His sideburns will need work. However, should Oakland Raiders
owner Al Davis ever choose to moonlight as an Elvis
impersonator, he will not have to spend a cent on the wardrobe.
Despite 98[degree] heat Davis showed up for one of his team's
afternoon practices last week at St. Edward's University in
Austin sporting a black jumpsuit. "Al," said Dallas Cowboys
owner Jerry Jones, incredulous at the sartorial decision of his
fellow maverick. "Black?"
Came the reply, "My men are in black, so I'm in black."
By choosing to suffer, Davis achieved solidarity not only with
his players but also with Raiders fans, who have watched the
Silver and Black miss the playoffs eight times in the last 11
years. Assisting Davis in his efforts to return the franchise to
its past glory are new quarterback Jeff George, who has set
passing records while alienating teammates and coaches wherever
he has played, and Joe Bugel, the team's third coach of the
'90s. Bugel's chief qualifications for the job were strong
support from the players--he joined the coaching staff in 1995
as assistant head coach--and an eagerness to implement, to a
tee, the policies of Davis, whose lips, surprisingly, do not
move when Bugel speaks.
Last week marked the fifth time in six years that the Raiders
have traveled to Texas to work out with the Cowboys. Having
spent three days bludgeoning one another in the sauna that was
central Texas, the two teams trekked 200 miles north to Irving
for a Sunday-night exhibition game at Texas Stadium. Injuries to
five Dallas cornerbacks and the excused absence of another
(Deion Sanders went 1 for 4 for the Cincinnati Reds in an 8-3
loss to the San Francisco Giants that afternoon), combined with
Oakland's determination to reestablish a vertical passing game,
resulted in a 34-27 Raiders win.
Working against scrub corners, Oakland quarterbacks completed 11
passes for 264 yards and three touchdowns. Which is not to say
the George Era began with a bang. The man who has been entrusted
to resurrect the Raiders was 3 of 9 for 47 yards and no
touchdowns, bailed out early a couple of times in the face of a
stiff rush and was flagged for intentional grounding. When he
left the game after three series, was he burning for redemption?
"I hate the preseason, so I was glad when they decided to take
me out," said George, who doesn't think much of two-a-days,
In summers past these shared practices have featured fisticuffs
and football in nearly equal measure. Last July's main event was
sparked by the antics of Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett, who
put a late hit on Jeff Hostetler after the Raiders quarterback
had released a pass. Hostetler retaliated by throwing a wild
punch that slightly injured his own right hand. How times
change. Hoss is now with the Washington Redskins, having been
displaced by George, and Lett is home in Dallas, tinkling into a
cup three times a week. Lett will be out until at least early
December as he serves a one-year suspension for his second
violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy.
Last week the Raiders and the Cowboys followed the example of
their chummy owners. There were no fights to speak of, even
though the teams in Austin were two of the NFL's most penalized
in 1996: Oakland on the field, Dallas off it. Both clubs
embarrassed themselves last season and have too much at stake in
1997 to be wasting time brawling. Also, as Oakland strong safety
Lorenzo Lynch pointed out, "It's hotter than it was last year.
Heat like this takes the fight right out of you."
If the Raiders seemed more focused than in seasons past, it's
because after missing the playoffs for three years running and
leading the AFC in penalties for two straight seasons, they are
out of excuses. The players got the coach they wanted, and the
owner got the quarterback he wanted. Davis also plucked Super
Bowl MVP Desmond Howard off of the free-agent market, although a
strained hamstring sidelined the return specialist for most of
the week in Austin. Thus no light was shed on the mystery of
whether Howard, a Heisman Trophy winner who has already flopped
as a receiver with three NFL teams, will succeed as a wideout in
Standing with Jones last week, Davis remarked on what he
perceived to be the Cowboys' "sense of urgency." It was an
accurate read. Dallas began the 1996 season with two players
serving substance-abuse-related suspensions and ended it with an
upset loss to the Carolina Panthers in the NFC divisional
playoffs. In an emotional speech the following day, Jones
pleaded with the players to keep their noses clean in the
off-season, adding that there would be far less tolerance than
in the past for those who did not.
This was welcome news to quarterback Troy Aikman. "Every
organization has off-the-field incidents; we had them when Jimmy
[Johnson] was here," he said before last Friday's practice.
"What bothered me more was the way the organization dealt with
them, which basically was to bury its head in the sand."
Permissiveness is out; Big Brother is in. "We've used up all our
benefit-of-the-doubt collateral," says Jones in justifying his
new, tough-love attitude. (No word on how much collateral
remains in the account of coach Barry Switzer, who was arrested
on Monday after a loaded revolver was discovered in his carry-on
luggage at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Switzer was
detained for almost two hours, then released on his own
recognizance.) To make sure his employees walk the straight and
narrow, Jones put the word out that the Cowboy's Sports Cafe, a
restaurant and bar down the street from the team's Valley Ranch
headquarters outside Dallas, was off-limits. How firm was this
decree? Ask Kendell Watkins. Not long after the backup tight end
was spotted patronizing the forbidden watering hole, he was
released on July 14.
To better enforce curfew at training camp, and to monitor the
comings and goings of the players and their guests, Jones took
the Orwellian measure of installing video cameras in the
hallways of the players' dorms. He has strongly discouraged
players from frequenting not only the Cowboy's Sports Cafe but
also certain other establishments in Austin and Dallas and has
retained the services of private detectives to inform him of who
Despite having their place declared off-limits, the hardworking
employees of Expose, a topless bar within walking distance of
St. Edward's, are muddling through. Hanging forlornly on a wall
in the club, a favorite haunt of players since Dallas moved its
camp from Thousand Oaks, Calif., to Austin in 1990, is a banner
that says WELCOME BACK COWBOYS. It had hung outside, on the
marquee, until Jones sent his gumshoes to ask that it be taken
"It's not that big a deal," Kris, a woman who was working the
cash register, said last Friday night. "Most of those guys are
lousy tippers anyway. They're used to getting everything for
Demetris Theocharus, whose business card identifies him as
Expose's general manager and whose office calendar has the words
COWBOYS ARRIVE! printed in the square for July 18, reports that
several "high profile" Pokes ducked in for about 40 minutes two
weeks ago. While he would not identify the players who came
calling, he did confirm that wide receiver Michael Irvin was not
That's a good thing, considering Irvin's recent history with
exotic dancers. After blowing off Dallas's off-season minicamps,
then floating the possibility that he might retire, Irvin
reported with his teammates on July 18. His presence in camp
goes a long way toward explaining why Aikman, miserable most of
last season, has been in such excellent spirits of late. It's
not just because his go-to guy is back. Irvin has been flinging
himself into drills with unparalleled gusto, challenging his
teammates to match his work ethic. "Michael is the reason our
practices have been so crisp," says Aikman. "He has that impact."
"Usually by this point in camp, Troy has punted a ball into the
bleachers in frustration," says Cowboys radio analyst Babe
Laufenberg, Aikman's friend and former backup. "He hasn't
exhibited the leg. He's smiling like a kid at a fantasy camp."
Aikman and Irvin spent the week essentially playing catch over
the heads of Oakland's defensive backs. The Dallas offense,
which scored just 27 touchdowns last season, down from 51 the
previous year, appears to be off the respirator. Even with
Emmitt Smith watching from the sideline, Aikman (8 of 10 for 104
yards and two touchdowns) moved his team with comic ease on its
first two possessions, then took the rest of the night off. The
two touchdowns were one more than the offense could muster under
Aikman in five exhibition games (17 series) last summer.
Unlike last August, the line is healthy and in sync--for the
most part. Responding to a spate of mental lapses at a July 28
practice, Switzer lit into his offense, cursing a blue streak
while thrice shoving 6'6", 328-pound right tackle Erik Williams,
then bruising his hand while slapping 6'7", 331-pound lineman
George Hegamin on the helmet.
Switzer's uncharacteristic outburst, the talk of camp early in
the week, was soon overshadowed by the play of rookie outside
linebacker Dexter Coakley, a bashful, sculpted third-round pick
out of Division I-AA Appalachian State who runs 4.47 in the 40
and has already won a starting job. Coakley was the star of last
Thursday night's controlled scrimmage against the Raiders,
making four unassisted tackles, deflecting a pass and generally
flying from sideline to sideline.
"I've never seen a linebacker as quick as this kid," said
Cowboys scouting director Larry Lacewell as he walked off the
field that night. Asked to comment on the 5'10", 215-pound
Coakley's lack of height, Lacewell said, "We didn't bring him in
here to screw in lightbulbs."
Among the best players on the field for the Raiders that night
was another rookie--6'5", 320-pound defensive tackle Darrell
Russell, whom Oakland took with the second pick in the April
draft. Russell, who played at Southern Cal, batted down a pass
and racked up two "sacks" (players needed only to touch the
quarterback to get a sack).
After practice the next day Raiders defensive line coach Bill
Urbanik said of Russell, "He's going to be O.K., I guess."
Russell, who was standing next to Urbanik, smiled and shook his
head. As soon as the rookie was out of earshot, the coach said,
"He's going to be great."
So is Orlando Pace, whom the St. Louis Rams took with the first
pick in the draft. The Raiders had traded up from 10th to second
in hopes of drafting the gargantuan tackle, who they hoped would
shore up an offensive line depleted by the free-agency defection
of right guard Kevin Gogan to the San Francisco 49ers. As
presently constituted, Oakland's line may have problems
protecting its quarterback. However, it's impossible to get team
brass to concede that point or even to admit that they wanted
Pace in the first place. The Raiders have never seen much of an
upside in candor. Bugel prefers blind optimism. He didn't do
himself any favors at the press conference in January announcing
his hiring. That day Bugel promised to deliver to Oakland not
one but multiple Super Bowls.
Super Bowl talk is less outlandish coming from the Cowboys.
Aikman says his team has the talent, "barring injuries"--and, of
course, recidivism--to win its fourth NFL title in six years. If
that happens, the league will be obliged to echo the sentiment
already expressed by the good folks at Expose: Welcome back,
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRAD MANGIN With St. Edward's as backdrop, the teams crammed a pair of two-a-day practices and a scrimmage into 72 hours. [Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys in scrimmage]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRAD MANGIN George, who looked less than dazzling, would just as soon have passed up workouts in the 98[degree] heat. [Jeff George throwing pass]
scrimmagePHOTOGRAPHS BY BRAD MANGIN Rookie surprise Coakley has flexed some early muscle and earned a starting linebacker's job for Dallas. [Dexter Coakley]