After a great run through the 1970s and the first part of the 1980s—a stretch that included three Super Bowl victories—the proud Raider franchise was in a bit of a dry spell. The 1990 Los Angeles Raiders came into the season looking to snap a four-year postseason drought. They did just that in the first full season under head coach Art Shell, reaching the AFC Championship Game.
Shell, who had been a Hall of Fame offensive tackle, on some of the best Raider teams, had taken over midstream in 1989. Inheriting a 1-3 team, Shell went 7-5 and created some optimism for the ’90 season. That optimism would be fueled this year by a defense that ranked seventh in the NFL in points allowed.
The front four was the key to the defensive success. Greg Townsend was a Pro Bowler at one end, with 12 ½ sacks. On other end, Howie Long’s best years were behind him, but the future Hall of Famer was still productive at age 30. Scott Davis recorded ten more sacks coming up the middle.
The Raider offense had two more Pro Bowlers in the trenches. Steve Wisniewski was in his second year at left guard and beginning a long and productive career. Don Mosebar was one of the league’s top center. They paved the way for a running game that included another future Hall of Fame player in Marcus Allen.
Allen ran for nearly 700 yards. That figure is low, because he had to share duty with someone who was doing a little moonlighting. Bo Jackson spent the first month of the football season playing baseball in Kansas City. After he got to the Raiders in October, Bo averaged 5.6 yards per carry and made the Pro Bowl.
Jay Schroeder was at quarterback and he had the big downfield arm that owner Al Davis traditionally loved. Even though Schroeder’s 55 percent completion rate was below average, his 8.5 yards-per-attempt was the best in the NFL. And with a 19-9 TD/INT ratio, he was pretty good at steering clear of mistakes. He had big play threats in Mervyn Fernandez and Willie Gault. And the Raider offense was a respectable 13th for points scored.
The Raiders’ ancient rival, the Denver Broncos, had been to the Super Bowl three of the past four seasons, and they were coming to the Los Angeles Coliseum to open the 1990 campaign. L.A. trailed 6-0 at the half. But they got two defensive touchdowns in the third quarter. Four sacks—two from Long—helped put away the 14-9 win.
Los Angeles went on the road to play Seattle. Prior to the realignment of 2002, the Seahawks were an AFC West team, along with the division’s four current occupants. The Seahawks were a respectable team in 1990. And the Raider offense was again extremely sluggish. They trailed 10-3 after three quarters. Schroeder finally opened up. He threw a touchdown pass to Fernandez and finished the day 10/17 for 236 yards. The Raiders pulled out a 17-13 road win in the old Kingdome.
Pittsburgh had gone to the playoffs in 1989 and would contend to the final week this season. The Raiders led 6-3 after three quarters, keyed by two sacks from outside linebacker Aaron Wallace. A TD run from Allen gave them some breathing room and a 66-yard Schroeder-to-Fernandez scoring strike sealed the 20-3 win.
They still hadn’t scored an offensive touchdown prior to the fourth quarter. But with the defense playing this well, it wasn’t coming back to bite. Facing a good Chicago Bears team, Wallace got two more sacks and the Raiders finished with six sacks overall. Townsend recovered a fumble for a touchdown and L.A.s 24-10 win pushed the record to 4-0.
It set up a big game at Buffalo, one of the AFC’s top teams. This time the offense got off to a better start and the Raiders took a 24-14 lead. This time it was L.A.’s opponent doing all the strange scoring in the fourth quarter. The Raiders allowed a blocked punt to be returned for one score. They lost three fumbles for the day and one of them was taken to the house in the fourth quarter. Los Angeles took their first loss, 38-24.
Schroeder came out firing back home against Seattle. He went 19/26 for 235 yards and no mistakes. Three early touchdown passes put the Raiders up 21-0 and they hung on to win 24-17. That set the stage for Bo to make his season debut at home against San Diego. He carried twelve times for 53 yards, a couple scores and the Raiders won again, 24-9. They were going into the bye week at 6-1 and riding high.
With Denver going through a down year, Kansas City had emerged as the primary challenger for L.A. in the AFC West. The Raiders and Chiefs would play twice in the next four weeks.
The first game in KC on the first weekend in November was a defensive war. What the Raiders could not overcome was sloppiness. They lost the turnover margin 3-1 and committed eleven penalties. The result was a 9-7 loss. That was followed by a poor showing at home against mediocre Green Bay. The Raiders were flagged ten more times, committed four more turnovers and watched an early 13-3 lead disappear, turning into a 29-16 loss.
A road trip to playoff-bound Miami on Monday Night was now an even bigger game for L.A. And they responded. Bo and Marcus combined to pound away on the ground, gaining 99 and 79 yards respectively. The Raider defense held the Dolphins to 14 yards on the ground. Dan Marino was kept firmly in check. Los Angeles got a big 13-10 win.
The good running continued when Kansas City rolled into the Coliseum on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The Raiders’ ground edge was 155-97. Schroeder made big plays, turning nine completions into 202 yards. But he was also sacked five times. They Raiders turned the ball over three times while forcing none. The defense did not play well. And it created a 27-24 loss.
Los Angeles and Kansas City were tied for first at 7-4 and of course the Raiders had lost the tiebreaker. The good news was that prior to this season, the NFL had expanded the number of wild-card berths per conference from 2 to 3 (each conference had just three divisions prior to 2002). Miami and Buffalo were having big years in the AFC East and the runner-up would claim one berth. There were three teams in the AFC Central jousting at 6-5. The Raiders/Chiefs runner-up was in good position to snag a wild-card.
So long as they took care of business that is. And that’s what the Raiders starting doing. They went to Denver. Gault caught nine balls for 99 yards. Bo ripped off a big 62-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of a 23-20 win.
A Monday Night visit to Detroit set up a running back battle between Bo and the great Barry Sanders. Both were ready. Bo went for 129 yards. Barry went off for 176. Schroeder was the difference. He went 12/19 for 195 yards and threw a couple second-half TD passes to help bring the Raiders from behind. They won a shootout 38-31.
At 9-4, L.A. was now very comfortable for getting into the playoffs. Kansas City was still holding serve, at 9-4 themselves. Both teams would play contenders from the AFC Central on December 16. In the early afternoon window, the Chiefs lost in Houston. Los Angeles took the field in the 4 PM ET window against Cincinnati, knowing the division was now theirs for the taking.
Schroeder went 10/20 for 163 yards, with three touchdowns and no mistakes. Bo’s eight carries went for 117 yards. The Raiders won 24-7. They went to Minnesota the following Saturday. In the late afternoon against a collapsing opponent, Schroeder threw a 17-yard TD pass to Fernandez and a 47-yard strike to Sam Graddy. The Raiders took a quick 14-0 lead, later went ahead 28-10, and then held on to win 28-24.
A home date with San Diego was all that stood between L.A. and the division crown, one that would net them the 2-seed and a first-round playoff bye. For three quarters, the Raider offense reverted to September form. They weren’t running the ball and trailed 12-10. To lose a game where they were a 10 ½ point home favorite would be a disaster that would drop them to the 5-seed and make the first playoff game next week in Miami.
Schroeder was still stretching the field and his 11/22 line went for 162 yards. He played mistake-free. The Raiders got the fourth-quarter touchdown they needed and clinched the division with a 17-12 win.
After a week off, the Raiders ended up with a rematch against the Bengals. Bo would carry the ball six times for 77 yards, but the last one was a disaster. Even though it went for over thirty yards, he badly injured his hip on the tackle. This generational talent was not only lost for the rest of the season, but his football career was over. And his baseball career never regained its former allure.
In the short-term, L.A. was in a tough fight that was tied 10-10 in the fourth quarter. What they still had was Marcus Allen and the great veteran always did seem to save his best games for the biggest moments. Today he carried 21 times for 140 yards. Schroeder found tight end Ethan Horton for a 41-yard touchdown pass to get the lead. Townsend’s three sacks helped make it stand up. An insurance field goal wrapped up the 20-10 win.
Another trip to Buffalo was at hand. The Bills were surging and installed as a seven-point favorite. To say this game didn’t go well for the Raiders…well, that does understate the case. Schroeder was awful, going 13/31 for 150 yards and five picks. There was no running game, because when you fall behind 41-3 by halftime, there really isn’t room for running the football. The final ended up 51-3. At the time, the margin of defeat was the worst in playoff history. It’s since been eclipsed, but remains the worst rout in a conference championship game.
That’s an unfortunate ending, because the bigger picture is that Raider football was back. And while Shell would never again have a team this good, it was the start of a nice stretch where the franchise made the postseason three times in four years.