Quarterbacks beware, Bubba Smith has begun his comeback season as a prideful member of the Oakland Raiders, for whom he plans to vindicate a trade and wake up an old cheer. Not that you would have noticed it last Saturday at the University of California, where Smith, the 6'8", 260-pound defensive end, made his first start of the NFL exhibition season against the Minnesota Vikings. For one thing, he played little more than a quarter and, at best, got a draw against the Vikes' Ron Yary, who may be the finest offensive tackle in the game. For another, the Raiders had four turnovers, costly penalties and other miscellaneous misfortunes that contributed to a 34-10 defeat. Lastly, Bubba was upstaged by a couple of rookies, Minnesota's Chuck Foreman, who quicked his way to two touchdowns, and Oakland's Ray Guy, who punted far and high enough to ice the ball.
Neither Smith's limited duty nor the lopsided score, however, could diminish the happy revelation that the game was for Bubba, who aims to prove some things this season and who now knows his right knee is sound enough to help him make his case.
The idea that Big Bubba would ever have to prove himself as a football player would have seemed ludicrous two seasons ago at Baltimore, where he was a devastating pass rusher and the bulwark of a Colt defense that limited the opposition to 140 points in 14 games. Last season, though, Smith got entangled in a down marker and chain during an exhibition game and suffered what one Colt executive described as "one of the worst knee injuries our team doctor had ever seen." Even before he was hurt, Smith's feelings toward the Colts had changed because General Manager Joe Thomas didn't see fit to renegotiate the last year of a six-year contract. But sitting in a wheelchair on the sideline watching the Colts lose was intolerable.
"Joe Thomas was bad enough," Bubba said last week, "but not playing was terrible. I didn't want to show my face in public. I don't know if it was that we were losing, or what, but it almost drove me crazy."
Bubba had resigned himself to doing his best for the Colts when he came to camp in July. "I was in a cast for seven or eight weeks," he said, "and when I got out of it, my calf and thigh had deteriorated, like I had polio. I worked on the knee by running stadium steps at the L.A. Coliseum and by working with weights at USC. The assistant trainer there, Paul Williams, really helped me. He showed me my strength at each point and he even went out to run with me. He gave me the encouragement to work harder. Besides that, I wanted to get ready, if for no other reason than to tell Joe Thomas to kiss my foot."
Thomas may have read Bubba's signals, for in one of the 19 trades he has made since January he sent the 28-year-old Smith to Oakland for Tight End Raymond Chester, a good blocker who in his three seasons scored 22 touchdowns on 104 receptions. Al Davis, the Raiders' managing general partner, was criticized for giving up so valuable a property as Chester for Smith, whose physical condition is suspect. For his part, and for a love of gamesmanship, Davis encourages the talk about "Al Davis' first mistake" because it may turn out to be an extra incentive in Bubba's comeback. In truth, the trade is likely to help both teams.
"This decision wasn't made in a week, or two weeks, or three," Davis says. "We've always liked Bubba and we kept tabs on his rehabilitation all last spring. We took a calculated risk because the defense in pro football today has to dominate, not just play well."
"We've never had a guy like him before," says Ron Wolf, Oakland's director of player personnel. "If he can do what he did at Baltimore, it means the other teams have to play us a man short. They need two guys to handle him and they won't be able to run on us as much."
Toward that end, Bubba has been progressing daily with the formidable help of Bob (The Boomer) Brown, the All-Pro offensive tackle who himself has come back from four knee operations. The kindly Dr. Brown's therapy involves treating his friend Smith to all the pad-popping "100-megaton shots" he can muster when they square off against each other in camp. "They're both tough competitors," says Offensive Line Coach Ollie Spencer, "and each of them hates to get beat. The other day Bob really cut him, right on that leg. It was purely a reflex action, but if Bubba could take that he can take anything."
"I've been down the pike four times with knees," Brown says, "and I've told Bubba that the only thing he can do is play with reckless abandon. You worry about losing the things you can do until you get hit on it, then you find out you can still do them."
"We do have some pretty good hookups," Smith says of the warfare with The Boomer. "He's the strongest man I've ever seen. If I can work out against him every day, I'm going to get better, and I'd like to think that I'm going to make him better. Boomer is really good for me. He got me to keep moving so I don't have to take that lick on my leg.
"After I got hurt," he added, "people told me, 'You're going to have to go to a different ball game—brute force. You're going to have to run over people.' But I haven't done that here. My whole game is speed, quickness and getting people to get their feet crossed up so I can go by them. The people in the NFL are too big to run over, anyway. I used to be the biggest player around and I couldn't do it then. Even if you could, by the time it would take to hit the man, knock him down and get to the quarterback, he would be long gone."
However, it is neither the fear of getting hurt again, nor appreciation of proper football technique that is driving Bubba to regain his old competitive edge. Rather it is pride in the reputation of Bubba Smith.
"If I can come off the ball well," he says, warming to the subject, "with motion, maybe I can have those people in the stands yelling 'Kill, Bubba, kill!' again when it's third and long yardage. It's an incentive thing, to have all those eyes on you and then hear that. That's all I've been working for. They said it at Michigan State and at Baltimore. They were expecting me to come up with a big play. I don't care who you are. If you're a professional athlete, that's something you react to. It's pride.
"I know what I can do and what my help will be to this team, but in the back of my mind is 'Al Davis made a mistake.' I hope he doesn't feel that way. The only thing I want is for Al to wait just a little while and I'll have him up there in the press box yelling 'Kill, Bubba, kill!' on third down, too."
It is a reasonable assumption that both Davis and Coach John Madden hope Smith attains a performance level worthy of that cry before the Raiders' next meeting with Minnesota, which happens to be the regular-season opener on Sept. 16 at Bloomington. The exhibition, wherein the Raider defense did not dominate, demonstrated that an improved pass rush would be nice to throw at Fran Tarkenton, who completed 12 of 22 for 200 yards in less than three quarters.
Foreman also poses a problem, one that may soften Bud Grant's flinty reluctance to start rookies. A 6'2", 216-pound running back from Miami, Foreman was the Vikes' No. 1 draft choice and he appeared eminently to deserve such status. He gained 62 yards on 10 carries and impressed Grant with his quickness and acceleration. Foreman's touchdowns came on runs of six and 29 yards. On the first, a trap play, he blew through a big hole over right guard and was in the end zone before anyone came close to slowing him down. On the longer run, Foreman veered left, eluded two tacklers and turned on his speed to beat the defense to the corner of the end zone.
Guy was equally impressive, with punts of 57,43 and 52 yards into the end zone and another of 47 yards that was fair-caught on the 12. A fifth kick, which hurt his average, traveled 27 yards, but from the Minnesota 44-yard line to a fair catch at the 17. "It's the strongest punting leg I've ever seen," said Minnesota Kicker Fred Cox.
Bubba's play was not as spectacular; he seemed to be going in high against Yary. "I was working on certain things," Smith said after the game. "I thought I was going to play a little longer, but I guess they didn't want me to. When I get back to camp, I'm going to work on nothing but my pass rush. I can feel some things coming back. What surprised me was I didn't even think about my knee, not one time."
Bubba's exuberance may well have stemmed from that or from the progress he feels he is making. In either case, he disputed Madden's observation that "a loss is a loss, no matter whether it's your opening game, the preseason or not, and it's always a very bitter thing."
"You know, I hate to get beat," Bubba said, "but in some ways this was a good loss for us. I'm kind of glad we got beat. A loss at the right time can help a team. If we had beaten Minnesota like we know we can, a lot of cats would have become complacent."
That is not Madden's worry with Smith, of whom he says, "Bubba Smith has a lot of pride. It's a driving force."
A statement Bubba made earlier in the week would confirm this. "When I reach the point where I have that inner feeling," he said, "when I know I'm right, then I can relax a little bit. But not now. Now I know I can play, but I can't handle just being an average ballplayer."
The Oakland fans may be hollering sooner than they think.