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3 OAKLAND RAIDERS

Al Davis figured that if his team was going to miss the
playoffs, as it has in four of the past five years, it might as
well miss them playing Raiders football. So he fired Mike White,
his coach of the last two seasons, and promoted assistant head
coach Joe Bugel. Discarded also was quarterback Jeff Hostetler
and the West Coast offense, which Davis had long associated with
those Chardonnay-sipping dandies across the Bay. In its stead we
will see (cue the NFL Films kettledrums, please) a return to the
vertical passing game.

With Daryle Lamonica presumably declining an offer to attempt a
comeback, Oakland signed free-agent quarterback Jeff George, the
former Falcon who perfectly fits the Raiders profile--talented
yet misunderstood. Understand this about George: He can throw
the ball as far as anyone in the league. And as Bugel says, "The
thing that sets him apart is accuracy. He can make a good player
great because he puts the ball where you can catch it. There are
no circus catches with him."

There are, alas, circus drops. During the Raiders' annual
weeklong visit to the Cowboys' training site in Austin last
month, fifth-year wideout James Jett, whom the Raiders had
penciled in as the starting wide receiver opposite Tim Brown,
found new and amusing ways to drop the ball. One pass went
through his hands, bounced off his knee and went high in the
air; another hit him in the face mask.

Considering Jett's difficulties and the fact that tight end
Rickey Dudley dropped 17 passes last year as a rookie, the
question is, Do the Raiders have the receivers to make the
vertical viable? The answer is yes, because Dudley seems to have
rediscovered his hand-eye coordination and wideout Kenny Shedd
was among the most impressive players in camp. In a preseason
game against Dallas, Shedd caught two passes for 117 yards,
including a 74-yard touchdown during which he blew past a
Cowboys safety who had an angle on him.

"Kenny Shedd is going to be a big-time player," Bugel said
afterward. "It's just a matter of getting him on the field."
Which will not be as simple as it seems. Jett, with his
sprinter's speed, is a Davis favorite, and there is also Desmond
Howard to consider. The former Packers return specialist and
Super Bowl MVP, idle for a week of the preseason with a strained
hamstring, was promised a shot at a regular wideout spot.

Even if Howard is underwhelming as a receiver, as he was with
his three previous NFL teams, he will give the Raiders' passing
game a shot in the arm. With Howard returning punts--he set an
NFL single-season record with 875 return yards in '96--Brown,
who has performed that task in each of his nine NFL seasons,
will finally be able to focus on catching passes. "I never
hugged and kissed a man in my life until Desmond walked in the
gate," Brown says. "Now I can be the best receiver I can be."

Brown caught 90 passes last season and pronounced himself
disappointed because he averaged just 12.3 yards per catch, a
number certain to spike up this season. When the Raiders say
they're going back to a vertical passing game, that doesn't mean
a bomb on every series. But it does mean receivers will be
lengthening most routes to at least 15 yards. Last year, in the
West Coast offense, Brown was catching a lot of balls in the
eight- to 12-yard range, then getting buried by linebackers.

As the season wore on, Hostetler lost confidence in other
receivers and tended to look exclusively for Brown. Says Bugel,
"Now we have a quarterback who understands we have to throw the
ball all over the field, not just to one guy."

It helps when more than one guy can catch the ball. Five days
after the exhibition game against Dallas, Jett snagged a
redemptive 52-yard bomb from George in a game against the
Packers. "Other guys are going to make the plays," says Jett,
acknowledging that Shedd is putting heat on him, "so I have to
be ready."

While Jett tries to keep an eye on the ball, keep an eye on
Shedd.

--A.M.

COLOR PHOTO: MICKEY PFLEGER With punt-return chores out of his hands, Brown can focus on being an even better wide receiver. [Tim Brown in game against Philadelphia Eagles]

BY THE NUMBERS

1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 Record: 7-9 (fourth in AFC West)

Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 135.9 (3) 192.4 (23) 328.3 (8)
DEFENSE 104.8 (15) 188.8 (7) 293.6 (8)

A Disappointment, by George

Jeff George, whom the Colts selected first in the 1990 NFL
draft, has hardly turned out to be the quarterback of the
decade. After seven NFL seasons he arrives in Oakland with the
second-worst record as a starter among active quarterbacks
(minimum 25 starts) and the worst record among quarterbacks
chosen No. 1 in the past 30 years.

Worst Win-Loss Records Among Active Quarterbacks

Quarterback W-L Pct.

John Friesz 12-24 .333
Jeff George 30-54 .357
Vinny Testaverde 44-75 .370
Billy Joe Tolliver 13-22 .371
Trent Dilfer 13-21 .382
Rick Mirer 20-31 .392
Chris Chandler 28-42 .400
Craig Erickson 14-21 .400

Win-Loss Records of QBs Selected First in NFL Draft (1967-97)

Quarterback, draft year W-L-T Pct.

Terry Bradshaw, 1970 107-51 .677
John Elway, 1983 126-76-1 .623
Troy Aikman, 1989 70-43 .619
Drew Bledsoe, 1993 32-27 .542
Jim Plunkett, 1971 72-72 .500
Steve Bartkowski, 1975 59-68 .465
Vinny Testaverde, 1987 44-75 .370
Jeff George, 1990 30-54 .357

SCHEDULE SKINNY

Who says Al Davis has no friends in the league office? The
Raiders open with six games against teams who missed the
playoffs last year. If they can win, say, five of those, the
Silver and Black might actually start selling out Oakland
Coliseum.

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
NFL rank: 22 (tie)
Opponents' 1996 winning percentage: .484
Games against playoff teams: 4

The Lineup With 1996 Statistics

Coach: Joe Bugel

Offensive Backs

QB Jeff George[*] 99 att. 56 comp. 56.6% 698 yds.
3 TDs 3 int. 76.1 rtg.
RB Napoleon Kaufman 150 att. 874 yds. 5.8 avg.
22 rec. 143 yds. 6.5 avg. 2 TDs
FB Derrick Fenner 67 att. 245 yds. 3.7 avg.
31 rec. 252 yds. 8.1 avg. 8 TDs

Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen

WR Tim Brown 90 rec. 1,104 yds. 9 TDs
WR James Jett 43 rec. 601 yds. 4 TDs
WR Kenny Shedd 3 rec. 87 yds. 1 TD
TE Rickey Dudley 34 rec. 386 yds. 4 TDs
PK Cole Ford 36/36 PATs 24/31 FGs 108 pts.
KR Desmond Howard[*] 22 ret. 20.9 avg. 0 TDs
PR Desmond Howard[*] 58 ret. 15.1 avg. 3 TDs
LT Pat Harlow 6'6" 290 lbs. 10 games 9 starts
LG Steve Wisniewski 6'4" 295 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Barret Robbins 6'3" 305 lbs. 14 games 14 starts
RG Lester Holmes[*] 6'3" 305 lbs. 16 games 14 starts
RT Lincoln Kennedy 6'6" 325 lbs. 16 games 16 starts

Defense

LE Anthony Smith 13 tackles 2 sacks
LT Chester McGlockton 63 tackles 8 sacks
RT Russell Maryland 52 tackles 2 sacks
RE Lance Johnstone 32 tackles 1 sack
OLB Mike Morton 43 tackles 2 int.
MLB Greg Biekert 98 tackles 0 int.
OLB Rob Fredrickson 47 tackles 0 int.
CB Terry McDaniel 48 tackles 5 int.
SS James Trapp 23 tackles 1 int.
FS Eric Turner[*] 81 tackles 5 int.
CB Albert Lewis 54 tackles 2 int.
P Leo Araguz 13 punts 41.1 avg.

[*]New acquisition