He is considered by many to be the poster boy of problem
children, the NFL's answer to Dennis Rodman and Albert Belle.
But Jeff George, the Raiders' new quarterback, sees his arrival
in Oakland--after tempestuous stints in Indianapolis and
Atlanta--as an opportunity to shake off his reputation of being
a selfish whiner and cultivate a more favorable image as a winner.
George and Oakland are a perfect match. The Raiders have never
let a player's reputation obscure their evaluation of his
talent, and have thrived by extending second or even third
chances to maligned players (Lyle Alzado, Jim Plunkett and John
Matuszak, among others). George's celebrated sideline shouting
match last season with then-Atlanta coach June Jones, with a
national TV audience looking on, didn't deter Raiders owner Al
Davis from signing George to a $27.5 million, five-year deal.
This is a Raiders team brimming with talent--and expectations.
With Joe Bugel taking over as head coach, Oakland's high hopes
are tied mostly to George's amazing arm, which was sore from
off-season workouts when he sat down with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
senior writer MICHAEL SILVER at an Oakland restaurant to talk
about his new life in silver and black.
SI: We'll start with a question Al Davis might ask. How does it
feel to be a Raider?
JG: [Laughs] It feels good. The environment's a lot different
from what I'm used to. There's definitely a winning attitude. It
all starts with everyone in the organization not only talking
about winning championships, but also the players believing it.
That's the biggest difference for me, coming from where I came
from. I'm not so sure that the organizations [in Indianapolis
and Atlanta] really believed that they could win a championship.
SI: The Raiders have had three down years in a row--they're
24-24 with no playoff appearances since '93--yet there's all
this talk of winning. Do you see any contradiction there?
JG: Here, the past is forgotten. I think that's a great
approach, and it's the one I'm taking concerning my past. The
Raiders are hungry for a winning season, and they're gonna do
whatever it takes to get there. And what we are accomplishing
right now at an early stage, with a new coach and a new offense,
is the development of a winning attitude.
SI: What other differences have you noticed between the Raiders
and Atlanta and Indy?
JG: The Raiders know what we need to win, and they'll do
anything to get that done. All I have to do is go out and play
and not worry about the other things, like what players we have
to get to improve the team.
SI: How talented do you think the Raiders are?
JG: I actually believe that we are the team to beat in the AFC.
I know there are some teams out there that say the same thing,
but if you look position by position and go head-to-head with
other teams defensively and offensively, I would take our
chances over anybody's. And I think you have to believe that.
There's not a better defense in the league. We've got guys like
Chester McGlockton, Darrell Russell and Russell Maryland on the
line, and Terry McDaniel and Albert Lewis in the secondary.
Every one of those guys is in the top two or three at their
position, I believe. Offensively, you don't get any better than
[wide receiver] Timmy Brown. Our running game is as good as
anybody's. As a group, we're better than anybody in the league.
I don't care what people think or what happened in the
past--this is a different Raider team.
SI: Talk about your first meeting with Al Davis. Is it true you
thought about wearing a white sweatsuit?
JG: [Laughs] I did. You always see him on TV in his white
sweatsuit and his towel, and it's a little intimidating. So I
toyed with that, thinking, I'll come in there with a white
sweatsuit on and we'll match. You know, "It's a perfect match."
But he kind of tricked me and came in wearing a black sweatsuit.
So I guess it's a good thing that I didn't wear a white one.
SI: What was that first meeting like?
JG: I was in a room and they brought me a plain turkey sandwich,
nothing on it, and a glass of water. Then Mr. Davis walked in.
It was intimidating for me at first. But it was a good
conversation. I got to know a side of him that maybe a lot of
people don't see. We mainly talked about football and life,
about our families. It was a good way of meeting someone I'd
looked up to my whole life.
SI: At the press conference Davis said the Raiders had
investigated your past in every way possible, even joking that
your phones had been tapped. Did it make you feel weird that you
had been checked out so thoroughly?
JG: Not really. If I was in their shoes, I'd probably do the
same thing. If I was going to get somebody like myself, with the
past I've had--they're just being smart. And I'm glad they did
it, because I'm proud of what I've accomplished. I had nothing
SI: You're wearing number 3, like Daryle Lamonica, and they're
calling you the Mad Bomber II. Does that mean they're going to
turn your arm loose?
JG: I think so. My arm definitely feels like they have [Laughs].
We're going to try to strike fear in the defense. I don't know
in the past whether ... well, I do know. I don't think teams
respected the Raiders' passing game. But with the weapons and
speed we have--and especially the rushing game, which has been
in the top five the past few years--I think the fear of the
Raider offense is back. And if you want to take away the
underneath stuff, we're happy with that. We'll go 50 or 60 yards
up top. And if you want to drop back 10-15 yards off the
receivers, we'll take that, too.
SI: You went out of your way to tell your coach, Joe Bugel, "I'm
not a renegade." Have you said similar things to your teammates?
JG: I didn't want to come in trying to win people over. I know
there were probably a lot of guys wondering, Is this guy really
what we read about? But I just wanted to come in and let my
performance on the field speak for itself. Then they can see
what kind of person I am and pass judgment on me then. I just
want to go in there and be another guy. That's what Coach Bugel
and I talked about. I didn't want him to think that I was a
strange guy, that I was gonna be a problem, because in my mind
I'm not. Certain situations just happened to me the last few
years that were out of my hands. I wanted to let him know that
I'm a proud dad, I'm good to my wife and I have strong religious
SI: Your family is close-knit. How do you feel when people close
to you get hit by the negative publicity aimed at you?
JG: I think it just goes back to growing up where I did. People
[in Indiana] honestly got tired of hearing about Jeff George. My
two older brothers were quarterbacks in high school, and they
were pretty doggone good. I still say they were better than I
was, it's just that I got lucky. So it seemed like people were
always hearing about the George boys, and there was probably a
lot of jealousy there.
SI: Your father, Dave George, had a serious heart attack in
January 1996. Was that the toughest thing you've ever been
JG: It was, because both my parents mean everything to me. I
talk to them every day, usually two or three or four times a
day. Dad is doing great now, but it was a scary moment for all
of us. I was home in Atlanta, and my mom called early in the
morning and gave me the news. When the phone rang I kind of knew
something was wrong. You know how you get those feelings? It was
the worst news that I've ever had. My wife and I got on the next
plane out. We had about 30 people in the waiting room in the
hospital that night. You knew how important Dad was by how many
people showed up. His doctor told us, "Your dad had a heart
attack, but the fact that he's in good shape definitely helped.
There's no reason why he shouldn't live to be 80, 90 years old
if he takes care of himself." When the little things in life
start to bother you, you just think back to that moment and it
gets you through it.
SI: During that time, your wife, Teresa, was pregnant with your
first child, Jeffrey David. Has fatherhood changed you?
JG: Definitely, for the better, because I want to raise him the
way I was brought up. I don't know of any better way. My parents
have been married for almost four decades, and I want my kids to
know that their mom and dad will always be there for them.
SI: Last off-season, while your dad was in the hospital and
Teresa was pregnant, you were negotiating with the Falcons on
what you hoped would be a long-term deal. What went wrong?
JG: After we knew everything was gonna be O.K. with Dad, I flew
back to Atlanta to try to get a deal ironed out. At the time
they told us, "It's gonna happen, don't worry about it. But we
have some other key players that need to be signed." So I said,
"O.K., look, I want to finish my career in Atlanta. Don't worry
about getting me signed. Sign guys like Bob Whitfield and Eric
Metcalf, and whatever you have left, we'll work something out."
So as time passed and when it came time to iron something out,
the Olympics were in Atlanta and I couldn't find these guys.
They wouldn't return our calls. I still hadn't even been offered
a contract. Two preseason games passed and we hadn't made any
progress. Finally they called and said, "We've gotta get
something done." We said, "No kidding." I wanted a long-term
deal, but for whatever reason, it didn't happen. They came to me
and offered me a one-year deal with the promise of unrestricted
free agency at the end of the year, and I took it. I was
frustrated, but now I'm glad they didn't sign me to a long-term
deal. There's no stability in that organization, and it shows.
The players can only do so much. If you don't have stability,
you're not gonna win games.
SI: Your infamous sideline spat with June Jones came when he
benched you after you'd thrown a third-quarter interception. But
how much of that anger was directed toward the owners?
JG: The anger all had to do with the off-season, and I knew that
and they knew that. When they pulled me they threw in the towel
for the rest of the season. I just don't think they knew what
direction they really wanted to go. We were still in the game,
we were marching, the guy made a play on the ball and
intercepted it, and I didn't think anything of it. A couple
minutes later I found out I was being yanked. After the game I
was told by June that all was forgotten--"You're a competitor,
I'm a competitor, things like that happen in the NFL." Then I
was called into his office that Monday and told that I was being
suspended. And then three or four days later I was suspended for
three more weeks--for holding a press conference. What does that
SI: So you think the decision to suspend you came from up top?
JG: Definitely. There's no question about that.
SI: You've had to deal with criticism for a long time, like the
comment last year from Tom Donahoe, the Steelers' director of
football operations, who said his team wasn't interested in you
because it would be like Bob Dole marrying Madonna. Are you
better at dealing with stuff like that now than you used to be?
JG: I'm really not any different. Obviously you mature and you
learn what not to say to the media. But as far as people like
Tom Madonna--whatever his name is--why make statements about
people that you don't even know? He can have his own opinion,
but I don't understand why he'd say that because he's never met
me. I don't pass judgment on anybody, and I don't want them to
pass judgment on me. It's hard for me to imagine saying that
about somebody I don't even know.
SI: Here are some other unflattering terms people have used to
describe you. Mister Me. Poison. Lone Ranger. Coach Killer.
JG: That's all?
SI: Some people think you're arrogant because you wear a
baseball cap backwards on the sidelines and because you tilt
your helmet backwards as you're coming off the field.
JG: If you're winning games, if you're in a good environment,
with a good organization, who cares how you wear your hat? Am I
the only one in the NFL that wears my hat backwards? I don't
think so. I think you see 75 percent of the players with a hat
on backwards. Here's a secret: I actually wear my hat backwards
because I don't look very good with a hat on forward. I don't
look good in hats, so I have to wear it backwards.
SI: Why wear it at all?
JG: I'm losing my hair, so I don't want to reveal my baldness.
With all that stuff, when you get stereotyped at an early age,
it just sticks, and you can't overcome that until you get in a
situation like I'm in now and you win some games. I'm in a good
organization where people don't care how you wear your hat.
COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN INSET [REGIONAL] Jeff George: Has he finally found a home as a Raider? (Q&A, p. 12)
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRAD MANGIN [Jeff George]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRAD MANGIN [Jeff George wearing helmet on back of head]
"We are the team to beat in the AFC. I don't care what people
think--this is a different Raider team."
"I didn't want Coach Bugel to think I was a strange guy or a
problem, because in my mind I'm not."