Plunkett Returns to Starting Role Today : Veteran QB, Almost 39, Matched Against Browns' Up-and-Coming Kosar

Times Staff Writer

Jim Plunkett--by now you may have heard he's 38, three weeks shy of 39--begins his latest incarnation as the Raiders' No. 1 quarterback today against the Cleveland Browns. So many questions remain to be answered:

--Is there life after Marc Wilson?

--Has Plunkett only been on the standard backup quarterback's honeymoon?

--Can the offensive line keep him alive long enough for anyone to find out? The Raiders have allowed 38 sacks, second-worst in the NFL. In something of a twist, line coach Sam Boghosian last week needled two reporters on a day that their papers hadn't carried a Raider story. How about a piece on pass protection?

Someone old, someone new. The Browns have 22-year-old Bernie Kosar at quarterback, coming off his first 400-yard game as a pro.

He's a big name, he's got a big contract but this isn't the second coming of John Elway, or Dan Marino, or Jim Kelly. Kosar has an OK arm, a release that is nothing to brag about and no running ability.

There are a couple of things to note, however:

(1) Performance. Kosar is the No. 3 passer in the AFC, with a 62% completion rate. He doesn't throw many interceptions (he has only four). Ungainly or not, he has been sacked only 26 times, a middle-of-the-pack figure.

(2) He kept Vinny Testaverde, who has all the physical talent Kosar lacks and who is considered a veritable NFL franchise by himself, on the bench at Miami.

Kosar and Testaverde were both red-shirt freshmen. When Jim Kelly left, then Miami Coach Howard Schnelleberger picked Kosar. (A Miami assistant once joked that he thought Schnelleberger had flipped a coin). If Kosar hadn't left school early, Testaverde might be sitting today.

"We joked all the time," said Kosar's Miami roommate, defensive tackle Julio Cortez. "Bernie used to say, 'I don't know how I'm going to start ahead of this guy. This guy is bigger than I am, he's faster than I am, he has a stronger arm than I have.'

"I said, 'You're smarter.'

"Howard Schnelleberger knew what he was doing. I guess it was a shock to all of us.

"What really makes Bernie is his intelligence. He doesn't have much coordination as far as running goes. You look on TV, he doesn't run worth (bleep). But he picks things up as easily as you can. He can read defenses. He can audible. He doesn't have an arm like John Elway, but he's accurate."

A lot of good that did him without the Hurricane passing attack.

As a Cleveland rookie, Kosar mostly handed off to 1,000-yard rushers Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner. When the Browns lost a 21-3 lead at Miami in the playoffs and Kosar was unable to bring them back, he criticized the passing scheme, or what there was of one.

Next offensive coordinator: In came Lindy Infante, who had helped put in the Cincinnati Bengals' passing circus.

Everything was ducky until this season's seventh game when the Browns were upset, at home, by the Packers, who hadn't won before and haven't since. Kosar completed 17 of 21 passes in the second half, the Browns didn't turn the ball over--and they never once got inside the Green Bay 35.

There was a public debate about Infante's short-passing game. Kosar suggested they had to throw long occasionally. And what had Infante done with Clarence Weathers, the former big-play receiver now benched? After that game, Brown owner Art Modell sat down with Coach Marty Schottenheimer and asked several questions about the offense.

The Browns have since won three games in a row. In the last one, Monday night over Miami, 26-16, Kosar threw 33 times in the first half, 50 altogether and had a 401-yard game.

Were the locals impressed, or what?

"The Browns," wrote the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Bill Livingston, "stopped drawing their plays on cave walls."

In a subplot worth noting, this is the Raiders' second straight game with what you might--and they do--regard as an NFL Establishment team. Modell is close to Pete Rozelle, as is Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm.

A complete list of the differences between Modell and Al Davis would fill the rest of this section. Earlier this year, Modell reportedly tried to talk Davis out of testifying for the USFL. Davis reportedly tried to talk Modell into settling the suit.

Within weeks of the end of that trial, Modell was hinting that Davis had been tampering with the Browns' holdout linebacker, Chip Banks. The Raider response was, file a charge or zip it up. No charge was filed.

This is muted compared to last week, when the Dallas Times-Herald's Skip Bayless asked Schramm if he didn't at least respect the stability and consistency of the Raider organization.

"Let me ask you the same question about another organization," Schramm said. "Do you admire the stability and consistency of the Mafia?"

The next day, the Raiders prevailed on Schramm's very own field. When ripping Davis, it is prudent to wait until after the game.

Raider Notes

The Raiders are 6 1/2-point favorites. They figure to be favored in four of their last five games. The fifth game is Dec. 8 at Seattle, which would probably be rated about even now. . . . The Raiders have won seven straight from the Browns and 9 of their 10 meetings. Their last game here was in January 1983, when Jim Plunkett passed for 386 yards in a 27-10 playoff victory. Last season, Marc Wilson threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to Todd Christensen for a 21-20 win at Cleveland . . . The Browns have been outgained in 8 of their 10 games. Their special teams, and especially 146-pound return man Gerald (Ice Cube, or now just Cube) McNeil, are credited with making the difference in three victories. McNeil broke open the Detroit game with an 84-yard punt return. He had a 100-yard kickoff return against Pittsburgh, in a game in which the Browns also recovered a fumbled kickoff to set up the winning field goal. In Minnestoa, they blocked a punt for one touchdown, recovered another fumble on a kickoff to set up the winning field goal, then blocked Chuck Nelson's attempt to kick a last-second field goal. . . .Defensive end Howie Long, who has a hamstring strain and a bruised knee, was held out of drills again last week and is once again iffy. . . . Vann McElroy, on playing against the Browns' short-passing game: "One thing Miami (Cleveland's last opponent) doesn't do as well is bump receivers at the line. If we get a good jam, that should take a little away from those quick patterns. . . . Hopefully." . . . And McElroy, asked about the Raider quarterback change: "I try to keep my name out of the papers. Quarterback changes, I leave up to the coaches and . . . " When his voice trailed off, the sentence was finished by a Raider official and several reporters: "Lester." . . . The Browns' "Dawg" defense is led by outside linebackers Chip Banks and Clay Matthews, both ex-Trojans. Banks was Marcus Allen's roommate. The unit was one of the better ones a year ago but is running 19th now. The Browns allowed 3.5 yards a rush last season but are up to 4.2 now. . . . The Browns have two strong cornerbacks, Frank Minnifield and especially Hanford Dixon, who play Raider-style, tight man-to-man. Guess what the Raiders will try? Go deep.

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