Isn’t this just like the Raiders? Their young owner hires an established head coach, gives his general manager another year to oversee the next phase of the rebuilding process, builds a state-of-the-art performance center at the practice facility, and as a result has generated more positive buzz around the Bay Area than at any time during the past decade.
The Raiders are more compelling than the 49ers. More interesting, more intriguing, and on the surface, more daring.
On Friday, they signed Aldon Smith to a one-year deal only hours after the former 49ers linebacker was charged with three misdemeanor counts for DUI and refusal to submit to a chemical test, hit-and-run with property damage and vandalism. Smith practiced Friday and could play in Sunday’s opener against Cincinnati.
While this sounds like a throwback to the days of yore, when the Raiders were a rowdy, raucous bunch, it’s more consistent with an organization desperate for a winning season for the first time since 2002. The theory being espoused is that one bad egg can’t spoil an entire omelet.
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“We are confident that the Raiders can provide an environment where Aldon can thrive through the support, structure and leadership within the building,” general manager Reggie McKenzie said in a statement. “We are excited to have Aldon here.”
Smith is the latest move of the three-year makeover. After winning 11 games combined in his previous three seasons, McKenzie lured veteran coach Jack Del Rio back home, continued stripping the roster of underperforming, overpaid veterans and supervised drafts that yielded potential stars in quarterback Derek Carr, linebacker Khalil Mack, and wideout Amari Cooper. The acquisition of former 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree and Smith upgrade the receiving corps and the pass rush. Saints and sinners historically have equal footing in Raiderland, provided they can play.
So that’s the silver-and-black lining: improving talent; more structure; a hierarchy that hints at progress; a new-age approach to strength and conditioning. These are developments that hint at a long-term plan that is starting to make sense.
But here’s the kicker: The Raiders have one foot in, one foot out.
The current musical chairs scenario has two of three NFL franchises – the Raiders, Rams or Chargers – relocating to one of two potential sites in Southern California. While significant impediments exist for moving any of the three franchises, the Raiders have yet to present the city or the NFL with a viable stadium plan.
Besides, the Raiders are old pros at this. Despite 12 straight seasons of sellouts at the Coliseum, the late Al Davis tired of fighting for stadium upgrades and in 1982 took his team to the Los Angeles Coliseum, a facility that boasts at least a few similarities with the historic site in Rome, mainly that it also is as old as dirt. One more Super Bowl victory and seasons of fan apathy later – the Raiders never approached the Lakers, Dodgers, Angels, USC or UCLA in popularity – Davis threatened a return to Oakland in 1991, then made good on his promise in 1995.
Now, with Mark Davis confronting many of the same stadium, financial and political issues, Al’s heir is threatening again to head down I-5, possibly in a joint venture with the Chargers.
After all the indignities suffered by the unfailingly loyal Raiders fans, moving would be the ultimate indignity, the equivalent of kicking dirt in someone’s face not when they’re on the ground, but when they’ve somehow felt the strength and the means to pull themselves up.
The Raiders last had a winning season in 2002, when they were 11-5 under Bill Callahan. They went 8-8 in consecutive years under Tom Cable (2010) and Hue Jackson (2011), won five games three other times (2004, 2008, 2009) and just four, four and three games the last three seasons under Dennis Allen and his interim successor in 2014, Tony Sparano.
A successful 2015 season would be eight or more victories and assurances the team will stay in Oakland. Maybe the city and NFL work out a deal. Maybe the NFL facilitates a marriage between the 49ers and Raiders at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. Maybe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell grows a David Stern spine and concocts arrangements satisfactory to all the aggrieved parties. Heck, maybe the tooth fairy visits and leaves a few billion dollars under Mark Davis’ pillow.
The alternative is that the Raiders could leave just when they appear to be getting their act together. McKenzie is proving he has a knack for finding talent. Del Rio arrives with the experience and coaching bona fides lacking in Lane Kiffin, Callahan, Cable, Allen and Sparano. Carr has an excellent arm and a presence, and with the additions of Crabtree and Cooper, targets who run routes and hang onto the ball.
Although Del Rio hid his game plans during training camp like a seasoned secret agent, the offensive line is unproven, Latavius Murray has to remain healthy and establish a running game – something the departed Darren McFadden failed to do – the secondary is a major concern, and there is pressure on Mack and Smith to harass opposing quarterbacks and erect a wall around the edges.
No promises, though. This is the NFL and these are the Raiders.
“We’re prepared for the regular season and we’re looking forward to seeing what they (Bengals) have for us,” said Del Rio, who twice coached the Jacksonville Jaguars into the playoffs. “I think it’s important to win at home. We’ve got great fans that are going to come out in full force on Sunday. We want to put on a good show and make sure they’re proud.”
And if the Raiders somehow shock the world, surprise in the standings, and incite their famously impassioned fans into some semblance of a revolt? That would cause problems for the NFL and make Mark Davis mightily uncomfortable. Start with that.