Jeff George is nursing a groin injury and a new goatee, and frankly, it's hard to tell which is in worse shape.
After missing the last 3 ½ games, the nine-year veteran quarterback is eager to return to the field Sunday at Baltimore to help the resurgent Oakland Raiders extend their winning streak to six consecutive games. Initially, doctors estimated his recovery would take eight weeks, but George is about 21 days ahead of schedule.
Think what you will, but the healing process hasn't been escalated by the play of backup Donald Hollas. If George is ready and feels good, he is likely to reclaim his starting spot against the Ravens.
"I think it's going to be a game-time call," he said. "I'm going to try to pick it up a little more and see how it feels."
Rookie coach Jon Gruden is all ears. If George wants to start, the ball is in his hands. Not that George would risk aggravating the injury to get back into the lineup.
With his team off to a surprising 6-2 start, there is no urgency for heroics. Although he lacks George's arm strength and experience, the mobile Hollas has more than held his own, leading Oakland to three consecutive wins.
George knows the raiders are on a roll and doesn't want to wreck the chemistry. He also knows it's a long season and his presence will be required for them to reach the postseason.
"I don't want to jeopardize what's going on,'' hsaid. "I'll do what I can do to get ready. We're in this for the long haul. Our goal is to get into the playoffs."
George wouldn't be a competitor if he didn't ache to get hit again. For once, he has a dominating defense to rely on. Plus, the funeral parlor atmosphere is gone and players are excited to come to work. That was evident Thursday by the joking and razzing in the locker room.
"It's tough, mainly because you want to be out there and do your part,'' said George. "I won't put myself out there if I can't do the job."
He has spent the last three games watching from the sideline. Prior to suffering the first-quarter injury against Arizona on Oct. 4, George had started 21 consecutive games for the Silver and Black.
"I became a fan these last five weeks ... and I hate it,'' he said. "It's exciting. That was the toughest thing for me."
For the record, George wasn't exactly lighting up the league before the injury. In fact, his numbers were ugly: three touchdown passes, four interceptions and 21 sacks in four-plus games. In the four games he started and finished, Oakland was 2-2.
Which begs the question: Is Gruden better off sticking with Hollas?
"There's a few teams sitting in that same situation,'' said linebacker Greg Biekert, naming Buffalo and Minnesota. "If we can get him (George) back, all the better for us. The team is confident in both of them. It's going to help us down the road."
Here's where Gruden comes in. Owner Al Davis hired him for his innovative offensive mind and is paying him big bucks to score points. If Gruden thinks he will win more games with Hollas, guess who sits?
On the other hand, Gruden spent more time teaching George his new system during the off-season than he did with his wife. He's a big believer in George, and despite the rocky start, thinks he's the man to lead the Raiders back to prominence.
In other words, barring a limp, George gets the call.
As for those who think his rocket arm is ill-suited for the offense, wide receiver Tim Brown thinks they're nuttier than the voters of Minnesota.
"I don't understand how people can say that,'' Brown said. "Any time you have a guy with the gun he has, I don't know how you can say he wouldn't be a good fit for this system. They say he holds the ball a little bit longer, but when you have the gun that he has it really doesn't matter because the ball gets there on time anyway."
George doesn't seem overly concerned. The only apparent controversy is the thickness of his goatee, which looks almost transparent. George laughed when asked about it, blaming his wife for its condition. If he lets it grow like he wants, he might be looking for a new place to sleep.
Last week, George suited up as the emergency quarterback against Seattle. At the very least, he'll back up Hollas on Sunday. The two have been sharing snaps with the first team this week, altough insiders say George has gotten the majority of the work.
Once he returns, George is bound to be a little rusty. As for his self-confidence ... think again.
"I'm always confident," he said. "I was confident two weeks ago."
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