Jay Schroeder clings to his job as Raider quarterback like a man gripping a palm tree in a hurricane. He's not letting go. Hear that, Bobby Hebert? Bash him, trash him, mash him, but just try prying his fingers loose.
Need him to change? Meet Mr. Chameleon. Schroeder can just as easily erase from memory that 4,000-yard passing season in Washington and plow down the field three yards at a time.
"Last week, we were pushing it right down them in the first half," said Schroeder, explaining his six passes before intermission. "There was no reason to throw the ball. That's fine with me."
Schroeder will spit-shine Al Davis' shoes if that's what it takes. Schroeder could have called it a career after last season. He lost his starting job to Steve Beuerlein, threw five more interceptions than touchdowns, completed fewer than half of his passes and was 4-5 as a starter.
Instead of quitting, Schroeder showed up at training camp acting as if he had just signed with Up With People. He won his starting job back because Beuerlein didn't show up until September. Some vote of confidence. Meanwhile, in the back room, his owner was rumored to be offering draft picks to the New Orleans Saints for the holdout quarterback, Hebert.
Schroeder shrugged. As rumors ricochet down Raider corridors, Schroeder has led his team to a 3-0 start. His motto: Play me and you won't need to trade for me.
Schroeder brushes the Hebert trade talk aside like lint from a jacket. Maybe it's because he's older now, 29, and had seen it before in Washington, where he lost his starting job to Doug Williams, prompting Schroeder's trade to the Raiders in 1988.
"I really don't care," Schroeder said of the trade rumors. "I really don't. I've been through all this before and I think I've learned from that. Hey, if something happens, he (Hebert) still has to come in and win the job. I'm not going to roll over and give it to him in any form, just like nobody gave me the job when I came here. It's all based on what you do on the field, and right now I feel good about what I'm doing and where this team is going. We're 3-0."
Schroeder said playing professional quarterback is football's great roller-coaster ride. You have to have the stomach for it.
"That's what it's all about," he said. "You've got to make the plays and do it every week to keep the job. As long as I do that, I don't care who they bring in. It really doesn't matter to me."
So far, Schroeder has done everything the Raiders have asked, which hasn't been much. They've asked him not to lose games, limiting him to a ball-control offense in which he's averaged only 17 passes a game. They've asked him to throw the ball away when no one's open. They've asked him to give defense a chance. They've asked him not to take risks, which isn't easy when you've got an arm like Schroeder's.
When you can nearly split a small tree in half with a football, the tendency is to want to split two, then three. Schroeder used to believe there was never an open receiver he couldn't drill, which may explain 52 touchdowns and 64 interceptions in five-plus seasons.
"That does hurt," Schroeder said of his arm strength. "You've got to know when there's a time to do that and when there's a time not to. That's just maturity and playing the game. If we're down by 14 (points) with six minutes to go, you've got to get the ball there some way, somehow. If you're up by 14 with eight minutes to go, you need a first down--you're not looking for a big play. You're looking to keep your defense off the field, because if (the opponents) don't have the ball, they can't score. You've just got to know the situation of the game and how to play it."
So what if the Raiders have taken their new offense from the Eisenhower Era? Schroeder has thrown only two touchdown passes, but has just one interception through three games. Remember, he threw 22 one season. The new Schroeder has made every one of his passes count. His 24-yard connection to Mervyn Fernandez set up the game-winning touchdown in Seattle two weeks ago. Sunday, his 66-yard bomb to Fernandez put a 13-3 game out of reach of the Steelers.
"I'm here to make big plays," Schroeder said. "If the big play presents itself, you make the big play. If not, you do things that don't hurt your football team."
No one's laughing at Schroeder's quarterback rating either. As of Wednesday, he was fourth in the AFC at 88.7, ahead of a group of bomb-squadders that includes John Elway, Dan Marino, Boomer Esiason and Warren Moon.
Schroeder admits there's been an attitude change since the end of last season, when he languished on the bench behind Beuerlein.
"I got healthy in the off-season," he said. "I got my shoulder fixed up. I battled that all last year. I worked hard, I was in shape and ready to go, so there was no reason physically why I couldn't come and play well. Mentally, things just fell into place where I got a lot of work in training camp, and it just snowballed from there."
You didn't know Schroeder was injured? Schroeder didn't want you to. Turns out, he suffered a torn rotator cuff in his left (non-throwing) shoulder early in 1989. He had it surgically repaired after the season.
Schroeder kept it quiet.
"I separated my right shoulder while I was in Washington, and nobody knew about it," he said. "I only missed one game, and that was on my throwing shoulder. I had a bad knee for two years, and nobody knew about it. I'm not going to complain. I'm going to do whatever I can to play."
You get the feeling that if the Raiders trade for Hebert, he'll have to wrench the ball from Schroeder. But it looks as though Schroeder has played his way out of the trade for now.
"You'll want to ask the people across the way," he said, nodding toward the building where owner Al Davis tinkers. "They've never asked me about whether I want him (Hebert) to come in or not, so it doesn't matter to me. It goes right up there with either moving the team or staying here (in L.A.). I don't think he called any of the players to ask our opinion. "