Pro football teams, like racehorses, humans and even sports handicappers, tend to have distinct personalities. We've seen the horse who will bare his teeth, perhaps even savage a rival, rather than lose. It's a little like watching the Raiders in their prime.
We've watched the Sugar Rays of the ring, overcoming brute force with guile and finesse. Similarly, we've seen the light-hitting Dolphins outthink and outscore more rugged opponents. Football has its bullies and its con artists, its schizophrenics and its obsessives. When one looks forward to a season of handicapping, it helps to figure out early which team will fit which label.
This is not a claim to great psychological insights into the game. As the alert TV observer may know, I handicap mainly by trends and numbers. Before you dismiss trends as meaningless, consider one of my favorites: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have not won a road game outdoors since mid-1981. I believe that this fact gives a hint to their collective psyche. Unlike the better-coached Dolphins, the Buccaneers have been Florida guys who flex their tanned muscles only in warmth or climate-controlled domes.
As for the numbers, I wouldn't dare follow Gerald Strine and his fine long-term record without the knowledge that I've had seven straight publicly documented winning seasons. Not bank-breaking seasons, to be sure, but grinding percentages of winners. My only pre-campaign promise is that if you stick with me, you probably won't end up driving a Mercedes, but I'm pretty sure you won't be driving a cab on the night shift.
In that spirit, here are some of the psychological phenomena that seem most fascinating as we await the season:
The Bullies: The Raiders, long known for taking matters into their own fists, were an open-handed flop late last year. It's hard to make a case for a once-proud team that fumbled away a home game to the Eagles, laid down in Seattle in a Monday night situation it once owned, even bowed at home to the Colts. Quarterback Rusty Hilger makes the case even harder. So far his main attribute seems to be that he's not Marc Wilson.
But the Raiders will have many of their wounded back this fall. They also will add yet another key renegade in James Lofton. And here is one statistic that could be telling. In the last 22 years, the Raiders have had only two nonwinning seasons. The first was 1981, when owner Al Davis was tied up in a Los Angeles court, beating the NFL out of millions. The second was last year, when Davis spent too many weeks in San Diego fighting a losing court battle against former Chargers owner Gene Klein. Assuming he can tear himself away from the gravel pit that will become his future stadium in Irwindale, Davis should be back on the Raiders' practice field. That's enough for me to lean toward the Raiders to reconquer their tough division.
The Magicians: Dan Marino still can light up the skies and mastermind Don Shula should transfer the home mystique of the Orange Bowl to the house that Joe Robbie built and modestly named for himself. New defensive coordinator Tom Olivadotti already has boosted the confidence of the defense that pulled down the offense to 8-8. But a lot of cleverness seems due to go to waste this year: the Dolphins' best defender by far, John Offerdahl, is out for at least six weeks and this unit simply cannot absorb the loss. Look for some flashes of upset magic -- maybe even over the Giants in Miami's home opener. But settle for 9-7 at best.
The schizophrenics: Many see the Rams as a Super Bowl team this year. They figure that the plodding offense built on Eric Dickerson will have the dazzling variety provided by young passer Jim Everett and former San Diego offensive coach Ernie Zampese. The Rams, on paper, might take flight like the old Chargers with the happy addition of a defense.
But do the Rams know who they are? An aging offensive line must adjust from the relatively pleasant task of repeated run blocking for Dickerson. Dickerson might be less than thrilled with a reduced role. And Everett hasn't proved that he can justify such a drastic change in team personality. Another relevant fact: All Rams are aware that their Raider counterparts make far more money than they do. Several, including Dickerson, have been outspoken on the subject of salary. The Rams will be valued more highly this year by the oddsmakers than they are by their owner. That could leave them just confused enough to wager against.
The obsessed: In summing up the astonishing success of Bobby Beathard and Joe Gibbs with the Redskins, one term comes to mind: emotional consistency. The Redskins play hard every week, against all levels of opposition. Gibbs' overall coaching record is ample proof of this. But to be specific, consider last year's late-season Saturday game in Denver. The Redskins had been thrashed at home only six days before by the Giants. With their wild card status assured and first place out of sight, they had no reason to do more than show up and stay healthy for the playoffs. Instead they gave a tremendous come-from-behind effort, falling short but covering the spread. It was the kind of game smart handicappers file in the folder stamped Character.
But this year the Redskins might be tampering with their wonderful consistency. Personnel has been shifted, blocking assignments changed, emotions aimed at one target: revenge for their triple humiliation at the hands of the Giants.
The feeling here is that the tactic can work. The authors from New Jersey might have left too much of themselves behind between hard covers and talk-show couches. They still are powerful, but I do not expect them to reach the Super Bowl. And I've felt all along that at least two of the three 1986 games -- those in the Meadowlands -- were not true measures of the differences between the clubs. At this stage, I'm viewing the Redskins' week five visit to the Meadowlands as a good underdog betting opportunity.
That still leaves concern about week six and beyond. Will the Redskins be able to ease off their emotional anti-Giant peak and go about their weekly business? Considering their record in the Gibbs years, I'm predicting they will go on to take the division and probably the conference. But there is no question that such single-minded obsession is a gamble for them.
Come to think of it, obsession, gambling and all the thrills that go with them have a lot to do with why so many of us can't wait for opening day.
Pete Axthelm, Newsweek writer and ESPN commentator, will write a column on professional football that will appear each Friday in The Washington Post during the season.