By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
The Oakland Raiders are back, and love 'em or hate 'em, I think we can all agree on one thing.
It's great for business.
For the first time in 14 seasons the Raiders are relevant. They're not only going to have their first winning season since 2002; they're tied with New England for the best record in the AFC and, barring a complete collapse, are a dead-bolt cinch to reach the playoffs.
Good for them. Great for the NFL.
Finally, fans in and out of the 510 area code have no choice but to care about the Raiders. It doesn't matter if you like them, and it doesn't matter if you don't. What does it this: You cannot ignore them, and tell me the last time anyone could say that.
Few franchises have a fan base as loyal or widespread as the Raiders, and the proof was in the stands Monday night in Mexico City. Raider Nation is everywhere. Raiders' T-shirts and jerseys are everywhere. Pride and Poise stand for something again, and that something is a moribund franchise back on the NFL map.
Once upon a time, the Raiders were the team you loved to hate; as rowdy and flamboyant and downright nasty off the field as they were on it. But it wasn’t just that they didn’t abide by the rules. They trashed them and their opponents, then walked away with arms raised.
They won division championships. They won Super Bowls. And they won a passionate fan base that would not quit on them.
And that fan base has been rewarded. After 13 years of not winning … after 13 years of 63-145 … after 13 years of finishing third or last in their division 13 times … after 13 years of nine head coaches and 19 starting quarterbacks … the Oakland Raiders are back on top, and hallelujah.
No longer are they the sure out. No longer are they the punch line to the next laugh. No longer are they the gang that couldn’t draft straight. They are the Silver and Black again, and the mystique that once enveloped the self-proclaimed "Bad Asses" of football is back … and, in a year when TV ratings are down, the NFL needs both.
It needs the Dallas Cowboys, too, and all that goes along with "America's Team." But the Cowboys haven’t gone on a 13-year furlough. Just two years ago they were 12-4 and the third seed in the NFC playoffs. But a rookie running back and rookie quarterback have made them the feel-good story of this year … if, that is, it weren’t for the Raiders.
And thank goodness for both.
"It's great," said former coach and now NFL Network analyst Brian Billick on this week's Talk of Fame Network broadcast. "The fact that the Cowboys and the Raiders are relevant is awesome for football."
I'll second that. Look, if there's a certainty in this life beyond death and taxes, it's an AFC hierarchy that includes New England, Denver, Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Every year you can expect most … if not all … in the playoffs, and every year you can expect one in the Super Bowl. In fact, they not only represented the AFC in the last six Super Bowls and eight of the past nine; they won three of the past four.
And the Raiders? Their playoff hopes usually ended somewhere in late November or early December, with the team scattered to the next tee by the end of the season.
But not this year. Not with Derek Carr making a push for league MVP and Jack Del Rio a leading candidate for Coach of the Year. The Raiders are doing something they haven’t for years, and that’s winning. They're 5-0 on the road. They're 1-0 outside of the country. And they're 3-2 at home (including the Mexico City game).
They beat Baltimore in Baltimore. They beat New Orleans in New Orleans. And they beat the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos at home. Suddenly, it's not where Oakland plays next year that has our attention; it's whom Oakland draws in January.
"I love the Raiders," said Billick, "and I'm biased. Jack (Del Rio) is one of my guys. In fact, I made the comment ... and I know Jack is kinda going, 'Hey, guys, I was on a team before (Del Rio coached in Baltimore) that was not thought of coming in. And, all of a sudden, you had a certain swagger about you, and you did a few things. And, all of a sudden, you get on a run, and you win a Super Bowl.' I know that’s in the back of his mind, and I know that he's presenting that to his team, compared to our 2000 Ravens' team.
"I love this Raiders team. Now the defense still concerns me a little bit. I think they're getting better. They're young and still making some mistakes. Now the pass rush is pretty good, obviously with (Khalil) Mack, (Bruce) Irvin and (Stacy) McGee. They can put some pressure on you. But that back end scares me a little bit.
"But I love Derek Carr. I love what they're doing offensively, and I think that offensive line is big enough. They're the one team ... when you look at Dallas and Seattle which, to me, are on a collision course in the NFC, and if you end up with either one of those teams in the Super Bowl …and obviously, you've got to figure New England and (Tom) Brady…. I'm not sure the Raiders aren’t the only team physical enough, particularly in that offensive line, to make that a game against one of those two (NFC) teams. I don’t see anybody else in the AFC physical enough to do that compared to the Raiders."
Maybe. But it doesn't matter. What does is that the Raiders are a factor again, and pro football is better for it.
(Derek Carr, Jack Del Rio and Latavius Murray photos courtesy of Oakland Raiders)