Bad habits, old ghosts nearly ruin Raiders' long-overdue celebration
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Even the most ardent Raider haters might have found their hearts melting, just a little, at the emotions on display following the team’s first win in 368 days, a soggy, 24-20 nail-biter over the Chiefs.
There was joy and naked relief, such as that exhibited by embattled general manager Reggie McKenzie, who exchanged handshakes and shoulder claps with assistant coaches as they descended from press box level to join the celebration in the locker room. Inside, the Raiders expressed determination to sustain this precious momentum.
There was even a trace of resentment. "Lotta media in here now," noted backup tackle Menelik Watson, as if to say, Sure, now that we’re winners you come around. He was missing the point, failing to grasp that the news of the night was the death, at long last, of a gruesome 16-game losing streak.
"Now that they’ve finally won," a Bay Area columnist told me, "we can bail on them for good."
Most memorably, there was the incredulity of Justin Tuck and the genuine mystification of Charles Woodson, who upon crossing paths with dynamic weakside linebacker Sio Moore in the locker room shouted: "What the hell were y’all doing?"
Sheepishly, almost wincing, the second-year player answered the 17th-year future Hall of Famer: "We were doing the handshake."
Some background: After appearing to ice the victory with a clutch sack of Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith on third-and-6 with less than a minute to play, Moore launched into an elaborate dance towards the end zone and was soon joined by rookie linebacker Khalil Mack, both celebrants blissfully unaware that the clock was running and that Smith had rushed the Chiefs offense back to the line of scrimmage and was about to call another play -- with these dueling buffoons 15 yards offsides, still dancing.
Smith took the snap, flags flew, astonishment reigned. The team that had dominated play for much of the night, that deserved to win, was revealing itself as the Same Old Raiders.
But the play was ruled dead. There was no penalty. Moore and Mack were off the hook. In the nick of time, the savvy veteran Tuck had called a time out.
Twenty minutes later, Tuck sat in a folding chair in front of his stall, shaking his head. "I’m dumbfounded," he declared. When a local TV crew swung by for a quick quote, Moore took the microphone, determined to inject a bit of levity into the situation. Setting himself up as a piñata, he asked Tuck what had happened after that final sack.
Tuck played along, congratulating Moore on making a great play and expressing gratitude that he’d learned a lesson, "so next time I don’t get fined for beating up my own teammate."
All was well that ended well. Yes, Kansas City had taken the lead late with 17 unanswered points, but that merely set the stage for the heroics of Derek Carr, who led a brilliant, 17-play touchdown drive to put his team ahead for good. Afterward, the devout rookie quarterback recalled his thoughts, going into that final possession. “I thought, ‘Lord, Your will is going to be done,’ so I’m going to give it everything I’ve got," Carr said.
No matter what, or in whom, you believe, this was clearly Oakland’s game to lose. For much of the night, the home team looked far sharper than its sluggish visitors, who had traveled from two time zones away on a short week. Even the elements cooperated: The rain only started coming down in buckets after the Raiders had jumped to a 14-0 lead.
And yet the outcome remained in doubt until the final seconds. The celebrating could not begin until the celebrations of Moore and Mack had ended. It was fascinating, in a perverse, rubbernecking way. Whenever the Raiders found themselves in a position to pull away, Oakland’s sad sack DNA exerted itself.
After limiting the damage to a field goal, Oakland’s marauding defense forced a punt on the Chiefs' following possession, only to hand the ball back to Kansas City when Ray-Ray Armstrong was flagged for running into punter Dustin Colquitt.
On the subject of punters, the winning team was inspired on this stormy night by the presence of Ray Guy, who received his Hall of Fame ring in a rain-soaked halftime ceremony. Flanking him on the field were a dozen yellow-jacketed Raiders Hall of Famers, a reminder that there was a time when this club’s "Commitment to Excellence" was more than a hollow slogan. Indeed, Thursday night’s game was as much a battle between the club’s glorious, distant past and its dreadful, recent history as it was between the 0-10 Raiders and the 7-3 Chiefs.
On Oakland’s first possession of the second half, Carr stared down receiver Andre Holmes. Chiefs linebacker Josh Mauga jumped the route, had both hands on the ball, but dropped a sure interception. With Kansas City driving in the third quarter, Larry Asante punched the ball from Jamaal Charles’ grasp. As it bounced, Mack got both hands on the ball but couldn’t hang on. The Chiefs recovered and scored a touchdown two plays later. On the next Kansas City possession, Smith beat an Oakland blitz with a dump-off over the middle to Charles, who eluded the flailing, feeble tackle attempts of first safety Brandian Ross, then Moore on his way to the go-ahead 30-yard touchdown.
How do organizations haul themselves back into relevancy after spending years in a losing culture? Cardinals coach Bruce Arians had a simple answer a few days after running his team’s record to 7-1 a few weeks back: "You lose close games and you learn how to lose. You win close games and you learn how to win. You see it all the time."
On Thursday night, and at times in spite of themselves, the Raiders learned how to win a close game -- but only after doing a lengthy battle with both their opponents and themselves. After the 17-play drive that now stands as the high-water mark for this season, Jon Condo’s snap to holder Matt Schaub was high. Schaub, the team's disappointing backup quarterback, did a superb job of snagging the ball and getting it down. Had Oakland missed that extra point, the Chiefs would have needed only a field goal to tie.
But Schaub made the play, just as Tuck saved the day moments later with a timely timeout that spared the dancing duo of Mack and Moore eternal ignominy.
"Can I explain?" a contrite Moore pleaded to his elders afterward, between laughs. By now an entire corner of the locker room was now cracking up.
"You know how they say act like you’ve been there before? I had never been there before!"
Finally, the 2014 Raiders have been there. When, and how often, will they be back?