The old Raider mystique is dead. “Just Win, Baby” got lost over 13 seasons of playoff famine, twice the Biblical allotment of suffering for a Pharaoh’s people. The Raiders still wear silver and black jerseys, but the renegades inside them who won three Super Bowls in a previous generation live on in memory only.
Now there is a new spirit in a new era, with fresh-face leadership, and soon we will learn how it compares to the one that is long gone, in the fairly important category of winning huge games.
Tom Flores, the coach of two of those Super Bowl championship teams – vintages 1980 and ’83 – thinks the real test for this year’s 10-2 group starts Thursday night, when the Raiders travel to Kansas City, Mo. The game against the 9-3 Chiefs, Flores said, will be the Raiders’ biggest of the year, and it will remain as such until the Raiders ring in the New Year in Denver against the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos, in the regular-season finale.
Flores these days provides color commentary on the Raiders’ radio broadcasts, and he made himself available for a telephone conversation this week from his home in the Palm Springs area. No, he said, it would not be unfair to discuss comparisons between this year’s Raiders and his two Super Bowl champs. Keen observers have noted a key resemblance: Just like Flores’ Raiders, this year’s team knows how to win. And winning, as winners know, begets more winning.
Of course, it wasn’t such an easy accomplishment then, and it isn’t now. Among the elements required in any decade are players that Flores calls “good and smart” and dedicated to the proposition that winning is the much-preferred outcome of football games. There must be direction, offered from on high, which was definitely the case when Al Davis oversaw every aspect of the operation; the legend’s son, Mark, also has flashed some wisdom, at least in his turning the football operation over to general manager Reggie McKenzie and coach Jack Del Rio.
Under the Flores model, labor must buy into management’s vision and embrace it with attitude. There must be character, and there have to be characters to keep things fun and loose. They were far more bountiful in the old days, with players like John Matuszak and Kenny Stabler, than in the current era – although you had to like Raiders punter Marquette King last Sunday, when he picked up a penalty flag that was thrown after the Buffalo Bills roughed him up on his follow through. King picked up the flag and twirled it before tossing it to the ground. The referees flagged him for unsportsmanlike conduct, but Del Rio laughed it off later. It helped that the Raiders already had the game checked off on their own dance card.
Flores identified leadership as a quality important as any in the makeup of a championship team. He loves the young guys who have emerged as the stewards of the Raiders’ rank and file. Quarterback Derek Carr and defensive end Khalil Mack, each in their third year, have also developed into the squad’s two most outstanding players – conveniently placed, as Flores noted, on both sides of the ball, on a team that had been “starved for leadership.” Carr and Mack are as classy and impressive on the human side as anybody you’re going to find in sports. Their teammates see it and respect them.
“They’ll take care of the locker room for you,” Flores said of the two young leaders who set the tone. “Any great team, or good team, or winning team that I’ve been with, it’s always had a great locker room, and not just the two guys that led, but everybody, people that were respected, other leaders, no-nonsense guys who believed in, who bought into the whole atmosphere.”
Flores sees the Kansas City game as a test of the Raiders’ desire and grit, coming into the season’s home stretch. He’d like to see more overall consistency, rather than them relying on the high-wire acts that Carr and Strip Sack Mack have been pulling off all season in the fourth quarter.
Yet there is something about the team making critical plays late in games, and coaches coming up with gutsy calls to win them, that intrigues Flores.
“You have to be patient, and that is one thing they’ve shown this year – patience, and not panicking, from the coaching staff to the players, and then have the ability to win in the fourth quarter, which they haven’t shown in years,” Flores said. “Now they have that ability, and the playmakers to do it. They’ve maintained the patience to do that. You have to believe and not just fall apart. There’s an attitude when you go into the fourth quarter, when we were at our best in years past, to maintain our position and put ourselves in position to win games in the fourth quarter.
“You have to be good enough to do it, and smart enough to do it, and attitude is a big thing. You hate to see a team say, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ Now that’s no longer there.”
Is this a Super Bowl team? Flores won’t say. He sure likes the maturity he sees in the players, though. He sees its possibilities, likes its direction. Is it the creation, before our eyes, of a new mystique?