This was a day to belt out “Hells Bells,” come on like a hurricane, stare at Al Davis’ eternal flame in the end zone and actually dream a little. This was a day to peruse the AFC standings, examine the schedule, do some guesswork and realize that, damn, there are some raggedy teams in this conference and, double damn, the Raiders would be the top wild-card qualifier if the season ended today.
This was a day to hear Jack Del Rio — an emerging Coach of the Year candidate if not Coach For All Eternity, knowing where this franchise lived the last dozen years — calmly remind you that it’s OK to think big. Really. “Our mindset from Day One has been to win our division. That’s our No. 1 goal,” he said after a 34-20 trouncing of the New York Jets, which airlifted the Raiders’ record to 4-3, their first above-.500 foray this late into a season in four years. “We’ll continue to push for that. There’s nothing wrong with paying attention.”
Especially when the eyes of American sports are paying attention to them.
For the tortured souls who’ve suffered with this wicked football plague, Sunday brought one of the coolest Coliseum experiences in recent memory — filled with wonderment when Derek Carr merely had to flip the ball a few yards and watch Taiwan Jones or a revived Michael Crabtree blow through flawed tacklers on long touchdown romps … oozing of joy when Charles Woodson picked off yet another pass a year shy of 40 and mugged for the cameras and fans on the sideline … and flooded with hope when so many players reacquainted themselves with the Black Hole and leaped into that rocking mosh pit, not at all worried about switchblades or other weapons.
All of which feels not like a fluke or a tease, but a beginning. “We want more. We’re not satisfied with, ‘We’re over .500,’” said Carr, who threw four more scoring passes in an offense that looks unstoppable. “We’re not satisfied with that, and I’m not built that way.”
In an NFL roundly criticized this season for a drab, undisciplined, unwatchable product — nothing worse than the ongoing dreck in Santa Clara — the Raiders are becoming the most fun story in the league, if not the very best story. What makes them more compelling than a prospective 19-0 Patriots season, or the Broncos gunning for a championship with a defense that carries Peyton Manning instead of vice versa, is that we’re tired of those same old franchises. Besides, we’ll probably see one or the other here in a Feb. 7 game known as Super Bowl 50. The Raiders? You’d better appreciate them while they’re still in the Bay Area, because of the three teams eligible for a Southern California move as early as next spring, they best combine the allure of rising stars and a hopeless stadium situation.
Wouldn’t you know it? Just as the Raiders finally unearthed a dynamic franchise quarterback, just as they formulated a potent offense, just as they’re building an improving defense, just as they found a head coach who knows what he’s doing and just as they moved forward with a general manager who finally has figured out how to draft and do business, they’re leaving town.
Great material and drama, we call it in the media business, though I won’t say it too loudly at the Coliseum BART station.
There was Woodson, smiling by his locker, loving life after it once seemed odd that he’d want to end his Hall of Fame career back in Oakland. “I feel 39, but 39 feels good,” said the wily safety, who leads the league with five interceptions in an unexpected feel-good tale. “It’s a blessing to come back, be in the silver and black and play in front of the Raiders fans in the Coliseum. The last couple of years have been rough, so it feels good to be on the other side. It feels good to get the ball. It feels good to go play to the crowd when your team is playing well. There’s no feeling like it in the world.”
There was Crabtree, in the middle of the room, reborn after his turbulent 49ers career didn’t end well. With celebrated receiving sidekick Amari Cooper stuck on Revis Island all day, the Raiders wisely stayed away from all-world cornerback Darrelle Revis and targeted Crabtree 12 times. He caught seven passes for 102 yards and the 36-yard catch-and-run TD. “I’m 28 years old. I don’t know about no end,” he said. “All I know is work, like I keep telling everybody. Obviously, some people haven’t been watching film.”
And there was Carr, in the interview room, looking more confident and exuding more belief by the week. Everyone knew Cooper would become an immediate star. Crabtree’s delicate psyche made his impact less a certainty, so Carr made it a point to connect with him from the minute Crabtree visited the Raiders in the offseason. If he was a problem child in Santa Clara, he has been a model citizen and happy egg in Alameda. Consider it a reflection of Carr’s mature leadership, uncanny for a 24-year-old. “I guarantee you if you took a poll of our team, he’s in the top five of just favorite teammates to be around,” Carr said. “Everyone loves him. He’s someone that people gravitate toward.”
Let the owner, Mark Davis, beg and plead and grandstand for some money men to hand over $700 million for his East Bay stadium before the moving vans arrive. The best thing we can say about him is that he was smart enough to stick with GM Reggie McKenzie, when the howls for his scalp were loud after so many mistakes. Not only was McKenzie smart enough to produce three potential superstars — Carr, Cooper and pass-rusher Khalil Mack — among seven starters in his last two drafts, he was savvy enough to hire Del Rio as coach. USC should have hired him last year but opted for Steve Sarkisian, who is in rehab after being dismissed last month. The Trojans’ loss is the Raiders’ triumph.
“You knew you had to take the punches,” McKenzie said of his early years in Oakland. “The key was really looking at the big picture, not get so down on myself and the team at that point knowing what was ahead of me. It wasn’t easy. I’m used to being in the playoffs. I haven’t been since I’ve been here. That’s the goal.”
Job One for Del Rio now is to control the raging buzz about a playoff run. They own the tiebreaker over the Jets, also 4-3. Pittsburgh is 4-4, and the Raiders can one-up the Steelers — who will be without star running back Le’Veon Bell — with a victory at Heinz Field next weekend. Every other conference wild-card contender has a losing record, including every team in the AFC South. I suppose Andy Reid, Alex Smith and the underachieving Chiefs, who have two games left against the Raiders, could make a charge.
But the Raiders, I dare say, control … their … destiny. If only John Facenda could be summoned from the heavens to make that proclamation. Del Rio wants his players to appreciate their promising circumstances, but the very idea of the Raiders suffering from overconfidence — the Jets are the first winning team they’ve beaten — remains quite absurd to him. Remember, Del Rio grew up in the East Bay as a Raiders fan. The Hayward guy knows how wayward they’ve been in a 12-year rut without a postseason berth or even a winning record.
Rah-rah, sis-boom-bah? That’s not Del Rio.
“We’re not looking at it like that. We’re a football team that has so much in front of us, so much to do. We have too much to correct moving forward,” he said. “I think it’s awesome to be proud of our staff, our players, and how hard they’re working at the process of being good. But there’s more to do. There are things we have to do better the rest of this season. We’ll keep the pedal down to do those things to get better.
“It’s nice for today. It was enough for today. But we’ve got to push forward. … We understand what’s most important: Coming in every day with clear eyes, a lot of energy, a willingness to be ready to work and to do work that hurts. We have a lot of growth in front of us, to make the kind of commitment we need to be a really good football team.”
For now, Raider Nation is ecstatic to have a pretty good football team.
Just dream, baby.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.