Preseason's a joke? Romo adds punch line

Updated: August 26, 2003, 8:21 PM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

With all the tedious, whiny snivelings about the length, carnage, waste and pointlessness of the exhibition football season, it seems that everyone forgot there is another reason why the games get in the way.

They dramatically reduce the possibility that something like Sunday's Oakland Raider practice might break out.

Bill Romanowski
Bill Romanowski usually reserves his hits for opponents rather than teammates.
You know by now that Bill Romanowski, the veteran linebacker, punctuated the team's workout by first pulling the helmet off second-year tight end Marcus Williams, and then driving his fist halfway through Williams' face.

Now we understand that the Raiders have been on edge since the Super Bowl, angsted up to the eyelids by Barret Robbins, disturbed by three consecutive poor performances in the preseason, and at their wits' end over the jury's refusal to come out of hiding in the team's lawsuit against its hometown.

But this shows that they still have their old, country, hardball intensity. Cut back on the preseason? What are you, some sort of whack job?

This is, in fact, just the sort of thing the Raiders used to do during past training camps. They would clock each other on the field, in the parking lot of their hotel in Santa Rosa, and at any of the nearby local taverns. They became a team with one mind, one heart and several deviated septums.

The best part was, none of it was choreographed. It just happened, which apparently was what happened with Romanowski and Williams. Something set off the tightly wrapped linebacker, enough to pop Williams' hat off like a bottle cap, and then ... well, think Laila Ali and Christy Martin, only this fight ended in two seconds.

The only problem with this scenario, of course, is that Williams originally called the cops. He wracked his brain for a perfectly good reason why he should get his left eye socket fractured by a teammate, couldn't find one, and decided to press charges, at least for a while.

The Raiders, thoughtful player advocates that they are, talked him out of it, although not soon enough to keep it from becoming a matter of public record and therefore ours to learn about and enjoy.

You see, the Raiders keep many of their practices closed to all but salaried employees, so they could have kept this one secret if the cops hadn't been brought in.

Instead, having been ratted out, they put on their best serious "This sort of thing can't happen'' face, and suspended Romanowski from Monday's practice -- a punishment roughly akin to presenting someone with a tall iced tea rather than a tall beer after a long afternoon tarring a roof.

Oh, Romanowski was also fined (a blow to the petty cash fund, no question), and head coach Bill Callahan looked properly disturbed by the whole thing -- not to mention the possibility that Williams might have to be put on the inactive list and paid instead of being cut, which will certainly chap the kids in accounting.

And there will be the usual grousings about inflamed passions and psychological issues, lack of institutional control, academic fraud and NCAA investigators.

Oh, sorry. Just had a Baylor flashback is all.

But this sort of thing used to happen a lot in the old, romantic days of football. Art Donovan made a show business career out of telling stories like this, and they are the true backbone of NFL Films.

Not the arty, slow-motion wide receivers floating literally for minutes in the air, or the parade of team highlight films, even for teams like the Bengals. No, the old, grainy films of guys sliding through acres of mud, late hits, clotheslines, groin shots and, well, glorious fistfights, all narrated by the old reedy voice of Jim Leaming rather than the serious, grim reaper baritone of John Facenda and later Harry Kalas.

No, this is the essence of preseason football. "Hey, what do you think you're doing?'' and then lights out for somebody. I mean, you don't think we can live an entire training camp just watching Bill Parcells walk out of practices because his guys are lining up backwards, do you?

As for the Raider thing, Williams will miss nearly a month, and can still bring the cops back in, although by the time this investigation is resumed, Romanowski will be hiding in towel bins and wearing two or three false mustaches, and the Raiders will try and claim that the Coliseum and Alameda County punched Williams in the mush.

They can tack it on to the other charges. I mean, what's one more count the jury will never decide, right?

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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