Look around the room. Do you see anyone worthy of your enmity — anybody who should be loathed or distrusted — in the once-sinister, legendarily evil realm of the Oakland Raiders? The nice-guy quarterback wears a Bible verse as a wrist tattoo. The rookie receiver with the loud hype speaks in soft tones. The Defensive Player of the Year candidate says his favorite movie is “Mary Poppins.”
And the owner? We need a DNA test, because he couldn’t possibly be the son of the sneering and reviled Al Davis, not with that modified Dutch Boy haircut and not when he hasn’t once threatened litigation over his hopeless stadium situation. All of which begs a question: How long has it been since the Raiders were hated?
With eight head coaches, 18 starting quarterbacks and no winning seasons in the last dozen years, they’ve been ridiculed and pitied, even eulogized by their enemies when Davis died. But they were leapfrogged as universal villains long ago by the New England Patriots, who’ve won four Super Bowls amid the same clouds of deceit and scandal that used to accompany the Raiders. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, partners in crimes and gates, are America’s rogues. Anyone who watched the self-aggrandizing farce Thursday night — when the Patriots saluted themselves for their latest championship with rapper T-Pain fronting an orchestra, while 73-year-old owner Robert Kraft wore millennial-age sneakers with a suit — understands why these cheaters are disliked by the masses.
Same goes for the usual hanky-panky during the game, when Pittsburgh Steelers coaches were picking up — no lie — the Patriots’ radio broadcast in their headsets. After Deflategate, after Spygate, do we now have another Belicheat scam?
As for Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, Khalil Mack, Mark Davis?
People actually are rooting for them to win and maybe find a nicer home, one without rats and sewage overruns.
“That’s not a part of who we are right now. We’re going forward,” said new coach Jack Del Rio, who has focused on blowing up the losers’ culture. “I always attempt to paint a picture. I know these guys really want to win. They’re willing to work, and we need to paint a picture and show them how to get there.”
I am perfectly fine with this fresh vibe, by the way. If ever a sports organization required an image overhaul, it is the Raiders, from the ghastliest stadium there ever was to a very outdated “Commitment to Excellence” motto to — and please don’t hurt me — the costumed, beaded, face-painted, spike-helmeted loons in the Black Hole. It was fun way back in the 20th century, when the team was winning trophies, but now it looks like a sad, sorry theater of the bizarro.
What the Raiders must do, and urgently so, isn’t grounded in gimmicks or lore. They just need to win, save the “baby.” Because winning, as you may have heard, cures all sporting ills, possibly even the ongoing crisis of why no government official in Oakland or Alameda County has shown any interest in helping Davis build a new stadium. Now that the Coliseum City plan of developer Floyd Kephart has been dismissed as a sham and a lousy deal for the Raiders, the choices for Davis are simple: Remain in a dilapidated O.co Coliseum for a few more years, assuming the place doesn’t collapse in a toxic heap, or piggyback the San Diego Chargers in filing relocation papers and moving to a proposed home in Carson, hard by the 405 freeway in Southern California suburbia.
There are no bad guys in this drama. Public money shouldn’t be part of any equation in troubled Oakland. Davis, one of the NFL’s least-heeled owners, can’t foot the entire bill and says it’s a major stretch to be pledging $500 million. So if the league wants two franchises in one Los Angeles stadium — and if Davis isn’t out-politicked by the well-heeled St. Louis Rams owner, Stan Kroenke, who might want the Chargers with him in his proposed palace in nearby Inglewood —why wouldn’t the Raiders leave when no solutions are here? Why wouldn’t they leave when Davis officially has shot down the idea of playing in Santa Clara?
The only hope, as seen in other cities when stadium manuevering looks bleak, is if local momentum is created by a successful team. While a winning season likely is a pipedream, the Raiders will be markedly better than their 3-13 stinker last year. Del Rio brings credibility that most of his coaching predecessors did not. Mack, installed as a pass-rushing end in Del Rio’s defense, might lead the league in sacks. Carr, who was money inside the 20-yard line and often miserable the other 80 yards, now has receiving weapons in Cooper and Michael Crabtree to accelerate his development as a second-year quarterback. Latavius Murray, at 6-3, averaged 5.2 yards a rush last season and adds a pass-catching dimension.
“We’ve added talented guys that can be potential game-breakers,” veteran safety Charles Woodson said. “That’s what you need in this game, guys that can go out there and perhaps take the game over at any given moment. I think we have a few guys like that.”
Before even playing his first NFL regular-season game, Cooper has an admirer in one of the league’s best receivers. “He’s going to be a special player for a long time,” said Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, who comes to town Sunday with the Bengals. “I’ve been watching him since he was in college. He’s going to be a great one.”
The hype is more restrained in Carr’s case, but don’t tell him that. “Obviously, year two, you’re still young, there’s going to be things you need to learn and grow in. But that jump from year one to year two is huge,” he said. “I’ve seen it. The game just slows down.”
Above all improvements, the Raiders have the look and feel of a respectable operation. Credit Davis for recognizing the need for a quality coach. Credit the general manager, Reggie McKenzie, for finally drafting well after previous busts. They may not win more than six games, but the days of embarrassing themselves appear to be over. “We are changing the mindset, the culture, because as a football team, in order to do the things that we have on our plan, you have to operate a certain way and we’re operating that way, and we’re learning what it looks like,” Del Rio said.
The doubters still lurk, of course, and the Raiders know it. “I can sit here and talk about what I think,” defensive end Justin Tuck said. “But until we actually go out there and do it on Sundays and back this up, then it doesn’t matter.” The league has helped by scheduling two immediate home games, with Baltimore coming in Week 2. Carr knows an LL start won’t be living large, with so much at stake for the franchise’s future.
“Got to start fast,” he said.
Yet even if the Raiders do win this week, then win a few more, a new reality will hit their fans as they cross the barbed-wired overpass from the BART station. Any progress ultimately may be for the enjoyment of a Los Angeles audience.