Art Shell’s first full season coaching the Raiders in 1990 had been a clear success, with a division title and AFC Championship Game appearance to show for it. But the next two years marked decline. A year later, the Raiders snuck into the playoffs and were quickly eliminated. In 1992, they slipped under .500. The 1993 Los Angeles Raiders got the trend reversed, returning to postseason play and advancing once they got there.
Making a change at quarterback was a priority in the offseason, and the Raiders went out and signed Jeff Hostetler. A career backup, the veteran Hostetler had made the most of his opportunity in 1990 with the New York Giants. When Phil Simms got hurt late in the year, Hostetler took over and led the Giants to a Super Bowl victory. That’s the kind of performance that will get you a shot at starting.
What’s more, Hostetler’s arm strength fit the desires of longtime Raider owner Al Davis to have his offenses built around the home run ball. Even though Hostetler’s 56 percent completion rate was low, his 7.7 yards-per-attempt ranked fourth among starting quarterbacks. And he was in the top half of the league when it came to avoiding interceptions.
Tim Brown was the heart and soul of the passing game. The future Hall of Fame receiver and return man had a Pro Bowl year in 1993, catching 80 balls for nearly 1,200 yards. Tight end Ethan Horton caught 43 more passes.
Surrounding the steady Brown and the consistent Horton were a group of speedsters who could stretch the field. James Jett averaged a stunning 23.4 yards-per-catch. Rocket Ismail and Anthony Wright were other playmakers on the outside. Having receivers with names like “Jett” and “Rocket” is a pretty apt way of capturing how explosive the Los Angeles passing game could be.
And that’s a good thing, because the running game lacked consistency. Even though guards Steve Wisniewski and Max Montoya made the Pro Bowl, the Raiders could not run the ball. Their future Hall of Fame legend, Marcus Allen, had a bad falling out with Davis and signed on with AFC West rival Kansas City. Allen was productive. His replacement in L.A., Greg Robinson, was not.
All of which is why, even with the vertical passing game, the Raider offense ranked 14th, squarely in the middle of the 28-team league, for points scored.
The defense was anchored by its strength up front. Howie Long was 33-years-old, but the future Hall of Famer had another Pro Bowl season at defensive end. Anthony Smith recorded 12 1/2 sacks. Greg Townsend added 7 ½ sacks of his own on the edge. Chester McGlockton got home seven times coming up the middle.
But the back seven was a problem. Even though Terry McDaniel was a Pro Bowler at corner, the Raiders were vulnerable and they finished 21st in the league in points allowed.
No problems of any kind showed in the season opener at home against the Minnesota Vikings. Facing a team that had made the playoffs in ’92 and would again this season, Hostetler went 23/27 for 225 yards. The defense had the Vikes under control in a 24-7 win.
A Sunday Night trip to the old Seattle Kingdome was next. In a 10-10 tie in the second quarter, Hostetler hit Brown with a 33-yard touchdown strike. The defense made it stand up. Anthony Smith had four sacks, and the Raiders won 17-13.
The Cleveland Browns, gradually improving in their third year under Bill Belichick, came to the L.A. Coliseum in Week 3. The Raider defense was playing well and intercepted four passes. They led 13-0 after three quarters. But the offensive line was having an awful afternoon. There was no running game. Hostetler was sacked five times and eventually knocked out. The lead disappeared in a 19-16 loss.
After a bye week, Los Angeles went to Kansas City for a big divisional showdown. Hostetler was still not ready to return and veteran Vince Evans got the start. But the week off didn’t help the pass protection—Evans hit the deck six times in a 24-9 loss.
Hostetler got the start the following week at home against the Jets. But an early Pick-6 showed he clearly wasn’t ready. Evans stepped in facing a 17-0 hole. In a game that would prove significant as the season came down the stretch, Evans threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to Jett and a 68-yarder to Wright. The backup rallied the Raiders to a 24-20 win.
That set the stage for a Monday Night visit to traditional AFC West rival Denver, and John Elway. Hostetler got the start and this time he was ready. He played mistake-free football and Brown caught six balls for 116 yards. Los Angeles led 13-3 in the fourth quarter. The lack of a running game gave Elway time to rally the Broncos to a 20-20 tie and force overtime. It was L.A. kicker Jeff Jaeger that ended up the hero, nailing a 53-yard field goal to win it.
In 1993, the NFL experimented with the concept of a double bye. It was an idea that mercifully ended after one year. The Raiders took their second bye week coming off the Monday Night win. When they returned, the San Diego Chargers came to town.
The Bolts had won the AFC West in 1992 and would reach the Super Bowl in 1994. This year in between was more mediocre. When Hostetler got the day started with a 71-yard TD strike to Brown, all looked well. The quarterback went on to a 20/32 for 424 yards performance.
But he also made the game’s signature mistake. In a 17-17 tie and driving for the lead in the third quarter, Hostetler was intercepted in the end zone and it came back all the way. That was the difference in what ended a tough 30-23 loss.
Not having a running game was killing the Raiders and undoubtedly galled Shell, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman in his playing days for the Silver-N-Black. That changed at Chicago on November 7. A balanced running game produced 179 yards on the ground and the Raiders got a 16-14 survival win over a team on the fringe of the NFC playoff picture.
At 5-3, the home game with the Chiefs was a big one. With Robinson rushing for 90 yards, L.A. was up 17-7 at the half. But in an inverse of what this offense normally was, Hostetler was erratic. He was only 16/35 for 187 yards. The second half was a disaster and ended in a 31-20 loss.
The return visit to San Diego was next. To look at the individual stats suggests the Raiders dominated the game. They controlled the ball over 41 minutes. Jett caught seven balls for 138 yards. Robinson gained 89 yards on the ground. But bogging down in the red zone kept it close. Even so, L.A. was able to get out of town with a 12-7 win.
At 6-4, a date with lowly Cincinnati seemed just what the doctor ordered, even if it was on the road. But the Raiders played their worst game of the season. Hostetler was awful. There was no running game. An embarrassing 16-10 loss put L.A.’s playoff hopes in serious jeopardy.
Especially with a road trip to Buffalo coming up. The Bills were the three-time defending AFC champions. Playing them on the road to begin December wasn’t exactly an ideal spot, especially in a must-win situation. The Raiders fell behind 24-16 going into the fourth quarter, with Hostetler being sacked five times. What’s more, an eight-point deficit prior to 1994 when the two-point conversion was introduced at the pro level, was a two-score deficit.
Their backs to the wall, the Raiders responded. Brown caught ten passes for 183 yards on the day and that included a 29-yard TD pass that got Los Angeles back in the game. Jaeger’s 47-yard field goal delivered L.A. the win they had to have.
Kansas City was leading the AFC West comfortably at 9-3. Prior to 2002 though, there were only three divisions per conference. Meaning that three wild-card spots were available to fill out the postseason bracket. Miami seemed a lock for one spot at 9-3 and in a race with Buffalo in the AFC East. After that, the Raiders joined the Broncos, Jets and Steelers at 7-5. It was a wide open race to the finish.
Seattle was in the AFC West prior to that ’02 realignment and their return visit to the L.A. Coliseum was up next. Hostetler hit Jett on a 56-yard touchdown pass to get the scoring started. Brown showcased his return skills with a 74-yard punt return to the house. Hostetler was 18/25 for 278 yards and no mistakes. The Raiders led 27-9 after three quarters and then hung on to win 27-23.
Meanwhile, everything else tightened up. Miami lost. Kansas City lost to Denver. The Raiders were within a game in the AFC West and within a game of the top wild-card—which, being the 4-seed, had a home game as its reward.
Business still had to get taken care of at home against lowly Tampa Bay. Hostetler and Wright got the game off to a fast start, with a 27-yard touchdown pass. Los Angeles took a quick 14-0 lead and then chiseled out a 27-20 win.
News from around the league was mostly good. The Dolphins lost again. So did the Jets and Steelers. The Raiders, Broncos and Dolphins were now 9-5 and holding down the three wild-card spots.
A road trip to Green Bay was next. The Packers were seeking their first playoff berth in the Brett Favre era. On a frigid day, the Raiders could do nothing offensively. Neither team protected their quarterback particularly well, but Los Angeles was also turning the ball over and unable to run it. They were routed 28-0.
That ended any longshot hopes of chasing down Kansas City for the division title and prevented Los Angeles from clinching a playoff spot, but it wasn’t a disaster. Every other wild-card contender had lost, so it was still Raiders, Broncos and Dolphins at 9-6 and in control, with the Steelers and Jets giving chase at 8-7.
Denver was coming to town for the season finale. The tiebreaker situation meant the Broncos had already clinched a spot. In the early afternoon out East, Miami completed their collapse with an overtime loss in New England. That result clinched a spot for the Raiders. By the time kickoff arrived, the Raiders and Broncos knew they would be playing each other the following week. This game would determine where.
When L.A. dug themselves a 30-13 hole in the third quarter, team travel agents were undoubtedly looking at flights to Denver. Then Hostetler threw a 24-yard TD pass to Brown. A field goal cut the lead to seven points. A short TD pass to Wright tied it. Hostetler finished the afternoon 25/41 for 310 yards and no interceptions. For the second time this season, Jaeger beat the Broncos in overtime. The 33-30 win ensured that Wild-Card Weekend would conclude the following Sunday at the Coliseum.
Both Hostetler and Elway were ready for the showdown. A nine-yard TD pass to Horton and a 65-yard strike to Brown gave the Raiders a 14-7 lead after one quarter. Hostetler then threw a 54-yard TD pass to Jett. But Elway was responding in kind and the game went to the locker room at 21-21.
With both quarterbacks having huge days, it would be, ironically enough, the running game that would save Los Angeles. Shell gave the ball to Napoleon McCallum and the veteran running back who had his career briefly interrupted to serve in the U.S. Navy, delivered in spades. McCallum carried 13 times for 81 yards. In the second half, he found the end zone three times. The Raiders pulled away to a 42-24 win.
Thus, at the season’s money moments, the Raiders had outscored their most hated rival 62-24 going back to the start of the fourth quarter in the regular season finale. And it earned them a ticket to Buffalo.
Shell kept giving the football to McCallum and the early Saturday afternoon television audience watched in surprise as Los Angeles jumped on Buffalo for a 17-6 lead in the second quarter. This Bills team was a veteran group though, and a year earlier had rallied from a 35-3 deficit in the third quarter to beat the Houston Oilers in the playoffs. Being down 11 in the first half wasn’t going to intimidate them.
Buffalo cut it to 17-13 by the half and took a 22-17 lead in the third quarter. Hostetler and Brown then found some more magic—an 86-yard touchdown pass that gave them a 23-22 lead. They took that lead into the fourth quarter, but the Bills got the last word—a touchdown pass that ended the Raiders’ season with a 29-23 loss.
The 1993 season was still a success. It was a 10-win season, a return to the playoffs and a win over Denver when they got there. It’s ending was a respectable loss to a team that went on to a record fourth straight AFC title.
Where the disappointment really comes in is that this was the last high point for Shell. When a 1994 team of great expectations went only 9-7 and missed the playoffs, he was fired. Mediocrity was the story for the rest of the decade, until Jon Gruden got them back into the playoffs in 2000 and reached the Super Bowl in 2002.