The Raiders of old were back in town.
Jim Plunkett, George Atkinson, Vance Mueller, to name a few, observed Friday’s opening session of training camp and were celebrated during lunches and dinners in the nearby hotel courtyard. The purpose for the visit was to embrace the team’s history, hint at brighter days ahead, and lighten the mood.
The latter task is the most difficult. The timing is terrible. Though the Raiders are infinitely more interesting and certainly more talented than in recent seasons – and one could argue, more stable under former Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio than the post-Jim Harbaugh 49ers – the cloud of uncertainty hovering above the franchise is here to stay, at least until the NFL determines which two teams relocate to Los Angeles in the very near future.
On Aug. 10, representatives from the cities of San Diego and St. Louis are scheduled to submit competing Los Angeles stadium proposals to NFL committee officials, with teams afforded a six-week period to make their case and submit relocation applications beginning Jan. 1.
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The rival Chargers and Raiders – and how cruel and bizarre is that? – are pursuing a joint venture in Carson, while St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke and his partners are lobbying for a facility on the 289-acre site of Hollywood Park, the one-time neighbor to the Lakers before Jerry Buss moved his club out of the Forum and into the downtown Staples Center.
While the mood among sports fans in San Diego is one of total resignation, with the public strongly opposed to bolstering any plan that entails public financing, the Raiders are in outright limbo. They have one cleat in, one cleat out, with no blueprint available for delivery to the owners. On Wednesday, Alameda County officials expressed a desire to withdraw from the conversation and urged the city to buy out the stake the county shares in the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum complex with the soon-to-be-departing Golden State Warriors.
With the NFL pushing to have two franchises in Los Angeles before the 2016 season, Alameda County supervisor Nate Miley suggested the county withdraw from the process to simplify negotiations between the Raiders and developers. So, in other words, unless the NFL intervenes and increases its contributions to construction of new stadiums – or Oakland leaders and residents dip into their pockets for donations – Castro Valley native Del Rio is only visiting, not sticking around.
But when? For how long? Lame-duck seasons can be redefined for decades. As Sacramento-area residents can attest, between the threats and the politics and the environmental issues, relocating professional franchises is a complex, volatile, fluid undertaking. These situations turn on a dime, and often, on whose ego dominates the negotiating table. Guilt can be a contributing factor as well.
While the late Al Davis thought nothing of moving his Raiders to the Los Angeles Coliseum despite 12 consecutive years of sellouts, what if longtime Chargers owner Dean Spanos buckles at the thought of becoming another pariah, the person responsible for moving the team that electrified the community during the Don Coryell-led era that featured Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner, Kellen Winslow, Wes Chandler, John Jefferson? Or if the NFL decides St. Louis is making enough progress toward construction of a new facility? Or if Commissioner Roger Goodell succumbs to common sense and tells the 49ers to work out a deal and share Levi’s Stadium with their cash-strapped East Bay neighbors?
Stranger things have happened. The Raiders’ roster even appears capable of improving upon last year’s three-victory total. Del Rio is an established head coach who has participated in two Super Bowls. Second-year quarterback Derek Carr has two legitimate targets in veteran Michael Crabtree and rookie Amari Cooper. With oft-injured running back Darren McFadden urged to find work elsewhere, Latavius Murray has an opportunity to build on his late-season success. Talented second-year linebacker Khalil Mack will be encouraged to increase the Raiders’ anemic sack numbers – second worst in the NFL a year ago – though pass rushing and the secondary remain major areas of concern; former first-round pick D.J. Hayden has been injury-prone and unproductive.
But Del Rio, one of Brian Billick’s assistant on the Baltimore Ravens’ 2000 Super Bowl championship team, carries himself like a coach who has a clue, and more than a clue, an abiding, deep-rooted affection for his hometown Oakland Raiders.
Del Rio, in fact, acknowledged to Bay Area reporters that he asked about the team’s future in Northern California before accepting the head coaching position. On Friday, he acknowledged the lingering uncertainty, but added, “It’s really simple for me. I’m asked to lead this football team. We’re going to be fairly insulated because we won’t affect it (relocation decision). It’s great that we’re back home. It’s an area I’m from, and I’m just enjoying the moment. We will be impacted, potentially, down the road. But that’s down the road. Why worry about things we don’t have control over? We talk to the players about that all the time. Concentrate on preparing for this season and playing great football for each other, for our fans, and let the people that need to take care of that stuff do their jobs.”
That is easier said than done, of course. The constant questioning, the calendar of pending and important meetings, the chronic uncertainty hovering over the workplace is exhausting. DeMarcus Cousins, Omri Casspi, former Kings Francisco Garcia and Jason Thompson, former coaches Paul Westphal, Keith Smart and Reggie Theus, all addressed the unintended consequences, namely, the emotional strain that sticks around whenever franchises threaten to change addresses and move from one city to another.
This year, with the Raiders at least hinting at an uptick on the field, they are on the clock in the negotiating room, in NFL headquarters. Learning their fate sooner than later behooves everyone.