Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Oakland Raiders: The NFL's Lost Dynasty of the Turn of the Millennium

By CL * Other CL Posts

I became a Raiders fan in the late 1980s, back when Bo Jackson was making football, baseball, and video game history. He's still my favorite athlete of all time, but this post isn't about him. It's about the Oakland Raiders, and their run of dominance in the beginning of this decade that should have brought multiple Super Bowl championships.

This isn't the early-1990s Buffalo Bills, who dominated the AFC for four years before running into bad kicking (SB XXV) and dominant teams (the next three years). The Raiders, in three consecutive years, played extremely well in the regular season and (if applicable) earlier playoff games, before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champions in increasingly painful and creative ways.

(Despite these losses and the Raiders' general futility since then, few people have a sense of the Raiders as a tragic or suffering team. Everyone sees them as a mess, and a team in disarray, but not one that sinks to the depths of certain other teams. They don't have the Lions' clean 0-16, or the longevity of the Cubs' or Clippers' failure, or the whiny "look at us, our suffering is more profound than yours" fanbase of the pre-2004 Red Sox. Maybe it's because they're in Oakland as opposed to their old L.A. home or another larger market; maybe if Raider fans were more literary - or literate? - it would be written and talked about more. Maybe it's because a run like this isn't that out of the ordinary; they were very good (but not great) for a while and very bad (but not historically bad) for a while. Anyway...)

In 2000, their rushing attack led the NFL but the unquestioned team leader was All-Pro/Pro-Bowl QB Rich Gannon. The defense held up its end of the bargain, as this was back when Charles Woodson was good. Having won the division and steamrolled the Dolphins in their first playoff game, the Raiders hosted the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game.

And what happened in that game? Early in the second quarter, Ravens DT/whale Tony Siragusa bodyslammed Gannon, injuring Gannon's shoulder. Thankfully, it's not available on Youtube, but Gannon couldn't quite recover and the offense would only manage 3 points. The Ravens, obviously, went on to win the Super Bowl.

In 2001, the Raiders added legend Jerry Rice and won another division championship. They may not have been as dominant as the year before, but the way they lost was more painful. They travelled to Foxborough to play the Patriots in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

This was the "Tuck Rule" game. Out of deference to my own emotional wellbeing, I'll let Wikipedia tell the story:

The game was played in a heavy snowstorm, and late in the fourth quarter an apparent fumble by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was recovered by Raiders linebacker Greg Biekert. The recovery would have led to a Raiders victory, however the play was reviewed and determined to be an incomplete pass (it was ruled that Brady had pump faked and then "tucked" the ball into his body, which, by rule, cannot result in a fumble). The Patriots retained possession of the ball, and drove for a game-tying field goal. The game went into overtime and the Patriots won, 16–13.

I don't know what to say about the Tuck Rule. Some referees say it was correctly applied here, some say not. There were efforts to change the rule after this game; nothing came of them. The Patriots, obviously, went on to win the Super Bowl.

Having run into one fat bastard and one badly-written or badly-applied rule, the Raiders stormed through the 2002 regular season. 11-5, division title, league-leading offense, top seed in the playoffs, and Rich Gannon was the NFL MVP. They breezed through the playoffs and were ready for the Super Bowl, in which they would face the Tampa Bay Bucs.

Of course, in the offseason, they had traded Jon Gruden, the coach who had made them such a dominant team, and relied on Bill Callahan to lead them. (Sidenote: As a fan of both Nebraska and the Raiders, I do not like him. He should not be confused with this Bill Callahan, who produced one of the best albums of this year, or this Bill Callahan, who produced and wrote one of my all-time favorite TV shows.) Being the evil genius that he is, Callahan elected not to change anything about the offense before the Super Bowl. Who was the opposing coach in the Super Bowl? Jon Gruden.

Now I'm no NFL coach, but if I was about to coach a Super Bowl team against the coach who had devised my entire offensive system, including the signals the players use on the field to indicate what play they are about to run...I would change the system before the game. I would, at the least, mix a few of the formations up. But not Bill Callahan! Tampa Bay intercepted Rich Gannon, who had thrown 10 INTs all year, a ridiculous five times, and three of them were returned for touchdowns. Tampa Bay's defensive players said they had seen every play used by the Raiders at some point in their practices. The Bucs, obviously, went on to win the Super Bowl.

(Incidentally, that Super Bowl is notable for two other reasons: Barret Robbins's disappearance, which turned out to be a pretty awful story, and a sudden reduction in the metaphorical consistency of a song by the Mountain Goats.)

That three-year run of playoff losses that should not have been, all of which came at the hands of the eventual Super Bowl champion, was painful. What have the Raiders been up to since then?

2003: 4-12 (last in the division)
2004: 5-11 (last in the division)
2005: 4-12 (last in the division)
2006: 2-14 (last in the division)
2007: 4-12 (last in the division)
2008: 5-11 (not last!)

It's been a rough few years, and it hasn't gotten much better. A few weeks ago, head coach Tom Cable punched an assistant coach, breaking his jaw. The night Ned left New York, I had a conversation with the bouncer at the bar we were hanging out at - who also happens to be a Raider fan; you'd be surprised where you run into them - that concluded with the determination that the Raiders are doomed to futility until Al Davis dies. Unless he's already dead, in which case the Raiders are doomed to futility until a court rules that zombies are not legal persons and thus incapable of owning and running football teams.

And that's pretty much that. From a near-dynasty that produced zero actual championships, to being so deeply mired in failure that your best hope is the death of the team's owner.

I'm also a Nets fan, and they've had a somewhat similar trajectory (NBA Finals in 2001-02 and 2002-03, haven't come close since), but writing about the Raiders and Nets in successive posts would not be good for me or you. My next post will focus on a much happier topic.

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