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Playing for Keeps : As Raiders, Lott and Craig Are More Concerned About Doing Well and Winning Than Getting Revenge on 49ers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two months after the dress rehearsal, Ronnie Lott and Roger Craig will meet the San Francisco 49ers for keeps Sunday at the Coliseum.

Just about everything has changed since an emotional but hollow exhibition opener on July 27, when the newest Plan B Raiders were reunited against former teammates.

The imagery back then was more dramatic--just the thought of seeing the former 49er stars in different uniforms seemed strange--but the reunion failed to match the pregame punch. Lott made only a token appearance; Craig was the third-team tailback. There were more hugs than hits.

The sequel figures to dominate the box office. First, there are reputations at stake. The Raiders and the 49ers, who won six Super Bowls between them in the 1980s, are struggling with 2-2 records.

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Two months later, Craig is a starting tailback again, a note he might wish to pass along to 49er management, which left him exposed as a free agent after eight seasons.

Lott, after a slow start, is starting to crank out the hits again at strong safety, just in time for Jerry Rice.

This time, the burners will be turned to torch. Lott, a star for 10 seasons in San Francisco, has a new book out to mark the occasion, the last chapter recounting his bitter parting.

It seems almost sacrilege, but there have been whispers in the 49er locker room about Lott having been a disruptive force last season. There have been whispers, too, none for the record, from a few 49ers who are unwilling to forgive Craig for his fourth-quarter fumble in the NFC title game, which allowed the New York Giants to drive the field and kick the winning field goal as time expired.

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Craig and Lott are attempting to handle it all this week with their usual class, but sometimes it’s difficult.

Craig faced the fumble question head-on.

“It just hardened me as an individual,” he said. “I know there are players that are taking shots and saying certain things. I let them worry about that. I know what I can do deep down inside when it’s time for the game to start.”

Craig said the fumble did not affect him as much as it did others.

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“I got over it a couple of days after it happened,” Craig said. “You can’t dwell on the negative. I mean, that was a bad thing that happened to me. I can’t go through the whole off-season worrying about that one play. You’re going to fumble. That wasn’t my first fumble and it’s probably not going to be my last.

“I’ve been around long enough to know how to come back from a play like that.”

Lott, who called the parting shots of his former teammates “childish and cheap,” said: “I’ve played with this gentleman (Craig) for a long time. If the 49er family is what they say it is, whoever those players are that are making those comments are truly not 49ers.”

There will be emotions this weekend, no doubt, yet both players claim to be concentrating more on their own jobs.

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Lott said he didn’t have Sept. 29 circled on his calendar. “I’ve got December something, or January something, circled,” he said. “That’s the playoffs. That’s what I’m accustomed to. That’s more a concern to me than whether or not the 29th (of September) is going to be a special day or not.”

Lott said he doesn’t have time for emotions. At 32, he’s making the third position switch of his career, having moved this time from free to strong safety. Lott is only now becoming comfortable with the switch.

Craig, 31, is trying to refine his game in a new offense. He’s the Raiders’ leading rusher with 189 yards but is averaging only three yards a carry. He has been battered in a run-controlled offense and has the scars to prove it. He has been bothered all season by a bruised left knee. Last Sunday against the Falcons, he suffered a bruised left shoulder.

Craig said that becoming a starter again is not vindication for what happened in San Francisco.

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“I never thought that way,” he said. “It was unfortunate we lost Marcus (Allen) earlier in the season, and a lot of other backs got injured, too. I was just doing my job, the next back in line to take over the responsibility to be the starting back.”

Lott and Craig, of course, have many remaining friends on the 49ers. Both players still live in the Bay Area, commuting home every Tuesday. Lott had lunch this week with 49er quarterback Joe Montana, who is out of the lineup because of a sore elbow.

“I mean, they’re friends,” Lott said. “There are people who will always be lifelong friends. That’s what you miss more than anything, the friendships. As far as the 49ers are concerned, that’s a business entity. . . . So much for them. As for my friends, the people I care about, I’m going to stay in contact with them--the people in the PR department, the secretaries, you name it.”

Said Craig: “The personal satisfaction I’ll have is that we’ll be 3-2. That’s the bottom line. I really don’t care about how bad we might beat them, whatever. It’s going to be a tough game, we expect that. It’s just business. We’ve got to go out and get the victory.”

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