LOS ANGELES -- It's tough enough making mistakes. But every time left tackle Rory Graves makes one, he answers to Los Angeles Raiders coach Art Shell, one of the best left tackles ever to play in the National Football League. Try setting out the silverware with Miss Manners looking over your shoulder.
"That's always in my mind," Graves said, "knowing that he was the greatest tackle in the game. It's a challenge, and I'm accepting it."
Graves is a shell of Shell, and he knows it. He signed as a free agent and has been kicked around the league, first in Seattle, then in Los Angeles. The Raiders play the Seattle Seahawks today.
Last year was the worst. Graves moved from right tackle to left and lived to regret it. He was cited 11 times for holding penalties and was assessed 12 penalties for 96 yards.
Graves couldn't pick up a 1990 preseason prospectus on the Raiders without finding some derogatory remark about his playing skills.
Then came a startling development: In the past two weeks, Graves has taken on two of the best pass rushers around, the Chicago Bears' Richard Dent and the Buffalo Bills' Bruce Smith, and held them -- but not with his hands -- to no sacks. Of course, no one stops Dent or Smith without help. The Raiders made sure a tight end or a running back took a piece of the pass rushers, too.
"Before you leave, bump the guy," offensive line coach Kim Helton said, explaining the strategy. "But give Rory some credit."
Graves, in his fourth pro year, came to training camp this summer facing football extinction, but fought off the competition, principally from Bruce Davis and James FitzPatrick.
"I know everyone was talking about Rory Graves being the weak link," Shell said. "But Rory dedicated himself this off-season to get better."
Graves said he dropped a few pounds, whipped himself into shape and checked into football study hall. Graves couldn't remember watching film of other players when he was a right tackle. Now he's Captain Video.
Before last Sunday night's game, he stalked Smith's every move on tape. He went to bed muttering, "Bruce," and woke up muttering, "Smith."
"I thought about it the whole week," Graves said, "what I was going to do with him. The thing is, he's quicker in a real situation than he is on film. He's great. I was thinking quick, everything quick. I couldn't react slow on anything. He's so quick on that spin move he has, I haven't seen too many people stop it. I'm glad I had the game I had against him, but now I'm putting him behind me and getting on to Rufus Porter [of the Seahawks]."
Graves said he doesn't dwell on the miseries of 1989, when his name was mud around the league.
Instead, he said he used the criticism to channel his anger and fuel his turnaround.
"I think in a sense it did," he said. "I knew I could play the position. It was just a different position. Unfortunately, all the bad games happened early in the year, the holding calls -- all that."
The tide started to turn when Shell took over as coach from Mike Shanahan on Oct. 3, 1989, Graves said. Shell's team concept of offensive line play left the tackles less exposed to one-on-one responsibilities against great pass rushers.
"You never want to leave anyone on an island by themselves to try to defend [against] somebody that's a great player," Shell said. "You've got to give them help. . . . You've got to devise ways to take an individual out of the game and hope the rest of your people can hold up."
Still, Graves' reputation as a washout was hard to shake.
"They really didn't understand what was going on," Graves said of his critics.