Thursday July 28th, 2016

OAKLAND — On a Warriors game night, especially when it’s the third game of the NBA Finals, Ricky’s Sports Theater and Grill in nearby San Leandro is filled and overflowing to the point where paying customers must be turned away. There’s not a bar stool in sight without a butt planted on it, and every booth and table is crammed to maximum capacity. All eyes are glued to one of the 90-plus TV screens that fill this sprawling old landmark of a sports bar.

But even on this night, in the midst of the apex of Golden State’s historic season, Ricky’s is still first and foremost a hangout for Raiders diehards, as one look around the memorabilia-strewn walls confirms. The topic of what awaits the Silver and Black this season is already thick in the air in early June. As Steph Curry versus LeBron James plays out on screen, Raiders fans simultaneously ponder, could this finally be that year of long-awaited resurgence in Oakland? Is Raiders Nation finally poised to see its long national nightmare mercifully end? Might the suffering and embarrassment finally cease after 13 unlucky (and mostly unwatchable) seasons?

“You talk about a drought, a California drought?” asks Raiders fan Allen Benton, perched at the end of a horseshoe shaped booth in front of a TV screen that nearly consumes an entire wall. “That’s the real California drought, the Raiders and the city of Oakland.

“But I believe. It’s not blind belief, but I believe they’re going to get a stadium deal done and I believe they’re going to win this year. Right now you can feel the intensity of the upcoming season.”

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Benton, 47, is old enough to remember the glory days, while having also endured the gory days. Oakland’s dry spell began after its last Super Bowl season of 2002, and the Raiders’ 63–145 (.303) record from the start of 2003 on is the worst in the NFL in that span.

Yeah, Bills fans have suffered longer in terms of their 16-season playoff drought, but Buffalo at least has given its fans two winning seasons since 2000. Oakland managed just five or fewer wins a whopping 10 times in those 13 seasons, a most ignominious run for a storied franchise that has made five Super Bowl trips in four different decades, winning three Lombardi trophies.

“I never thought it’d take this long, and I definitely didn’t see 13 years of hell coming after our Super Bowl loss,” said Ricardo Gonzalez, 28, who wears his allegiance to the Raiders “on my skin.” Never taking his eyes off the Warriors game for longer than two seconds, Gonzalez explained his optimism for Oakland’s 2016 season:

“I like where they’re finally going,” he said, adding that his brother is the president of the booster club they call Raider RAZA. “I like our defense, and [Derek] Carr, obviously. Just having a quarterback finally is big. We’ve got receivers, the line is good, and we can rush the passer. I didn’t really like [general manager Reggie] McKenzie, but after last year I’m starting to buy into him and his plan. I worry about the running game still because I want a true No. 1 back, and I’m not sure we have enough depth at corner. But I think overall we have enough to at least be a wild-card team and win 10 games this year. We’ve got some things in place.”

That they do. Oakland finished a hope-inspiring 7–9 last season, upset the eventual Super Bowl champion Broncos in Denver in December, and were competitive almost every week, losing six games by six points or less. With a young nucleus of talent that is the envy of nearly every opponent—Carr and All-Pro pass rusher Khalil Mack enter their third NFL seasons, standout receiver Amari Cooper his second—the Raiders are coming off a well-received showing in free agency and the draft and have reason to believe they are a team on the cusp of legitimate playoff contention. And not just for 2016, but for years to come in an AFC West that suddenly looks rather wide open.

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It’s been eons since the Raiders were a chic pick, but Oakland has some undeniable chic attached to it these days, and I’m one of the pundits picking them to return to the playoffs for the first time since the days of Rich Gannon’s MVP form. Gulp. Did I just commit enthusiasm for an upcoming Raiders season? How much younger of a man was I when I last entertained that notion? Who knows, but predicting the talent-laden Raiders are on the rise is hardly going out on a limb in 2016.

“Sure, I’m okay with people talking about us,” said second-year Oakland head coach Jack Del Rio, who grew up about 15 miles southeast from here in Hayward, Calif., and whose family has long owned Raiders season tickets. “To me, if you’re good and you’re becoming better and the culture’s changed, and we start expecting to be good, then yeah, I think that’s a positive thing. Why should we sit around and say, ‘No, we’re dog s---?’”

Once upon a time, and for then quite a while, dysfunction was Oakland’s organizational calling card. The team went through a staggering eight head coaches (including interims) and boatloads of front office intrigue from 2003-2014, and that instability generally showed up on game days.

“In years past, you knew even if the game was close, if you were playing the Raiders, in the second half things would get away from them and they’d start making mistakes and weren’t going to get it done,” said Del Rio, the former Denver defensive coordinator and Jacksonville head coach. “Well, that’s no longer the way we operate.”

The tenor has indeed changed under Del Rio and McKenzie’s leadership, and the Raiders are actually viewed as a desirable location, with four playoff experienced veterans having signed on during free agency, in part due to Oakland’s status as ascending team (and yeah, monstrous salary cap room, which allowed for sizable paydays). Former Baltimore guard Kelechi Osemele and ex-Seattle linebacker Bruce Irvin are Super Bowl ring owners who now will don silver and black, and former Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson and former Kansas City cornerback Sean Smith bring recent playoff savvy as well.

That’s a smart move by Oakland, seeding its still-young locker room and roster with been-there-done-that players who can show the playoff uninitiated the way to get to January, a movement that began last year with the free-agent signings of ex-Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith and ex-San Francisco receiver Michael Crabtree. The Raiders had impressive talent, but they also needed more players who had played in big games, and would be up to the challenge of winning them when the stakes are highest.

“The games won’t be too big for them,” Carr said. “And if we get to the playoffs, it’s not going to be new to them, it’s only new to the rest of us. It only helps to add guys like that.”

Said Benton, the longtime Raiders fan: “When you have veteran players who wanted to come to Oakland, that means something. That hasn’t happened in a while. The rest of the league can kind of feel this is a team you want to be with right now. I think it’s going to work out, and it’s going to be beautiful.”

“We haven’t done anything yet”

While optimism is rampant in Oakland, so to is a grounding sense of realism, a realization that last season’s 7-9 mark guarantees nothing in terms of the Raiders taking the next step up the ladder in the AFC. In late May, Irvin confidently pronounced Oakland “ready [to] really capture this AFC West.” But he spoke a little more cautiously to me less than 10 days later when I visited the Raiders during OTAs. Somebody apparently got a message through to him about the downside of the hype factor.

“This is a talented group, but it means nothing until we do it,” Irvin said. “It’s good people are talking about us, but you never want to buy into that type of stuff. We can be as good as we want to be, but we play in a good division and right now the Broncos are still the head team in our division. There’s a lot of great things going on around here, but if we don’t go and do it on the field, it’s going to be just the same old Raiders, like the past so many years.”

But clearly the bar of expectation has been raised in Oakland, and for once, the Raiders’ hopes don’t feel like false bravado. There’s a nice blend of youth and experience on hand, and McKenzie senses a new vibe when he assesses a roster that he openly admits is “the best team I’ve ever taken to training camp.”

“Any time when the players are excited and everything is positive in their eyes, and their gut is telling them, if we work hard we’ve got a shot just as good as anybody else’s, that’s gratifying to wake up and look forward to,” said McKenzie, whose fifth year on the job begins in earnest when Oakland’s veterans report to camp in Napa, Calif., on Thursday. “We’ll welcome anything that comes our way [in terms of notice], good or bad. Because we haven’t done anything yet. We haven’t made the playoffs in forever. You never accept any pat on the back until you deserve it, and hopefully at the end of the season we’re deserving of what they’re saying about us. There’s still going to be some naysayers, and we’re going to feed off whatever’s being said. We’re trying to hold up that trophy like Denver did last season.”

While Oakland improved by four wins last season after 2014’s 3–13 train wreck that represented a swift end to the Dennis Allen/Tony Sparano coaching era, there are numerous reasons to believe that another three or four-win boost and a playoff berth is imminently within reach.

Like Carr’s 53 touchdown passes in his first two seasons, trailing only Dan Marino’s 68 of 1983-84 in that department. Like Mack appearing ready to build on his monstrous 15-sack breakout season of a year ago—when he was historically voted to the All-Pro team at both outside linebacker and defensive end—especially with Irvin poised to create more havoc lining up on the opposite side of the defense. And like a greatly improved Raiders secondary that now includes a proven playmaker in Smith at cornerback, a steady veteran in Nelson at free safety, and a rookie heat-seeking missile in Karl Joseph (drafted 14th overall) at strong safety.

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When you add in the improvements made to the Raiders’ offensive line with the addition of Osemele and re-signing tackle Donald Penn, and the increased pass-rushing potential that Irvin brings under his onetime Seattle defensive coordinator, Ken Norton Jr., who now holds the same job in Oakland, over-confidence might actually be the real enemy faced by these Raiders. And that’s a new one for everyone who has lived through Oakland’s 13-year drought to contemplate.

“We’ve got a good vibe going, but the tough thing now is we’ve got to back it up, all this hype and buzz,” said Penn, an 11-year veteran and part of a jumbo-sized Raiders offensive line that averages 6' 4', 325 pounds. “But the biggest thing we’re trying to do right now is not follow the hype. I mean it feels good to have the hype, and we like it, but you have to make sure the hype doesn’t take over. If we don’t put in the work, all that hype’s going to go out the window.”

Don’t overlook the impact of Del Rio’s confidence level, and how much it has quickly served to alter the defeatist attitude that long reigned in Oakland. Raiders players told me he walked in the door last year preaching a return to relevance, even excellence, and he displays just two photos above his office desk—one is John Madden and the other Tom Flores, the only two Raiders head coaches to ever win Super Bowls.

“Everybody talks about the culture shift, and everybody hopes for changes, but we have changed it,” Del Rio said. “It was, in fact, a true culture shift. For the guys who have been here a while, it’s been like, ‘Wow, we’ve come a long way in a short time.’ When I took this job I said everything I want to be about is a return to greatness, and this organization’s great rich history of excellence. I don’t think you should shy away from that.”

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The oldest Raider, 38-year-old kicker Sebastian Janikowski, has lived the whole unfathomable story in Oakland since being drafted in 2000’s first round. He’s gone to the playoffs and the Super Bowl with the Raiders, and he’s absorbed those soul-crushing 145 losses since the start of 2003. But he’s loving what he sees now.

“This team just feels different with Jack hired now,” Janikowski said. “It’s little things that make a difference some times, like us having stupid TVs in the hallways and the schedule is up there so everything’s on time and everything runs smoothly. The facilities are better, the new weight room is amazing. And now we’ve got some guys who know how to win, know how to finish.

“It’s been fun in the Bay Area because everybody’s been so excited about the Warriors winning and the [San Jose] Sharks getting to the Stanley Cup. There’s a buzz and it’s exciting for a change, and everybody’s talking about the Raiders being next and making the playoffs this year. And in the playoffs, anything can happen. You win two games and you’re in the Super Bowl.”

Whoa, there, Seabass. It’s still late July, and until further notice, baby steps remain the order of the day in Oakland.

“It’s real this time in Oakland”

That said, even the vast Raiders fraternity in the NFL seems ready to believe and embrace the idea that a new era in franchise history is at hand. Within limits, of course. Hall of Fame Raiders receiver Tim Brown is high on the 2016 club, although he worries that the loss of Charles Woodson and Justin Tuck’s veteran locker room leadership due to retirement will not easily be replaced. Together those two defensive stalwarts logged 29 seasons in the league and were both consummate pros.

“I’m not optimistic they’re going to the Super Bowl but I do believe they’re a better football team and the experience they had last year is going to help them out this year,” Brown said by phone. “I definitely think this team is going to be competitive for the AFC West title, and you go from there.

“I give Reggie McKenzie a lot of credit, because when he took over the job [in 2012], not only was the cupboard bare, there was no money to go get food. It was a very difficult challenge, and he didn’t even realize how difficult until he got inside. It was a tough slog, but they’ve been really solid in the draft the last two or three years and they’re sitting pretty right now.”

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Longtime Raiders executive and former team CEO Amy Trask doesn’t even try to tamp down her enthusiasm for the Raiders’ off-season talent haul in free agency and the draft. She channels her inner Al Davis to assess the multi-faceted upgrades Oakland made.

“Al said to me many times over my career, ‘Kid, don’t ever leave a team without corners,’ and the Raiders have improved there and in the secondary as a whole,” said Trask, now an NFL analyst for CBS Sports and CBS Sports Network. “I think the enthusiasm and optimism for this team and this season is well placed because the roster clearly improved in two key areas this offseason: in pass protection and the secondary. And they also added depth to the pass rush. If you can protect the quarterback, and you can get to the quarterback, and you can cover, those three areas are vital in the NFL. And then having young players like Carr and Cooper and Mack with another year under their belt and maturing, there’s a benefit in that as well.”

Trask points to the potential for a wide-open race in the AFC West as another factor that could boost Oakland’s playoff chances, predicting “the Raiders have as good or better shot than any team in the division to win it,” and she too lauds the quantum leap the franchise made on the head coaching front in going from one former Broncos defensive coordinator to another [Allen to Del Rio].

“I said this when they hired [Del Rio], but now there’s a leader in the building, and that was missing,” Trask said. “There was no leadership whatsoever for the team under Dennis Allen, and Del Rio is that leader.”

Reached at home, where he’s still recuperating from both recent hip replacement surgery and last December’s open heart surgery, John Madden expressed cautious optimism regarding the Raiders’ return to relevance, saying “They’re on the road to that, and now we’ll see if they get there.”

Fellow former NFL head coach turned NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci was still leading the 49ers the last time both Bay Area franchises were playoff teams in 2002, but he’s excited about everything appearing on the horizon in Oakland.

“The game in the NFL is predicated on the quarterback position, and that’s in place in Oakland,” Mariucci said. “They have a premiere receiver. They’ve got some pass rushers. They’ve got what it takes. I just like where they’re headed, and now Peyton Manning is gone from the division, too. I think it’s real this time in Oakland.”

Unless injuries, the weight of greater expectations or the impact of what Del Rio calls “a bear of a schedule” serve to derail the Raiders’ road back to playoff contention. Oakland was largely free of major injuries at key positions last season, and though the roster is deeper this year, losing a cornerstone like Carr, Mack or Cooper would prove devastating. As for the schedule, the Raiders get the favorable draw of facing the AFC South and NFC South, but must play three of their first four games on the road, three of their final four on the road, and deal with a “home game” in Mexico City in Week 11 against Houston.

And then, once again, the Raiders must play out that schedule despite the presence of the elephant in the room in Oakland this season. Could the irony be any crueler for long-suffering Raiders fans than the team finally winning again amid the looming specter of relocation to Las Vegas, San Antonio or wherever owner Mark Davis might move them? The Raiders kept their blinders on and dealt with the same issue last season as the league’s return to Los Angeles decision approached, and McKenzie and Del Rio said this year’s approach will be no different in that regard.

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“It’s all about what’s ahead of us daily, and we’re really excited to play these games and get into the grind of this season,” McKenzie said. “We’ve gotten to the point where we can say whatever happens with this whole stadium thing, it happens. We’re just going to enjoy the ride, and let us know where [we’re playing in 2017], and we’ll be there.”

But first, the big move they make in 2016 should be confined to the standings, where a young and ascending team is dripping with playoff potential. As training camp begins, these Raiders can’t wait to start that journey.

“I absolutely want to be on the Raiders team that wins here again, and that’s the reason I get up in the morning and put the work in,” Carr said. “It’d be so cool. I remember Charles Woodson always telling us Oakland is the best place to be to win in the National Football League. There’s nowhere else like it. That day will come, and I’m excited that I’m young enough still that I’ll be around here for a good majority of it.”

In Oakland, after years of misery, the end of the drought may finally be at hand and a reign about to commence.

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