The 1991 Los Angeles Raiders came into the season as a team that appeared to be on the upswing under head coach Art Shell. Shell took over the team four games into the 1989 season and got the Raiders to .500. In 1990, the Silver-n-Black won a division title and reached the AFC Championship Game. In that light, the 1991 edition looks like a bit of disappointment. Yes, they made it back to the playoffs. But they slipped in the division standings and made an early exit.
Los Angeles had two legends in the backfield, Roger Craig and Marcus Allen. Craig had been signed away from the San Francisco 49ers, but at age 31, struggled to a 590-yard season and only gained 3.6 yards-per-carry. Allen only played half the year, left the franchise on bad terms and later revived his career in Kansas City.
Another pickup from the great 49er teams of the 1980s worked out better. Ronnie Lott came over to play strong safety and made 1st-team All-NFL, intercepting eight passes and adding to his Hall of Fame resume. Lott was joined in the secondary by corner Lionel Washington, who had five picks. Up front, the decline of the great defensive end, Howie Long, was made up for with a Pro Bowl season from Greg Townsend on the other side. The defense ranked a respectable 12th in the league in points allowed.
But the offense was a problem. Jay Schroeder, the strong-armed quarterback, could get the ball down the field, but he was near the bottom of the league in both completion percentage and throwing interceptions. While the Raider defense was pretty good, it couldn’t compensate for a mediocre, mistake-prone offense that couldn’t run the ball.
Unless there was help coming from elsewhere, and the Los Angeles special teams were outstanding. Placekicker Jeff Jaeger and punter Jeff Gossett were each the best in the league at what they did. And returning kicks? Tim Brown, whose Hall of Fame career rested on his terrific ability as a return man.
The Raiders opened the season with a marquee late Sunday afternoon game in Houston, where the Oilers were another playoff contender. It couldn’t have gone much worse for Los Angeles, as they turned it over four times, got pounded for over 200 rush yards and were humiliated, 47-17.
A visit from archrival Denver was enough to stir the pride of the rush defense, as they shut down the Broncos on the ground, got 99 yards from Craig and put themselves in the win column, 16-13. One week later, against the putrid Indianapolis Colts, Mervyn Fernandez caught seven balls for 90 yards, providing enough offense to win 16-zip.
Los Angeles went to Atlanta, where the Falcons were starting a season that would end in the playoffs. The Raiders allowed an early defensive touchdown by Atlanta and couldn’t quite overcome it in a 21-17 loss. A home game with San Francisco was ugly, with neither team finding the end zone. But the Raider kicking game delivered—Jaeger drilled three field goals from 40-plus yards. The defense intercepted Steve Young twice and twice stopped 49er drives inside the 12-yard line. LA won 12-6.
Another home date with mediocre San Diego saw the up-and-down season continue, as the Raiders could not run the ball, committed three turnovers and lost 21-13. Then they went up to Seattle for a Sunday Night appearance and dug themselves a 17-0 hole in the first quarter after Schroeder threw a Pick-6. But the quarterback recovered, going 28/52 for 274 yards on the night. Fernandez and tight end Ethan Horton caught nine balls apiece. Washington’s two interceptions keyed a five-turnover effort from the defense and Los Angeles rallied to a 23-20 win.
The formula was similar the following week against the intra-city rival Rams, as the Raiders trailed 17-10 in the fourth quarter. Lott had two interceptions, Schroeder went 15/26 for 271 yards and they pulled out a 20-17 win. But on the final Monday of October, at rival and fellow contender Kansas City, the script got flipped. Los Angeles led 21-10 in the fourth quarter, but three interceptions thrown by Schroeder caught up with them in a 24-21 loss.
The bye was much needed for the 5-4 Raiders and they looked like a new team upon their return two weeks later. They went to Denver, won the turnover battle 3-zip and clung to a 17-10 lead late. When the Broncos scored what appeared to be the tying touchdown, Los Angeles blocked the extra point. Then they blocked a potential game-winning field goal to survive, 17-16.
Seattle, a AFC West rival prior to 2002, made a return visit to the Los Angeles Coliseum. Schroeder threw touchdown passes to Willie Gault, Mike Tice and a 51-yarder to Horton in an easy 31-7 win. A road trip to struggling Cincinnati saw the Raiders roll to a 38-14 win behind a special teams touchdown from Brown and a defensive score from corner Elvis Patterson.
A Sunday Night visit to San Diego wasn’t inspiring, as Schroeder threw three interceptions and Los Angeles trailed 7-6. But Jaeger delivered again, with a 53-yard field goal to win the game. The Raiders were 9-4, tied with the Broncos for first in the AFC West, and both teams were tied with the Oilers in the push for the #2 seed and a first-round bye. But the remaining schedule was tough, and the 1991 Los Angeles Raiders had won for the last time this season.
Buffalo was the defending AFC champ and rolling to the top seed in the playoffs again. The Raiders played well and led 27-14 into the third quarter at home. But they were shredded by Jim Kelly and Andre Reed, coughed up the lead and lost in overtime, 30-27. Schroeder played poorly on a Monday Night visit to New Orleans and he ended up spraining both his ankles in a 27-0 loss.
Denver had the AFC West locked up and Los Angeles entered their home finale with Kansas City knowing they would be playing the Chiefs the following week in the wild-card round regardless. Homefield advantage was at stake and with Schroeder hurt, the Raiders had to get their quarterback situation figured out.
They gave the start to Todd Marinovich, who went 23/40 for 243 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Horton was the preferred target, catching ten balls for 89 yards. But the rush defense was hammered and the result was a 27-21 loss.
Marinovich had played well enough to get the start the following week in Kansas City when wild-card weekend opened on early Saturday afternoon. But even though the defense played much better, the young quarterback came apart at the seams. He threw four interceptions. The turnovers—six in all—combined with nine penalties—sent the Raiders to a 10-6 defeat in one of the most poorly played postseason games in league history.
The 1991 season proved relatively typical for what the Los Angeles Raiders would produce for the next few years. They remained a playoff contender, going 26-22 over the three regular seasons from 1992-94 and a postseason victory over Denver in a 1993 wild-card game would be included. But the promise they had coming into the ‘91 season of eventually becoming a Super Bowl team, was never fulfilled.