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51-3 Still Has Them Buffaloed : Raiders: Despite 1990 success, the score of playoff loss to Bills is etched in club lore.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The game won’t go away. The Raiders tried to get on with their lives after 51-3, but the 90-pound Cub Scouts of America wouldn’t let it die.

Linebacker Jerry Robinson spoke to an elementary school class in the off-season and thought he had walked onto the set of “Face the Nation.”

The kids don’t just want autographs anymore. They demand explanations.

“I’ll tell you what,” offensive tackle James FitzPatrick said, “everyone who asks, ‘Do you play for the Raiders?’ their No. 2 question is, ‘What happened in Buffalo?’ ”

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The Raiders won 13 of 18 games last season, took the AFC West title, returned to “uh, great-nuss,” as their owner might say, but never were forgiven for sins committed last Jan. 20 at Orchard Park, N.Y., where the Buffalo Bills dished them a 48-point loss in the AFC title game.

What happened in Buffalo?

Quarterback Jay Schroeder is coming off a career-best season. Finally. He led the NFL with an 8.53 yards-per-pass average. He threw 10 more touchdown passes than interceptions--19 against nine--something critics claimed would happen when hell froze over. But he tossed five interceptions in one game against Buffalo.

“And that’s the one they talk about,” Schroeder said.

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Truth is, the Raiders don’t know what happened in Buffalo, any more than Bob Beamon knew what happened in Mexico City the night he long jumped 29 feet 2 1/2 inches in the 1968 Olympics.

Raiders are convinced they were steamrollered by one those great moments in sports, a few unexplainable hours when the Bills became an unstoppable avalanche of power and precision.

What else could the Raiders think and not shed tears? They can only hope they’re better than their last game.

Culled from the Buffalo fiasco was knowledge that while the Raiders could knock heads with ground-control teams, such as the Chicago Bears, they had no clue of how to stop a run-and-shoot offense.

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Their linebacking corps was overexposed by Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly’s quick hits over the middle.

This is a serious defect if you figure that the road back to the AFC title leads through Buffalo, or perhaps Houston, another run-and-shoot group.

In this past off-season, however, the Raiders wrought only two defensive changes:

--The veteran Robinson was demoted at strong outside linebacker in favor of Winston Moss, obtained in a trade from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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--The other change, the acquisition of safety Ronnie Lott from San Francisco, made national headlines. How much Lott, 32, has left may determine the Raiders’ season. He is a future Hall of Fame inductee, but knee problems last year with the 49ers reduced his mobility and have made him a question mark.

In a concession to age, the Raiders have moved Lott from free to strong safety, where he will team with another heavy hitter, Eddie Anderson.

If Lott and Anderson can intimidate the middle of a field the way Raiders Jack Tatum and George Atkinson did in the 1970s, opponents will think twice about running post patterns.

“We can’t win games pretty,” Lott said. “We’ve got to win them ugly.”

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Everyone knows Lott has the heart. But does he have the legs? Lott didn’t play enough in the exhibition season to get a good read. His baptism will come Sunday at Houston, where he will try to stare down Oiler quarterback Warren Moon and the most feared offense west of Buffalo.

What happens if Lott gets hurt? Swallow hard and say Derrick Crudup or Elvis (Toast) Patterson.

The Raider defensive line--Howie Long, Bob Golic, Scott Davis, Greg Townsend--is the team’s heart and soul. And it only gets better with the return of first-round draft choice Anthony Smith, who missed the 1990 season after knee surgery, and the emergence of sixth-round pick Nolan Harrison of Indiana.

Throw designated pass rusher Aaron Wallace--nine sacks as a rookie--into the mix and you understand an opposing quarterback’s concern.

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Cornerback Lionel Washington had a solid season until he was torched in Buffalo, and Terry McDaniel remains a quality NFL cover man.

The Raider offense, effective but not spectacular in 1990, returns almost intact. Midway through training camp, Coach Art Shell replaced erratic left tackle Rory Graves with Bruce Wilkerson. Trust Shell on this one. He knows left tackles.

At quarterback, Schroeder was effective in 1990 because he didn’t hurt his team with bad decisions and didn’t have to worry about losing his job to Steve Beuerlein, who was banished to street clothes.

Schroeder’s arm is so strong, he must think he can complete any pass he throws. He can’t. His personal tutor, coach Mike White, kept that message alive all season, and it produced great dividends.

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Now, let’s see Schroeder do it again.

The real gamble the Raiders took was trading backup Beuerlein, the team’s starter in 1989. Granted, Beuerlein is out of Schroeder’s hair again. But if Schroeder is injured, the job falls to Vince Evans, 36, or rookie Todd Marinovich, a should-be college junior who has thrown four professional passes, completing three.

The most pleasant surprise on offense has been Plan B acquisition Roger Craig, who seems to have shaken the effects of last year’s knee injury that limited him to a career-low 439 yards. Craig led Raider rushers in the exhibition season with 148 yards in 33 carries, an average of 4.5 yards a carry.

“I feel great,” Craig said. “Everything’s clicking. I was playing on a bad knee last year. I had torn ligaments. I don’t care who you are, you’re not going to be able to run as well. I think I came back too early (last season). I feel like a new back.”

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The backfield combination of Marcus Allen and a healthy Craig answers for now the question, “Who replaces Bo Jackson?” Jackson, the baseball player who normally doesn’t arrive until October when he’s physically sound, is battling back from a career-threatening hip injury.

Craig thinks that he and his fellow 31-year-old, Allen, two of the greatest backs ever, will work well in a platoon system.

“I think it’s going to keep us fresh,” Craig said. “He’s got some years in the league, just like I have some. He cuts on a dime, where I’m more a power/slasher. It kind of mixes up the defense. We’re two guys who can bring some heat in.”

This might be a make-or-break year for former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown, who must drool over the prospect of someday playing in the run-and-shoot offense. In the more conventional Raider system, Brown is third banana on a team that doesn’t use three wideouts often. Brown had 18 receptions in 1990, including only five catches through eight weeks.

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He appeared fully recovered from his 1989 knee surgery on a 96-yard punt return this summer, even if it was called back because of a penalty.

The Raiders face a killer schedule, highlighted by a Dec. 8 rematch against Buffalo at the Coliseum. The game may take on some extra meaning.

Nose tackle Bob Golic was back in the gym three days after the title game loss. “I wanted to get this travesty corrected,” he said. “The title game was a personal thing. Maybe some of the guys will think back and say, ‘Let’s get some retribution.’ My way was to get back in the gym.”

NFL COLUMN: C10

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AFC PREVIEW: C12


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