For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a football guy. And I don’t mean that in the traditional sense, to cover up and cloud an unspecified amount of time with a blanket cliché such as “for as long as I can remember.” I literally mean one of my first memories in life was crying like a four-year-old after another loss by Tim Brown and company. Cut me some slack, I was a kid and never once batted an eyelash when classmates would tease me or I fell off a bicycle or got my heartbroken by a pre-pubescent honey or when my pet goldfish died. You know, stuff that regular kids cry about. But Jeff Hostetler throwing an interception into the hands of Ray Crockett would send me into a state of depression I could not wholly comprehend.
I never understood why I was like this. My dad was a big football fan, a Steelers fan interestingly enough. But though I have always respected the Steelers, I immediately gravitated towards the Raiders. And this was before I knew about their rebel, misfit culture. Hell, I barely even knew how to spell ‘rebel.’ But there was something innate, almost primordial that attracted me to the Silver and Black. And I’m thankful for it everyday of my life. It beats the hell out of being a fan of a team due to geographical constraints or worse, jumping on a bandwagon. It’s something that’s rare and hard to expect people to comprehend. They are partly how I define myself as a person; I might actually ejaculate in streams of black and silver. I‘m not sure though.
I was ‘that kid’ who’d spend his summer inside reading magazines, newspaper articles, analyzing depth charts, and preparing my yearly NFL season preview by the time training camps were finishing. Most people count sheep while lying in bed to fall asleep; I’d stay up ranking prospects for the NFL Draft. What’s that you say? You never knew anyone who was ‘that kid’? That’s fair I guess, but point is when I say I love football, I FUCKING LOVE FOOTBALL. Which I feel entitles and authorizes me to stand on this 21st century digital version of a soapbox and do what I do best: ramble about useless crap.
These past two years or so, other things came into my life that unfortunately moved football back into the dark recesses of my mind. Pussy, money, schoolwork (who am I kidding), work, and my quest to become a social butterfly contributed to my disregard for all things Raiders. My priorities were out of order. I was lost.
Now? I’m found. I made a vow to return to my roots and follow the Oakland Raiders and the NFL religiously again. It was like Simba returning from the oasis chilling with Timon and Pumbaa and all that sweet lion pussy and going back to Pride Rock. It was bleak at first, I had to fight Scar and those annoying hyenas, but it had to be done and things are looking up. Every week, we’d assemble a crew and make the thirty minute trek to the nearest Buffalo Wild Wings and stay there for nearly eight hours, immersing ourselves in professional football and mango habanero hot wings. Sometimes in life, the simplest things are the sweetest. Or spiciest in this instance.
The season officially started for me with rookie middle linebacker Rolando McClain slamming Rams wideout Danny Amendola into the infield dirt of the Coliseum. It was at that moment that I knew that this Raiders team was not the same team that I neglected for nearly two whole years, limiting myself to simply checking the statistics and score after every game. This was not the same dysfunctional team I religiously followed through the better portion of the 1990s, wasting away the talent of one of the most underrated wide receivers of the last twenty in Tim Brown. Hell, this wasn’t even the same team that reached the playoffs three years in a row during the early 2000s. No, this was something else, but would let the rest of the season play out before making anymore judgments final. I remember beaming and getting chills down my entire body as the referee threw the yellow flag and McClain just stood there soaking it in, relishing the moment, and urging the Oakland crowd louder. The fans happily obliged, sending the faithful into a frenzy.
The Raiders held on for the win against St. Louis, but went on to lose against Arizona in heartbreaking fashion the following week and then against Houston the week after. With a 1-3 including the humiliating season opener against the Titans, this had the look and feel of “the same old Raiders.” The message McClain sent to Raider fans everywhere was a distant memory with the prospect of another nightmarish year. Sure they came up close against the Cardinals and had it not been for Sebastian Janikowski missing a chip shot in the waning seconds of the game, the season would look a little different.
And then it happened. The Phillip Rivers led San Diego Chargers came into Oakland.
After opening the game with two (TWO!) blocked punts, the Chargers put themselves into a situation the Raiders are familiar with: driving for the game winning touchdown. It happened a year earlier at Oakland on Monday Night Football, one of only two games I watched last year. I remember sitting the living room of my apartment in New Brunswick watching it with my roommates and jumping up and down as HeWhoShouldNotBeNamed threw a rainbow to Louis Murphy for the go ahead touchdown, only to have San Diego drive with less than two minutes for the go ahead touchdown. And here it was again this year. To make matters worse, a recurring B-Dubs character, DoucheChargerFan, was there and making his presence known. I felt nauseous. YEEEEEEEAAAAAAHHHH, he’d scream throughout the game. I couldn’t take it.
This is the worst. I hate football.
But as that drive started the Raiders started blitzing. A lot. Safeties Tyvon Branch and Michael Huff were given the green light to go after Rivers. Blitzing? That’s never been a part of the Raiders vocabulary. And while the Chargers made completions down the field, they were hitting Rivers. Hard. I felt blood rush to my head. After a penalty had taken San Diego out of field goal range, the hounds were sent once again.
The next ten seconds are a blur.
I ran around the restaurant, high-fiving random patrons that had taken an interest in the game due to my incessant cursing. I didn’t care. The thirteen game slide against the Chargers had ended. But it was not it wasn’t just that. It was the hint of something I had not seem from the Raiders, well, ever actually come to think of it: we started to show heart.
Yes, you did lose to Oakland. And yes, it’s still funny to us.
The next few games brought our record to 4-4, the first time in eight years that that the Raiders had a record of .500 or better this late in the season with a upcoming matchup against the first place Kansas City Chiefs. It’s no exaggeration in saying that this was the Raiders biggest game since the Super Bowl against Tampa Bay. There was a healthy spattering of Raiders fans at the restaurant, which was to be expected considering the implications of this game. And what transpired was truly one of the most memorable games I’ve seen as a fan.
I don’t need to recount all the clutch moments from the game, but this was the type of game you dream of as a fan. I remember being a nervous wreck, refusing to eat or drink during the game, just focusing all my energy into the game. What we were rewarded with was truly classic rivalry game that will forever stick with me. I remember every following the game at B-Dubs crowding around one of the smaller TV’s that was a little ahead of the larger ones, watching as Janikowski booted the game winner through the uprights. Cue applause, close curtain.
As to be expected with a team new to success, the rest of the season was a series of ups (sweeping the entire division, earning the dubious honor of being the first team undefeated in division play to miss the playoffs) and downs (getting blasted by Pittsburgh and Miami while losing heartbreakers to Jacksonville and Indianapolis). But a few things were clear by the end of the season:
– After a disappointing start to his career due to ineffectiveness combined with nagging injuries, Darren McFadden is worth the number four draft pick. He finished with the most rushing yards by a Raider since Napoleon Kaufman in 1997 and led the league in runs of twenty yards or more. He has the ability to completely take over a game with his big play ability (like he did against the Jaguars) or by controlling the clock with smaller chunks of yards (like he did in the second game against the Chargers). Complementing him is Michael Bush, who can easily be the starting running back for at least half the teams in the NFL, and who finished the season with a respectable 655 yards and eight scores. Throw in the versatile fullback Marcel Reese, and if the Raiders re-sign Bush this offseason, the Raiders has possibly the most dangerous backfield in the NFL.
– The defense, while they won’t be confused with the Steel Curtain or the Ravens of old, is an opportunistic bunch that flies around the ball and tends to come up with big plays when needed. Their only issues all season have been giving up big plays or not being able to get off the field when the offense sputters and can’t sustain drives. Finishing with 47 sacks, the most since 2000, the front seven, led by veteran Richard Seymour, looked downright dominant at times and figure to only improve especially with the youth they have. The biggest thing that stands out is that the defense has an identity. You look at these players: Seymour, Houston, McClain, Wimbley, Huff, Branch, Mitchell, Asomugha, Kelly, Scott, and Shaughnessy amongst others and it’s apparent that the defense has characters and operates as a cohesive unit.
– The draft they had this past year is one fans will be talking about for a long time. McClain provides an intensity at the linebacker position the Raiders haven’t seen since Bill Romanowski. When he was injured and did not play, the defense suffered. He looks to be a fixture in at the Mike position for many years. Lammar Houston has a nonstop motor and a nonstop mouth, the type of personality this defense has desperately needed. Jared Veldheer of Hillsdale has been a pleasant surprise, steeping into the left tackle spot and never looking back. He performed admirably in his first true test against Dwight Freeney. Anytime you can get a potential franchise LT in the third round has to be considered a success. And who can forget the speedster Jacoby Ford. Whether it was on kickoff returns, hauling in tough grabs, or taking it to the house on a reverse, he single-handedly influenced a handful of games with his speed. Next year, they look to add ‘punt-returner’ to his list of responsibilities. With another draft class as good as this one (and this year‘s led by Baby Wiz looks pretty promising), winning this division in the near future doesn’t look like a pipe dream anymore.
– While I was a Bruce Gradkowski supporter at the beginning of the season, Jason Campbell has converted me and I feel if we allow him to work with Hue Jackson and the young core of receivers for another off-season, he is going to flourish. His calm demeanor and mistake free play is all this offense needs, especially when the strength of the backfield. He did have a few disastrous games, but the strides the offense made when he was in the game were unmistakable. And his win-loss record this year speaks for itself. He is certainly not a sexy name, but this team needs continuity.
So here’s to the lockout ending soon, so I, along with the rest of Raider Nation, can get back to supporting a ball club rich in history and looking to get back to the top of the AFC West.