It's been a long time since the Raiders have mattered this much
Before this one, the last, best week for the Oakland Raiders was almost eight years ago, in late January 2003.
That was when football was still full of promise and possibility. The Raiders had just won the AFC title game and were prepping for the Super Bowl. Barret Robbins hadn't vanished to Tijuana, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hadn't snuffed out Oakland's dreams, the Raiders long, slow parade of failed coaches and unsuccessful personnel moves hadn't yet begun.
It's been a long time since the Raiders mattered. In Oakland, outside of Oakland, nationally. A long time since they had the swagger befitting the eye patch.
But by beating the New York Jets on Sunday, the Raiders won their most important game since defeating the Tennessee Titans in that long-ago championship game. They beat a good team in an entertaining and physically impressive manner. It was neither too late in the season nor too mediocre an opponent for the victory not to mean something.
The win -- which gives the Raiders a 2-1 record - offers no guarantees of success, but it was a game that demanded to be noticed. And the Raiders know that.
"They've been in the past two AFC championship games," Rolando McClain said of the Jets. "When you beat them head-to-head you know where you are."
And the reward for beating the Jets is to be asked to turn it up a notch and face the New England Patriots this weekend.
"This is a huge game," said McClain, who hadn't yet entered Decatur High the last time the Raiders had this good a week. "Another way to measure where we are."
McClain is one of the reasons it's a new day in Oakland. The second-year linebacker out of Alabama made 12 tackles against the Jets. He plays behind an impressive front that includes former Patriots standout Richard Seymour, rejuvenated Tommy Kelly and a reclaimed Jarvis Moss. Though the Raiders defensive secondary lost its best player and longtime team leader Nnamdi Asomugha, and has been beset by injuries, on Sunday they rotated in players, and played with the kind of intensity and preparation that some attribute directly to their position coach, Hall of Famer Rod Woodson.
When the Raiders defense is on the bench, the offense includes a recalibrated offensive line. A calm game manager in quarterback Jason Campbell. An eye-opening rookie receiver from Tennessee named Denarius Moore. But its heart is an early entry into the MVP discussion, Darren McFadden, who leads the league in rushing and ripped off a career-high 171 yards against the Jets.
"He's fun," said rookie guard Stefan Wisniewski. "If you block your guy for two seconds and turn around and look, he's 50 yards downfield."
The Raiders were able to run on the vaunted Jets defense: McFadden was only the fourth back to gain 100-plus rushing yards on the Jets in the Rex Ryan era, a goal he accomplished by halftime.
"This is a first step but it's huge," said Wisniewski, whose name and lineage recall a time when the Raiders mattered, when his uncle Steve was considered the nastiest offensive lineman in the league.
"We know what we have here, we believe in ourselves."
This newfound self-belief is fueled by the Raiders buoyant and confident first year coach Hue Jackson. He was at his first NFL job with the Redskins eight years ago, when the Raiders last mattered. The Raiders are his sixth NFL team, his 12th coaching stop, but the first place he's been the head coach. Jackson bounced from team to team as the Raiders floundered from coach to coach.
Last January, he acquired the job in typically uncomfortable Raiders fashion: his hiring news conference was overshadowed by Al Davis choosing to use the occasion to unload on Tom Cable. But, no matter how Jackson got the job, he's clearly decided to do something with it. He doesn't carry the beaten-down, hangdog look that was uniform on most of his predecessors: Bill Callahan, Norv Turner, Art Shell Redux and Cable. (Lane Kiffin opted for smirk over downcast.)
Instead, Jackson cackles happily at his news conferences. He urges the Raider fans in the stadium to make noise, thrusting his arms skyward in encouragement. Jackson is the first Raiders coach since Jon Gruden to express actual enthusiasm for the job.
On occasion Jackson seems to be trying too hard. He deferentially calls Davis "coach." His catch phrase "Build a Bully" may already be past its expiration date. But whatever Jackson is selling, the Raiders appear to be buying. Even the potentially soul-sucking defeat in Buffalo -- up 21-3 at the half, the Raiders collapsed in the second half and lost 38-35 -- didn't deter the team. Past Raiders teams would have mentally folded: this team, instead, used the loss as fuel.
McClain stood up at halftime on Sunday and warned that the Jets would be expecting them to unravel as they had the week before. He urged his team not to let it happen. The 22-year old may not have known it but he was trying to turn back a trend that has plagued the Raiders for decades: Marty Schottenheimer used to tell his Chiefs teams that if they hung around long enough the Raiders would beat themselves. But it didn't happen Sunday.
Now the Raiders face the Patriots, who suffered a parallel defeat to their own in Orchard Park.
Jackson smiles wide at the prospect Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots coming to Oakland. "They have the best quarterback, coach, team," Jackson said. "Those are the challenges you want."
Jackson inherited a team far removed from real success or relevance. He was assigned a daunting schedule: opening with back to back road games followed by consecutive games against the powers of the AFC East, and then another road game in Houston.
But the wheels aren't coming off like they would have in other Raiders seasons. The Raiders are one defensive stop away from being undefeated. By beating the Jets, they not only won a game against a team that grabs national headlines, but also became relevant in their own community. The raucous capacity crowd that filled the Oakland Coliseum Sunday was only the second home sellout in two seasons.
Another sellout is expected this Sunday.
"This game was won due to them," McClain said of the fans. "We're ready to turn this program around and they sense it."
It's been a long time since there was such a sense of promise in Oakland.