The Los Angeles Raiders of the National Football League are often like a new play that opens to mixed reviews out of town, then three weeks later is boffo on Broadway. Somehow there is always a tendency among the experts to underrate the Raiders, whose 8-1 record was the best in the league's strike-shortened 1982 season.
There are always turbulent stories, rumors, or unsubstantiated reports swirling around the team that wears Owner Al Davis's fingerprints like a giant logo. This year most of the Raider players, after watching veteran quarterback Jim Plunkett slide by in the exhibition season, didn't try to hide the opinion that maybe it was time to give three-year backup man Marc Wilson a chance. Wilson, more mobile and with a stronger arm, is probably capable of starting for several NFL teams.
But then comes opening day against the Cincinnati Bengals and Plunkett, who directed LA to only one touchdown drive in eight quarters of exhibition play, gets the Raiders two quick touchdowns. While that feat might have surprised many NFL observers, the only comment it drew from veteran Raider watchers was a terse: ''I told you so!'' Anyway, Cincinnati surrendered quietly, 20-10.
Plunkett, when he gets the kind of protection that allows him to stand back in the pocket and look over his receivers, is still one of the best in the league at finding the open man. Even though Jim was intercepted 15 times last year, he still managed to complete more than 58 percent of his passes.
When Plunkett isn't throwing, he's usually handing off to running back Marcus Allen, the 1982 NFL Rookie of the Year. Allen is a strong and durable back who seems to be able to find holes where only a second ago they didn't exist. He was also the first rookie to lead the league in scoring (14 touchdowns) since Gale Sayers in 1965.
Although you can still get arguments that the flamboyant Davis runs this team both in the front office and on the field, there is also much to be said for the low-key coaching of Tom Flores. Tom is one of the few people on the Raiders who seems capable of doing his job without stirring up some kind of controversy.
Davis, in many ways, is not unlike Red Auerbach, general manager of basketball's Boston Celtics, who often calls players aside to offer suggestions that are treated like commands.
During an era when most teams have problems keeping their stars from playing out their options, Al has invented a way to combat a lot of this. Often, right in the middle of the season, Davis will call a veteran into his office and upgrade his salary, even though his present contract might still have a year or more to run.
The Raiders have also long been a last-chance haven for good but troubled players from other clubs, who either were cut or traded because of behavior problems.
Defensively the Raiders have always been a band of roughnecks who play more like gladiators than football players, and who seem to think that penalties are not so much a hindrance as an operating expense.
There may be better individual defensive ends in the NFL than 6 ft. 5 in., 270-pound Howie Long and 6-3, 260-pound Lyle Alzado, but together they could probably crush body frames in an auto wrecking yard. If somebody told you these guys drove nitroglycerin trucks during the off-season, you'd never question it.
Behind Long and Alzado are linebackers Ted Hendricks, Matt Millen, and Rod Martin. This is Hendricks's 15th year as a pro, and in his 14 previous seasons he hasn't missed a game. They call him the Mad Stork, partly because he's 6-7, but also because of his unbridled enthusiasm for seeking out quarterbacks and separating them from the football.
Although Millen and Martin rate slightly below Hendricks, they react and jump so well against pass plays that it usually takes a rainbow throw by opposing quarterbacks to get a ball past them.
The NFL has also come to recognize the particularly unique talents of cornerback Lester Hayes, who has a career total of 30 interceptions, including a league-leading 13 in 1980.
The Raiders actually have very few minuses, at least on paper. In fact, they look particularly safe in their own division (the AFC West) where their chief rival, the San Diego Chargers, haven't yet put things together defensively.
While the Denver Broncos have a glamour player in rookie quarterback John Elway of Stanford, there are still questions regarding the quality of the team's offensive line. Meanwhile, for the Seattle Seahawks and the Kansas City Chiefs, it's a building time.
Sunday the Raiders play their home opener against the Houston Oilers at the LA Memorial Coliseum.