To describe the Raiders as likeable is to venture through some parallel universe, detached from a tradition of renegade castoffs and face-painted, spike-collared fans with gang affiliations. Yet that’s what is happening in America, crazily enough. If the Bay Area doesn’t seem to care if this franchise moves to Carson or Kazakhstan, the national football community is showing love this season for the team it feared and loathed in a previous generation.
Maybe it has to do with their 12 consecutive non-winning seasons, the eight head coaches and 18 starting quarterbacks used in that tragicomic span. Maybe it’s about the snarling, scheming and litigating Al Davis no longer being with us, supplanted as the NFL’s evil presence long ago by Bill Belichick. Maybe it’s about success fatigue, people tiring of the same old winning teams and aching to embrace a newbie. Maybe it’s about having young cornerstones at the most dynamic positions — quarterback, wide receiver, running back, pass rusher — and the tantalizing effect/mass appeal of emerging stars in their early-to-mid 20s.
Or maybe they’re just naturally likeable.
Whatever, many sweet somethings are being written and said about the Raiders this week, though they’ve done nothing more than beat two bottom-feeders. I do know where the football fun is around here. And it’s not in Santa Clara.
It was mentioned Wednesday to Derek Carr that he has been sacked only once this season. “Oh, my goodness, those are my best friends,” Carr said of line coach Mike Tice and his protectors. “My wife appreciates them. My son appreciates then; I can pick him up when I go home. They’ve done a great job. As I’ve learned from family experience, you’ve got to be standing up to be able to throw the football.”
He was referring, of course, to older brother David, whose NFL quarterbacking career was derailed early by possibly the worst offfensive line ever formed. The No. 1 player taken in the 2002 draft, he had no chance in a rookie year when he was sacked 76 times and harrassed into 21 fumbles and 15 interceptions. He was sacked 249 times in five starting seasons before the Houston Texans mercifully gave up on him.
“Oh, man. He tells me, ‘Be thankful,’” Derek said of his battered bro. “That guy can throw the ball way farther and harder than me and he’s a smarter guy than I am — well, I don’t know about the smart part. But he’s definitely got a cannon. It was really unfortunate for him. He’s happy we have an offensive line really in tune.”
Heavier into his faith than his ego, Carr seems in no danger of losing an upbeat, we-over-me spirit that permeates the locker room. He has won five of his last nine starts for this once-pitiful outfit, and if we’re seeing how a regressing quarterback can demoralize the 49ers, Carr’s continuing progress is the emotional backbone behind the Raiders’ 2-1 start. In beating the Baltimore Ravens at home and ending the franchise’s 11-game road losing streak in Cleveland, Carr threw for 300-plus yards in each game and used four different receivers as touchdown targets. Against blitzes, he has been unrattled and even spectacular. His passer rating is 102.4, seventh-best in the league, topping Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson and leaving an impressed Browns cornerback to offer an Aaron Rodgers comparison.
“I don’t throw this name around too often, but he kind of seems to have a skill set similar to Aaron, and that’s saying something,” Tramon Williams said. “Obviously, we don’t know if he’s going to turn out to be that player, but skill-set-wise, he can move, he has a strong arm, a quick release and he can read defenses as a young quarterback. He can make it to that first, that second, that third read.”
“He’s going to be really good,” Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden said. “He doesn’t play like a second-year guy. He has control of the offense. Hats off to him. He did a really good job of just being poised and playing within himself and making plays.”
With Carr performing well — not a certainty after he unwisely used his throwing hand to stiff-arm Pacman Jones in Week 1 and missed the second half of an ugly loss to Cincinnati — the other offensive components have settled in. His favorite receiver, as expected, is rookie playmaker Amari Cooper, who is a marvel to watch after he catches the ball … that is, when he catches the ball. He still drops it too much, and we’re still figuring out why he allowed Pacman to yank off his helmet and bash his head with it. But as Carr said, “He’s a home run waiting to happen. We saw it. He takes the little end route, stiff-arms a Pro Bowl guy and he’s off to the races. You see [Michael] Crabtree with his hands up, guys on our sideline with their hands up. We all think he’s going to score every time he touches the ball.”
Cooper, too, is one to “give God all the glory,” which is fine, seeing how God never had much reason to like the Raiders before. He’s making the rounds on national TV and radio shows, but contrary to stereotypes that insist a star receiver must be a megalomaniac, Cooper is soft-spoken and uncertain what the fuss is all about. “I don’t really want to think about after the catch when the ball is still in the air,” he said, his way of acknowledging he’s dropping it. “I should focus on catching the ball, then worry about after the catch. I have a really great player [Carr] who throws a great anticipation ball. He keeps it away from the defensive backs. With the routes I run, it’s just a great combination.”
Which breeds confidence. With so many rising kid stars in the house — Carr is 24, Cooper is 21, running back Latavius Murray (139 yards last week) is 25 and sackman Khalil Mack is 24 — it’s paramount to have some old hands in the mix. Enter Charles Woodson, who turns 39 next week. His late interception saved the game Sunday, but his biggest contribution came before kickoff, when he gathered his teammates on the field and told them, “Listen don’t be afraid of success. Don’t be afraid to have people say nice things about you.”
The new Raiders aren’t afraid. So we’re saying nice things about them. “That’s what we were talking about all offseason: We’ve got to change the culture of football around here,” Woodson said. “The close games, we didn’t pull them out in the past. The last couple of weeks, to pull these games out is really huge.”
The difference is in the front office. Mark Davis doesn’t meddle like his father, hiring football people to make football decisions. Reggie McKenzie blundered often when he took over as general manager, but his high-end drafts the last two years — netting Mack, Carr and Cooper — have turned around the franchise. So has the hire of head coach Jack Del Rio, who came home to the East Bay to revive the team he followed as a kid in the dilapidated stadium in which he played as a high-schooler. He realizes these positive vibes could erode into same-old-Raiders gloom with a loss Sunday in Chicago, where the Bears are performing like the league’s worst team. He laughed when it was suggested the Raiders — the Oakland Raiders — might suffer from overconfidence.
“They won’t be overlooking anybody,” Del Rio said. “We’ve got to make sure we continue to work ourselves as a football team, first of all. That question to me is kind of humorous. I just don’t even buy it at all. This is the National Football League. Too much is written and too much is said about just a real small sample. We get a chance to define ourselves each week on Sundays. Chapter Four is coming up.
“There’s a lot of growth in front of us, and we’ve absolutely got to grind and push and continue to sacrifice. As coachesm, we’re going to continue to demand. And we expect to play a lot better football as we go forward in the season.”
Lest anyone view Del Rio as just another intense, fun-phobic coach, he, too, has his light moments. On the opposite sideline Sunday will be a coaching mentor, John Fox. “Look, you want to beat the guys you know real bad, all right? That’s just how it is,” Del Rio said. “He wants to beat me real bad. I want to beat him real bad. I wish it could be him and I wrestling on the 50 [-yard line]. That’s not gonna come down. Foxy still might take me. He’s a real tough guy.”
When Carr was told the story, his eyes lit up. “I’m gonna make sure I shoot him with that one,” he said. “I’d take our coaches in a fight. A lot of people would.”
He smiled, like everyone else in Alameda.
The team that forgot how to win is winning.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.