One of the guarantees in life is that if you write something about the pathetic state of the Oakland Raiders, you will hear from numerous angry Raiders fans. And they will tell you all about how they went to the 2003 Super Bowl, and that they won three Super Bowls between 1976 and 1984, and that they were the most successful team of the 1980s or over some 25 year span or something. You will hear bland repetition of their now-ridiculous "Commitment to Excellence" slogan, and reminders of glorious victories and anyway how many Super Bowls has YOUR team won? Happens every time.
And I must admit that there's a part of me that admires this. A large part. I have never liked Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days" very much because, well, largely because of that tooth-aching "speedball" line, but also because the song just seems to so numbingly obvious -- to me it lacks the playfulness and depth of emotion that are in the best of Bruce's stuff. I mean, "saw him the other night in a roadside bar, I was walking in he was walking out ..." Come on. But then, I think of those Raiders fans -- the ones clinging to an ever more distant past -- and I realize that there's something true about the song. There isn't much nuance in people refusing to let go of better times.
This is what I think separates those Raiders fans; I think they are unique in American sports. And it's not only because fans wear spikes on their shoulders and Darth Vader masks and create a sort of Biker Woodstock every home Sunday in the parking lot. Yes, true, but even more than that, many Raiders fans simply refuse to concede that their team has become a joke. And this really is different. I have been around bad teams pretty much all my life, and I know a little something about this. There are stages to being a fan of bad teams: Anger first, then numbness, then irrational hope, then renewed anger, then realization, then finally this resting place of compromise where fans will either pull back their support or mock their own teams or call for change or simply decide to enjoy the small triumphs.
So, you ask: Where are Raiders fans on this continuum? Well, that's the thing: Many of them never seem to get on it at all. They simply refuse to admit the Raiders are a bad team. That's what I find so engaging about Raiders fans. You can review for them the astonishing array of Raiders moments the last six seasons and they will hear you, but then they will say "We went to the Super Bowl in 2003." Not as a COUNTER to the last six years, exactly. It's more like those six years never happened.
This of course comes up again because it now appears that Raiders coach Tom Cable may have busted the jaw of his own assistant coach Randy Hanson during a staff meeting. At last check, Hanson has not said who on the staff busted his jaw -- and Hanson is the same guy suspended by the last head coach Lane Kiffin for mouthing off after a loss to Denver, so there are probably no shortage of candidates. But the suspicion is it was Cable.
And ... well, why not? The Raiders have been such a source for comedy fun the last few years that having a coach punch out another coach during a meeting just falls right in line. This, after all, is the team that hired Tom Walsh to be offensive coordinator, this after Walsh had been running a bed and breakfast for six years. I do have to admit that one of my favorite little column asides came during a classic Raiders-Chiefs fiasco back in 2006, when I tried to imagine what was happening in the sideline conversation between the always confused-looking Art Shell, Tom Walsh and the overmatched quarterback Aaron Brooks. The Raiders had the ball on the Chiefs 8-yard-line late in the game with a chance to win.
Brooks: "What do we do now?"
Walsh: "You know, I faced a similar situation at the Hansen Guest Ranch bed and breakfast in Swan Valley, Idaho."
Brooks: "What did you do?"
Walsh: "Crullers. People love crullers."
Brooks: "You know, I could just run up to the line and talk to one of the other offensive linemen while the center snaps the ball to nobody."
Walsh: "No, we did that last week. OK, forget crullers. How about we just serve a continental breakfast, you know, a nice assortment of fruit and breads?"
Of course Brooks promptly threw an interception and lost the game.
Ah, memories. The Raiders have gone 24-72 the last six years under the watchful eyes of coaches named Callahan, Turner, Shell, Kiffin and Cable. They have had JaMarcus Russell, Andrew Walter, Josh McCown, Daunte Culpepper, Aaron Brooks, Ronald Curry, Kerry Collins, Marques Tuiasosopo, Rich Gannon and Rick Mirer start games at quarterback over this beautiful period. There have been countless preposterous losses and two books worth of hysterical moments. They were one of two teams that lost to the Kansas City Chiefs last year, and they lost mostly because they tried this jaw-dropping fake-field goal where the plan -- the PLAN -- was for the holder to snap the ball between his legs to a sprinting Sebastian Janikowski, the Raiders 250-pound kicker. Tom Cable* was coaching then. You wonder if someone wanted to hit him in the jaw.
*Did you know that Tom Cable's sole head coaching job before he became coach of the Oakland Raiders was as head coach at Idaho? He went 11-35 in four years. After being offensive coordinator at a UCLA team that made it to Las Vegas and Sun bowls, he was hired to be offensive line coach for an Atlanta Falcons team that went 7-9. He then was the Raiders offensive line coach and led the Raiders to the 25th ranked offense. He was then hired as interim and finally permanent head coach. Well, it just makes sense.
Of course, you can't talk about the Raiders without trying to guess what's going on in the Al Davis Sanitarium. I love the fact that in late 2007, Al was sitting in his suite with Minnesota's sportswriter version of Al Davis, Sid Hartman, and Davis said that he did not want to retire until he won TWO more Super Bowls. I just love that. Two more. I mean, what the heck, when you are living in Lala Land, might as well BUY a home rather than rent. We don't get too many peeks into the Howard Hughes existence of Al Davis, but those peeks we do get tell us that you don't want to know what's in those bottles.
But, unless something has finally snapped, Raiders fans will continue to hold on. Not to hope, exactly. No, they will hold to what they believe the Oakland Raiders stand for. They will continue to look at their Raiders and see Ken Stabler and Willie Brown and Gene Upshaw and Marcus Allen and Howie Long and Fred Biletnikoff. They will continue to hear that awesome NFL Films music playing in the background. They will continue to think about Super Bowls and excellence and how quarterbacks must go down and go down hard. it isn't that they're unaware of what the Raiders have become -- somewhere under the spikes and leather and silver and black face paint they must know that the Raiders are now a laughingstock. But the Raiders went to the Super Bowl in 2003. They won three Super Bowls, and it was not so long ago. Glory is so recent they can taste it. And their coach can beat up your coach.