play and the team was behind, 21-10, and it was, as Lester Hayes would say, academic.

So, Marc Wilson is a traveling disaster area at quarterback, no more fit for the role than Woodrow?

Well, therein lies the dilemma. When he can separate friend from foe, Marc Wilson is as dangerous with a football in his hand as, say, any starting quarterback. He's like a pitcher who has good stuff but serves up mistakes. Like the little girl with the curl, he can be very, very good.

So, why is he so often horrid? Does he need a little jolt of nastiness, a touch of Jim McMahon's bad-brattery, Joe Namath's ruthless cocksureness, Bobby Layne's contempt of all defenses, coaches and even game plans, Norm Van Brocklin's outrage at teammates' ineptitude, Terry Bradshaw's happy-go-lucky "What the hell, let's try that again."?

Marc Wilson answers questions as patiently as he (over?) studies defenses. Did he feel he played a good game?

"I feel I played my heart out out there."

Did he feel he was--er, ah, um--oh, let's say, indecisive? "The plays are sent in," Wilson snapped decisively.

But, don't you have the veto power?

"The officials are trying to speed up the game now for TV. Sometimes, they start the clock before your ends come back to the line of scrimmage. The play comes in late, and if you want to audibilize (call your own play because you see the bench's won't work), there's no time. You have to go with theirs or call time out."

Nobody said it would be easy. But it would seem that Marc Wilson could get rid of that little curl in the middle of his forehead if he would convince himself of two things: 1) When things are going bad, it's nothing a timeout would cure; and 2) It's better to take charge out there. As Morgan the pirate, the original Raider, said: "It's better to be hanged for your own mistakes than someone else's."

That way, when he's good, he can still be very, very good and when he's bad--well, he can be not bad.

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