It has already been 20 years ago last month since Browns owner Art Modell sparked a firestorm for the ages and earned himself instant vilification with the stunning midseason announcement that his flagship franchise was forsaking Cleveland for Baltimore at the close of that 1995 season, a relocation so jarring and traumatic that the reverberations were seemingly endless.
The Browns bolting for Baltimore set the standard for all NFL relocation dramas, a fact I’m reminded of this week as the Rams and Chargers both prepare to play their final home games of the season in Week 15 amid the teams’ relocation efforts, with the Raiders on tap to do likewise next Thursday night. The coming eight days on the NFL schedule could well give us the last glimpse of two of those teams in their home markets. In the case of the Chargers, Sunday would effectively end a 55-season stay in San Diego that has spanned generations.
There has been nothing, of course, in the way of a Cleveland-like out-of-the-blue development in the Rams, Chargers and Raiders’ pursuit of the vacant Los Angeles market, a painfully slow, incremental saga that has been in the works for years now. The Browns’ 1995 season was blown to bits when Modell revealed his shocking intentions on Nov. 6 of that year, with Cleveland sitting 4–4 and tied for first place in the AFC Central before the news broke, then immediately going into a 1–7 death spiral that sent the Browns to a 5–11, fourth-place finish in the division, ahead of only expansion Jacksonville.
Ten years ago in a story I wrote on the week of the 10th anniversary of Modell’s controversial announcement, New England’s Bill Belichick—who in 1995 was in his fifth and final season as Browns head coach—detailed for me what those ill-fated final two months were like to experience, trying to hold together a team, a season and an organization that had been ripped apart by the planned move. Belichick was the captain of a sinking ship, and there was absolutely no one mounting a rescue effort.
“There’s no situation I’ve been in, before or since, that even would remotely approach that one for negativity and affecting the overall focus of the team,” Belichick told me in November 2005. “Not within 100 miles. It touched every single person in the building, every secretary, every ball boy. I felt badly for everyone involved.
“The first few days were kind of a shock. Your wheels were spinning. Everybody was kind of dizzy. But after about a week, when there was nothing coming our way in the way of support [from ownership] or even factual information about what was ahead, you felt just like a flag on a pole. You were just blowing with the wind, with no control over which direction you went.”
Belichick said he will never make sense of those crazy and confusing early days in Cleveland after the Browns became a lame-duck team in the town that once adored them. Reached last week, he said he had nothing new to add to the two-decade-old story of the Browns’ departure, but his insights from 10 years ago started sounding a bit more familiar when I spoke to members of the Chargers, Rams and Raiders organizations in recent days, trying to discover what this season in limbo has been like in San Diego, St. Louis and Oakland.
“The situation in Cleveland, I certainly could have done a better job,” Belichick said of his first NFL head coaching opportunity. “I made my share of mistakes. But that situation was off the charts. To take a franchise like that out of that city, which is 30 miles away from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and with what high school and college football means to people around there, that place is football. For that franchise to move at that point, it was monumentally wrong. It was just a difficult situation for everyone in that building.”
But how difficult has this season been for the Chargers, Rams and Raiders with a potential relocation looming on the horizon? None of them are true playoff contenders and all three have losing records, with varying degrees of unmet expectations. But there is no consensus among those I talked to on how much they were impacted by the uncertainty of their situations, or the distraction level that played out in relation to the relocation issue. The unknowns are many, but so too are the potential factors that fed into their disappointing seasons.
In San Diego, it’s like a ‘child going through their parents’ divorce’
The closest comparison to the slow, steady, depressing descent that Cleveland endured in the second half of 1995 has taken place in San Diego this year, where the Chargers are a dismal 3–10 and have dropped eight of their past nine games after entering this season with robust playoff hopes (They were even, gulp, my AFC Super Bowl pick). Somewhat fittingly, they will take the field for perhaps the final time at Qualcomm Stadium against Miami on Sunday having not won at home since beating Cleveland (naturally) in Week 4.
“I really have to believe it’s had some type of effect, but you can’t quantify it,” said Nick Hardwick, the longtime Chargers center who retired after 11 seasons in February and joined the franchise’s radio broadcast team as a sideline reporter. “If I’m feeling as anxious and uncertain as I am—and I’m not in the building on a daily basis but my career is attached to this building and this team—then I can only imagine what the guys in the locker room feel like. This season started off pretty bad, and I would say it’s only gotten worse as the team’s dropped more and more games.
“It’s been hard on everybody. I guess I would liken it to a child that’s going through their parents’ divorce. It’s really hard to deal with, and you don’t know what’s happening, you’re just stuck in the middle. You’re involved and you’re affected but you don’t really know how you’re affected, but in some ways deeply you are affected. I think the team and the coaches and the players have to be feeling that.”
The AFL’s Chargers arrived in San Diego in 1961, after spending their inaugural season in Los Angeles. But that’s only three seasons fewer than the Dodgers have spent in L.A, so the Bolts’ roots stretch deep. The Rams have been in St. Louis for just two decades, and the Raiders only returned to Oakland in 1995 after the franchise’s 13-year hiatus in Los Angeles, but the Chargers are a San Diego institution, and nowhere will a 2016 relocation leave more of a civic crater.
“Dude, it’s very surreal,” Hardwick said. “I had a real moment last week at that game [against Denver in Week 13, San Diego’s second-to-last home game]. It was hard for me, and I just kind of questioned everything about living here, and wondered what’s going to happen? Everybody’s feeling torn in multiple directions and I know that uncertainty factors into the team and factors into the fans. We just built a house here. My kids are going to school here. We’ve done nothing but enjoy this community for 12 years, and realizing that this team may just be ripped apart from this city and all the history and all the memories that go with that, it’s really hard.
“From the fans’ perspective, I run into people all the time that say they bought season tickets since 1961 when the team first got here. They say they went to the games with their grandparents and still have their season tickets that were passed down. But you’ve got a real half-buy-in from the city. Some of the folks, if the team is going to leave, they just want to spend some of the last good memories at Qualcomm. And other folks, they’ve said the heck with you, we’re moving on. They’ve sold their season tickets to the visiting fans, and really every game the team’s played has almost been a road game. It’s been really disheartening for the guys.”
As a former offensive lineman, Hardwick said he remains close to that segment of the Chargers’ roster and said the divided loyalties on game days at Qualcomm this season have made for some disorienting times for the San Diego linemen.
“Last [game] against Denver it was almost 60-40 Broncos fans to Chargers fans, so you don’t even really understand what the situation is in the game according to fan noise any more,” Hardwick said. “As a lineman you’ve got your head buried into the guy in front of you, but now you have no idea what’s happened in the game based on the crowd reaction. You don’t know if it’s your fans cheering or the visiting fans cheering.
“Part of the deal in the NFL is when you show up at your home stadium, you’re playing for your city. But there’s no real commitment from either side this year. You’re not really playing for your city. You don’t really have that extra incentive, that extra surge. You’re playing for one another as players, but you’re kind of playing in front of a crowd that doesn’t give a crap. They’re only there because they’ve had season tickets for so long and they want to see it through, but nobody’s that into it, and that’s got to be really hard for the guys.”
In St. Louis, ‘You think about it every day’
Playing bad or mediocre football on your way out of town has largely been a historical certainty in the NFL’s modern era. Of the seven franchises to relocate since Oakland got things rolling by moving south to Los Angeles after the 1981 season, no team has prospered to any great degree or made the playoffs in their final season in their market. That list includes the 1981 Raiders (7–9), the 1983 Baltimore Colts (7–9), the 1987 St. Louis Cardinals (7–8 in a strike season), the 1994 L.A. Raiders (9–7), the 1994 L.A. Rams (4–12), the 1995 Browns (5–11), and the 1996 Houston Oilers (8–8). Who among this year’s Chargers (3–10), Rams (5–8) or Raiders (6–7) will carry on that tradition?
In St. Louis, this year’s Rams were seen as a potential playoff team as recently as late October, when they were 4–3 and had won three of their past four games. Then November arrived, and the Rams went on a five-game losing streak that assured them of their NFC-worst ninth consecutive non-winning season, and most likely an 11th straight year outside of the playoffs, also a conference high. The Rams play host to Tampa Bay on Thursday night, in what could be the their final home game after 21 seasons in St. Louis.
“You think about it every day,” one Rams source told me, of the team’s potential relocation. “You think about it because what happens is you hear about it. There’s always somebody saying something about it. When you go out there every week, you just know there’s a possibility you may not be here, and the team may not be here next year. I don’t let it consume me, but it’s in the back of your mind. It’s human nature. The players have been phenomenal in focusing and preparing for the games, but there’s no question it has had some kind of impact on our season.”
Like the Chargers, the Rams haven’t enjoyed much of a home field advantage this season, especially once the losing streak started to build. There’s a mixture of resignation and modest hope within the market that St. Louis will keep its team, but there’s also a sense of weariness from a relocation/stadium issue process that lasted for two or three years.
“I jokingly said before the season, ‘Hell, we’ll be the first team in the NFL to ever have 16 road games,” the Rams source said. “There have been times this season when you’ve had to use a silent snap count when we’ve got the ball, because of the visiting fans. But that’s what you deal with. I knew a certain amount of that was going to happen. The fans were not going to come out. They’re not going to show up. This has been a very unique season. As a matter of fact, I’ve never been through a season like this.”
The relocation issue hasn’t been responsible for the Rams’ almost historically bad offense this season, and that disappointing development has had more to do with St. Louis’s underachievement than any other factor. But as a second Rams source told me, “You’d have to be naive if you think it’s had no affect, even if it’s impossible to quantify it.”
He continued: “On a key third-down stand that you need to make, are the coaches and players thinking, ‘Gosh, are we moving?’ No. But it’s like anything else that becomes a distraction. It wears on you. For all the teams involved in this to have had poor Novembers and Decembers so far, you can at least make the correlation that on some level maybe it’s taken its toll. It shouldn’t be an excuse, but it’s probably a reality.”
The open-ended element to the NFL’s current relocation race has been both unsettled and unsettling in the San Diego, St. Louis and Oakland markets. There are at most two seats and three teams vying for them, and that means as the competition has intensified between the Chargers, Rams and Raiders, so too has the anxiety level within the organizations, if not quite as high perhaps within the locker room.
“It’s probably a once-a-day topic in our building,” the second Rams source said. “The conversations aren’t new, but the difference is there’s no finality here. If this were a playoff race, all three teams are still in the hunt. Nobody’s got an X by their name and so it changes the whole equation. There’s a little bit of all or nothing in this. Unlike what happened in Cleveland [in ’95], I don’t think any of the teams in the three markets involved can tell you definitively what’s going to happen. No one knows the exact end game and how it will play out. And that’s hard, because I think everybody in our building would like a resolution. The hardest part is no one knows anything concrete, because it’s in the hands of 32 owners.”
In Oakland, ‘You kind of understand this is the way it’s going to be’
Don Toomer is trying to stay in savor mode these days. He knows his 21-season stint as the Raiders’ game-day clock operator could be coming to an end with next Thursday night’s home finale against San Diego, and he’s determined to soak it all in. If this is farewell, he’s going to take a long, last look.
“My buddies that I have been working with for all these years, we are starting to come to the conclusion that we have two more games,” said Toomer, a former Pac-10 game official and the father of former New York Giants receiver Amani Toomer. (The Raiders play at home this Sunday against Green Bay.) “I really think about it when I go to the games these days. We’re all looking at each other saying, ‘Well, this is it.’ It’s been a good run. It’s been a fun run. I’ve made good friends with everyone I’ve met. It’s not gloom so much as, well, when it happens, it happens. It’s reality. Until then, we’re still trying to hold on to that flicker of hope.”
The reality with the Raiders is they’ve done this dance with Los Angeles before, and the possibility that they could do it again has hung in the air almost ever since they returned to their first market from L.A. in early 1995. It’s like a high-level game of ping-pong that has never ended. Toomer said he and other employees have been informed by the organization that they should prepare for the franchise to be in Los Angeles in 2016.
“To be honest, I don’t sense the relocation issue has impacted this team,” said Greg Papa, the Raiders’ radio play-by-play announcer since 1997. “I think it’s just when you’re a Raider, you kind of understand this is the way it’s going to be. It’s kind of become part of the Raider mentality for the last 30-plus years since they left originally that they are kind of vagabonds and they could possibly pick up and move again.
“They’ve done it. They went to L.A., they came back from L.A., and now they’re going back to L.A.? And they may come back to Oakland in 2040? I don’t know. But it would crush Oakland if the Raiders left again. It really would. Oakland’s a city that’s feeling so good now because the Warriors are so good. But in a couple years the Warriors are going to pick up and move to San Francisco, and that’s going to crush the city of Oakland, too. If the Raiders have to move, that’s going to be another blow.”
Toomer echoes the belief that a second Raiders departure would prove damaging to Oakland’s civic psyche and said he was hopeful that a successful 2015 season would have helped turn the political winds in the Raiders’ direction in their long-time quest for a new stadium.
“We were hoping that if we got a strong season, that would be sort of a help from the political aspect because Oakland needs the team,” Toomer said. “But we had some slippage, and some games where we were right in there, but in the fourth quarter we didn’t get it done. We were hoping for a positive season with a new coach [Jack Del Rio] and a new attitude, that we would be seeing something that would help somewhat in keeping the team. But now the reality is we just have another losing season. And if the Raiders leave, it’s going to leave a real void in this area. Very, very deeply. It’s going to be a loss.”
At 6–7, with tough games remaining at home against the Packers and at Kansas City in Week 17, Oakland will be hard-pressed to avoid a 13th consecutive non-winning season, a streak that began after the Raiders made the Super Bowl following the 2002 season. That streak of non-winning years is the AFC’s longest current drought, and only Buffalo’s active run of missing the playoffs for 15 years (soon to be 16) is longer than Oakland’s.
While the Raiders’ talented young roster gives the organization hope for the future, with stars like quarterback Derek Carr, linebacker Khalil Mack and receiver Amari Cooper to build around, it would be a cruel irony indeed if Oakland fans didn’t reap the rewards of all the patience they have shown in the past decade-plus. The Raiders went to Los Angeles for the first time in 1982, winning a Super Bowl in their second season. Could history be poised to repeat itself?
The team itself, Papa said, has displayed no signs that the relocation issue has weighed heavily on it, at least none that he can detect. And he points to Oakland’s recent re-signing of potential free-agent receiver Michael Crabtree as proof of the organization’s business as usual approach in 2015 on the football operations side.
“These players understand when they’re coming here they could have to pick up and move to Los Angeles,” Papa said. “I think that’s just part of the understanding of this situation. It’s part of what you sign up for when you’re in the NFL. It’s pretty transient. I don’t sense one iota of complication from the players and the coaches. Now, management has been stretched thin a little bit, working on the Carson [stadium project]. They’ve been trying to make Oakland work and it just doesn’t seem like it’s a possibility, and now they’re positioning themselves to get one of those two spots. I think they’ve been on it for years. They’ve been preparing for what’s coming for a long time.”
The Raiders are the NFL’s preeminent transients, and even if Los Angeles is the site of the team’s home games starting next season, Papa said the club would still remain headquartered in Alameda County, at least for 2016. That’s just so Raiders.
“Even if they do move into a temporary home next year, I still think they’ll stay and be based in Alameda and just fly down for games,” Papa said. “That would be a different challenge. The travel in the NFL is not as difficult as other sports, but still if you have to pick up every Saturday and fly down to your home game, it would make it hard.”
The Raiders rarely make it easy on themselves, and being in both Los Angeles and Oakland next year would certainly qualify as the curious road less traveled. Even the Browns got to leave their name and team colors in Cleveland and never look back, re-inventing themselves in their relocation to Baltimore. All these years later, change is again about to restructure the landscape of the NFL.