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Starting Over : Beuerlein, Who Didn’t Fit With the Raiders, Has Become a Key Man With the Cowboys

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A year ago, Steve Beuerlein was choosing his winter wear for a home game against Cincinnati. Decisions, decisions. Would it be boots and jeans again, or maybe something nice in a pastel?

Would he need a sweater for the sideline? A jacket?

Beuerlein, a Raider then, if only in name, spent practices impersonating Bengal quarterback Boomer Esiason on the Raiders’ scout team.

Happy anniversary.

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“I really don’t want to remember,” Beuerlein said.

Counting playoffs, Beuerlein spent 19 weekends last season out on football’s Walden Pond, a man alone with his thoughts.

Raider fans know the story: Despite his finishing 1989 as the team’s starter, Beuerlein was not allowed in uniform for the entire 1990 season, presumably because of a summer holdout to increase his salary from $140,000.

The Raiders traded Beuerlein last Aug. 24 to the Dallas Cowboys--many would argue now in dangerous haste--for a conditional fourth-round pick. There, it could be assumed he would ride the bench for the next eight years behind starter Troy Aikman.

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So who’s getting the last laugh? As quarterback Jay Schroeder remains a continuing mystery in the Raider offense, his agony expressed this week on the cover of a national sports magazine, Beuerlein has stepped in for an injured Aikman and kept Cowboy playoff hopes alive.

Beuerlein now decides not what to wear, but where to throw. This week, he worries about Reggie White and the Philadelphia Eagles, the NFL’s No. 1 defense.

“This is the biggest start of my career,” Beuerlein said from Dallas. “They’re the hottest team in the league. They can bring it. I know what’s at stake if we win. We’ll have a good shot at making the playoffs. I know what’s at stake if we lose. A lot of people are counting on me. I like that. I’m fired up, I’m telling you.”

So are the Cowboys. Last season, the team’s playoff hopes were doused when Aikman dislocated his shoulder and Dallas had to turn to Babe Laufenberg.

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Beuerlein acts as if he founded the franchise.

He relieved Aikman, who injured his knee, in the third quarter against Washington on Nov. 24 and directed the Cowboys to a 24-21 victory, the

Redskins’ only defeat this season.

Until that moment, Beuerlein had not thrown a pass of significance since December of 1989 with the Raiders.

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“When I went out there, I didn’t think about how long it had been since I played,” he said. “It’s like riding a bicycle.”

Beuerlein sprained his ankle so badly in the Washington game he could barely walk the next day. But three days later, on Thanksgiving, he directed Dallas to a 20-10 victory over Pittsburgh, completing 14 of 25 passes for 217 yards, one a 66-yard scoring effort to Michael Irvin.

Last week against New Orleans, Beuerlein completed 17 of 29 passes for 184 yards and a touchdown.

Since Beuerlein took over, the Dallas offense has not committed a turnover. Beuerlein is 2-0 as a starter, and has that one humongous save against Washington.

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Dallas (9-5) can guarantee itself a playoff spot with victories over Philadelphia and Atlanta.

More important, Beuerlein lives.

“It’s fun being a person people want to talk to about what’s going on on the field, not what I’m wearing on the sidelines.” Beuerlein said.

Beuerlein could be--some would say should be--vindictive about his Raider days and the mysterious circumstances leading to his trade.

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“I could have been then, and I could be now,” he said. “But that’s never been my style. That’s not the way I was brought up, that’s not my personality. I don’t want to be associated with negativity.”

Beuerlein said, though, it took every ounce of his strength to keep his mouth shut last season. There were days he wanted to scream his side of the story to the media.

“Last year was agony,” he said. “I did not have any fun at all. For the first time in my life, the game of football was not fun. But I decided very early in the year--I talked to my family, friends, my agent--and I decided the best thing to do was to ride it out.

“Even though I was frustrated, I didn’t want to do anything to make me appear as being a whiner. (Pittsburgh quarterback) Bubby Brister is a good friend of mine, but what he’s doing in Pittsburgh--refusing to go into the game because he says he’s not a mop-up man--I would never do that. You can get blackballed very easily.”

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Beuerlein, who learned the media game at Publicity U, Notre Dame, knows the benefit of nipping trouble in the bud.

After the victory over the Redskins, a reporter asked Beuerlein if there was a controversy brewing between him and Aikman. Beuerlein said he would slap the next reporter who broached the subject.

Beuerlein knows where he stands in Dallas. Aikman will be the starter when he returns.

“I think the aim is to have him ready for (the last game against) Atlanta,” Beuerlein said. “That’s fine. I’m not going to fight it. I understand where I fit in. The keys to the car are his.”

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Beuerlein did not know where he fit in with the Raiders; that was the problem.

Raider officials have intimated that Beuerlein, not backup Vince Evans, would have soon been the starter had Schroeder gone down with a serious injury.

It is a theory that Beuerlein does not dispute.

“I buy it, yeah,” he said. “I think they definitely would have done that. At the same time, nobody told me that. If something would have happened to Jay, I knew I was going to get more (practice) the next week and I would have likely been the starter. Again, nobody ever told me.

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“Did I think I was being punished by Mr. (Al) Davis? I had an opinion about it. That’s what I thought. But I don’t want to put words in people’s mouths.”

Beuerlein left a lot more friends in Los Angeles than enemies.

“They were a big part of my life for four years,” he said. “There will always be an interest in following them.”

Beuerlein watched the second half of last week’s Raider loss to Buffalo, but he offered little criticism or analysis of the team’s second-half conservative collapse.

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“I’m not in any position to comment,” he said. “But when (Art) Shell took over, you knew it was going to be the old Raiders’ style. They were going to try to win games on the ground.”

During the week of Dallas’ Oct. 20 bye, Beuerlein returned to Los Angeles to pick up some of his belongings. He also paid a discreet visit to the team’s training complex in El Segundo.

There were rumors that Beuerlein had rented a limousine and treated some former teammates to lunch.

Beuerlein said it was not a limo, but a large rental car, which he parked out front of the team’s offices. He said several players and coaches came out for a quick visit.

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Beuerlein denied that he was afraid to be seen on Raider property. “I wasn’t worried about that,” he said. “I don’t even think there was one person who would want to chase me off the complex.”

Beuerlein paused. “There was only one person I’d ever be worried about.”

He didn’t need to elaborate.

Beuerlein said he will never understand the thinking that led to his banishment but that it might have worked out for the best.

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“They wanted Jay in there more than me,” he said. “As long as I was there, I think there would have been a controversy of sorts. The best way to eliminate that was to get rid of the controversy.”

Beuerlein, though, lives in hope that the Cowboys and Raiders might meet in Super Bowl XXVI.

A man can dream, can’t he?

Beuerlein: “That would be a spectacular way to meet everyone involved in the Raider organization.”

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