Just when you thought it might be safe to turn on a Raider game again . . .
With the longest losing streak in 23 years of team history already strapped to their backs, your heroes tonight are being dropped into a hornet's nest named Jack Murphy Stadium, where insults to Charger pride have been stored up like nuts over the long winter for a day of reckoning.
Remember the Holy Roller?
"That was 10 years ago," said one Raider executive, scornfully. "The one that really got them mad was 1980. They had their bags packed for New Orleans and we beat them in the AFC finals. That was the one when Gene Klein (then the Chargers' owner) called a press conference the Friday before and didn't talk about anything but Al (Davis).
"We won, 34-27. They score and we get the ball back with 6:47 left. (Dan) Fouts is standing over with (then-Coach) Don Coryell, working on what they're going to do when they get the ball back. But they didn't get the ball back. We ground it out right down the field, three, four yards at a time. Fouts just started edging farther away from Coryell. People were wandering around the parking lot afterward in shock."
OK, so the Chargers have lots of nightmares to avenge. They're in the mood.
Get this, they're 7-1. They may have had help--those three road victories by their replacement team and the softer schedule a last-place team plays--but any way you cut it, they've won seven in a row.
Three replacement players are actually starting on defense, among them left cornerback Elvis Patterson. Remember him? Vince Evans does.
You think this city is a little excited?
All of you who said yes get the blue pajamas with the lightning bolt down the leg.
The game is sold out, and since seats are being added for the Super Bowl, the crowd of 62,000 will set a stadium record. The old one, set two years ago, was for the Raiders, too.
Each fan will be given a towel with a drawing of a football on it. After the last home game, Coach Al Saunders said the crowd was so great, he wished he could give out 60,000 game balls. Sorry coach, this will have to do.
Let's just say it'll be loud and let it go at that.
The Raiders, of course, are starting Marc Wilson for the first time this season.
Did they wait too long?
Is Wilson taking over a shambles? The departing jockey, Rusty Hilger, says they're "a horse with a couple of broken legs right now."
Well, the offense is down to three holdover starters from the end of last season.
And the offensive line, which has gone from unimpressive to could-get-someone-hurt, has had three new starters just since the strike ended, and that was a month ago.
And the cornerbacks have been getting burned.
And the defensive front has had better months.
However, there are moments, even long ones, when this team seems ready to awaken from its long sleep.
Its post-strike funk seems to be lifting. Mike Haynes told the San Diego Tribune's T. R. Reinman that when he first returned, "I wouldn't look at Howie (Long), after what he pulled, and he's my sack guy!" Losing ingloriously may be a more unifying force than suspected, and if so, the Raiders are newly re-unified.
A week ago, they pushed a strong Viking team all over the Metrodome, out-gaining the Minnesota Vikings, 398 yards to 200. Tommy Kramer's poor half--he completed 5 of 16 passes--was put down to rustiness, but Raider defensive coordinator Charlie Sumner also went back to blitzing and attacking, and that might have been a contributing factor.
The Raiders also turned the ball over five times, though, trailed, 31-13, and lost, 31-20. There's a lesson there.
Shambles or sleeping giant?
The sun doesn't always shine on the same puppy's hindquarters.
For real pups of the year, try such Chargers replacements-made-regulars as:
--Joe Phillips, a defensive end with four sacks. What did he do before the strike? Played a lineman on HBO's "1st & Ten." Honest.
--Les Miller, another defensive end. He was putting handles on coolers at the Gott Cooler Factory in Arkansas City, Kan. He had never been west of the Rockies and says that for enjoyment, he likes to take a six-pack out on the porch and watch the traffic on the freeways. Really.
--Mike Humiston, a linebacker. A cop from Northern California who hadn't played in three years, he tried out because he wanted the $6,000 a game to buy a motor home so he could take his son, who has muscular dystrophy, to Disneyland. Try rooting against this guy. Alas, after starting last week, he's being benched.
The Chargers are four-point favorites. . . . Key matchup: The Raider offensive line against the San Diego pass rush. The Chargers like to bring everyone often, including new linebacker Chip Banks, who has three sacks, and holdover Billy Ray Smith, who has two. San Diego leads the NFL in sack percentage. The Raider line surrendered five sacks last week to a Viking unit that ranks only No. 15. . . . Two of the Viking sacks were by Chris Doleman against Brian Holloway, the new left tackle. The Raiders traded the old left tackle, Bruce Davis, to the Houston Oilers, no doubt impressed, or stunned, by Houston's offer--a No. 2 pick if the Oilers make the playoffs. Davis was never considered a Raider star when he was with them, but if Holloway's problems continue, he may yet be.
When Al Saunders took over last season, he talked of putting in a Raider-like ground game. Remember, Charger owner Alex Spanos is an Al Davis admirer, who ultimately hired one of Davis' executives, Steve Ortmayer, as general manager. The Chargers, though, are still basically running the Air Coryell offense: Dan Fouts, short drops, quick passes to the tight ends and backs. The Raiders, of course, are familiar with it. In the last two meetings here, the Chargers have gained 985 yards and scored 71 points--and won once. . . . Another key matchup: Todd Christensen vs. the lot of 'em. Christensen has an arch injury and is listed as probable, but he wasn't practicing in pads late in the week. In the last four seasons, he has had games of 173 yards, 140, 136 and 134 yards against the Chargers, who have held him below 100 once.