It won’t be a silent night, nor will it be a holy night. This will be a Christmas Eve like no other in Oakland, where the NFL — in what is either a flair for the dramatic or a wicked joke — scheduled what may be the Raiders’ final game in the Coliseum on an evening when most folks are home with their families. Then again, with black-and-silver-painted faces and costumes adorned with skulls and crossbones and spiked shoulders, these fans may not realize it’s the holiday season as they’re chanting, “RAID-ERRRRRRRS!”
The conflicting anxiety and sadness in the Black Hole, a cultish family in itself, at least will be brightened by a rousing celebration of all things Charles Woodson. If there is a Santa Claus in this equation, it’s the gift of watching the final home appearance for one of the proudest and most accomplished Raiders, a 39-year-old prince who is retiring after 18 years as arguably the most impactful defensive back in NFL history and one of the sport’s all-time enduring forces. The football world was lucky to have experienced him.
Here in the Bay, you were lucky to have experienced him twice.
“It will be emotional for myself, for my family, friends, for Raider Nation,” Woodson said. “I feel like coming back here and playing for the second time, we were able to rekindle something that we had years ago. So it was really fun, man, coming back here and playing. It will be a pretty powerful day.”
“Everyone wants to send him out with a victory,” said the Raiders’ new defensive star, Khalil Mack, voicing the teamwide mantra.
The other day, Aaron Rodgers, Woodson’s teammate during a Super Bowl-winning side trip in Green Bay, beat the Raiders in the East Bay drizzle and said of the future first-ballot Hall of Famer, “His talent level, mixed with his football IQ, are a match I’ve never seen in another player.” Yet Rodgers, the Cal product who grew up in Northern California and still knows the vibe here, also was compelled to make another observation.
“Not sure what’s going to happen to the Raiders next year” he said, “so it could be the last time we play here.”
The Last Time. Could it really be?
When giving is the theme of the season, will the NFL airlift the Raiders from the decrepit concrete blob between the train tracks and freeway and return them to Los Angeles — in a new stadium by another freeway?
It’s difficult to say definitively when not even the league owners are sure. But Decision Day finally is nearing, Jan. 13 in Houston, where the league’s powers-that-be vow to lock themselves in a hotel meeting room until they determine which teams and how many — between the Raiders, San Diego Chargers and St. Louis Rams — are approved for relocation to Southern California. There still is a sense the Raiders won’t be chosen, if only because Mark Davis is the least-heeled of the competing owners, with far less clout, money and political savvy within the league power circle than the Rams’ Stan Kroenke and the Chargers’ Dean Spanos. But Spanos has stated publicly that he has no interest in joining hands with Kronke on an Inglewood stadium and is firmly committed to partnering with Davis in a proposed $1.8 billion project, on the site of a former contaminated landfill in suburban Carson.
And that project is overseen by none other than Bob Iger, chairman and chief executive of Disney and ESPN, who signed up with Davis and Spanos to lead the political charge in a show-biz town where his power and persuasion are formidable. “I’ve been selling hard,” said Iger, conveniently excusing his conflict-of-interest sin in representing the business interests of NFL teams when he’s supposedly the impartial leader of a sports media colossus.
Of the Raiders specifically, Iger went so far to address the “repositioning” of the team brand, built for decades in the intimidation-and-deception spirit of Davis’ father. How would Al Davis feel, or the Raiders fans presently, upon hearing a Hollywood suit say, “I think it’s incumbent upon us to make sure it doesn’t scare people away. In how you portray yourself, how you present yourself to the public is one way to do that. And I think with a large new stadium where you have the ability to attract a real diverse fan base — diverse geographically, diverse ethnically and diverse from an age perspective — I think you have a shot at doing that.”
Iger also made it clear to the Los Angeles Times that he has enjoyed deep, producutive discussions with Davis and Spanos, who also have former 49ers executive Carmen Policy in the fold for his league expertise and politicking. The urgency doesn’t appear to be a lie this time. The league wants to be in L.A. now, and two influential owners — Carolina’s Jerry Richardson, who recruited Iger, and Houston’s Bob McNair — are on board with the Raiders/Chargers plan in Carson. Representatives of both teams also have met with officials from StubHub Center, home of Major League Soccer’s L.A. Galaxy, where it is believed both teams would train if the NFL chooses their project.
All that’s left, it seems, is the arrival of the moving vans in Alameda. The silence of Davis, who has said nothing publicly for weeks, only adds to the impending doom. A report last week suggested Davis was willing to use the relocation fee he’d owe to the league — $500 million — toward a new Oakland stadium. But even with a league loan, that wouldn’t amount to nearly enough money in this market to fund a NFL-caliber stadium. When there hasn’t been financing movement in Oakland and Alameda County for years — the fallout remains bitter over the Mount Davis hijacking two decades ago — well, Davis’ team needs a place to play. The relocation application is due next Wednesday, and he will be filing.
Should the owners decide on Jan. 13 or soon after that the Carson plan is best — remember, a three-quarters majority of 32 votes is needed — then the Raiders are outta Oakland. Oh, they still might commute from L.A. and play games in the Coliseum, as a sort of TV studio, until the Carson stadium is ready. But they’d be a lame-duck operation, which would be sad given their exciting improvement this season and the emergence of stars such as Mack, Amari Cooper and, when he’s not throwing killer interceptions, Derek Carr. In that sense, the Raiders are tailor-made for immediate entry in a market huge on starpower. The NFL owners know they’ll need a team there that is instantly playoff-competitive and buzz-compelling, not an accurate description of the Chargers or Rams. Plus, the owners are unlikely to say yes to Kroenke’s departure when the city of St. Louis has made significant strides on plans for a new stadium. Roger Goodell and the owners wouldn’t want to tick off those Missouri beer companies, would they, when the ad buys are massive?
So, yes, Thursday night could be The Last Time. It sure seemed like The End on Sunday in San Diego, where Chargers coach Mike McCoy pulled stars Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd off the field for standing ovations in case it was the final game at decaying Qualcomm Stadium. “Spanos sucks!” the fans chanted.
Expect similar treatment for Davis in the Coliseum against the same Chargers, in an eerie convergence of a possible business partnership. If it’s all too painful, try focusing on Woodson, who will be honored all night in a show of love that will blunt the otherwise harsh reality of business.
“An incredible career, man. It goes beyond words,” Woodson said. “I felt it was only right that Raiders fans, my fans, fans that have watched me play for a long time — I’d let them all know that this would be the last time in the Coliseum I would be able to run out there in front of our fans at home.”
As the owner runs out the back door.
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.