Oakland Raiders fans have undergone an interesting evolution since last weekend's draft, by which I do not mean to imply that they've only just begun walking upright.
It seemed a majority of the Silver and Black's most ardent supporters were confused/nauseated/driven to despair by the team's first- and second-round picks. But when the rest of the world joined them in piling on Al Davis, they didn't appreciate it. They reacted the way Otter does when he sees Niedermeyer abusing Kent Dorfman at the beginning of Animal House. "Hey," he objects. "He can't do that to our pledges!"
Agrees Boon, "Only we can do that to our pledges."
As a result, Raiders fans have closed ranks around Big Al, like Spartans forming their "phalanx" in the movie 300. "After some reflection -- and listening to the national experts bash their beloved Raiders," observes David White, the San Francisco Chronicle's Raiders beat guy, "many of you have circled the wagons to defend Al Davis while trusting this will work out for the best."
Their team having lost 72 of its 96 games since appearing in the '03 Super Bowl, Raider Nation can now safely be described as "long-suffering." Under the face paint and the foil-covered spikes and the metal-studded clothing, they have a pretty good idea of what they saw over the weekend: another subpar draft, courtesy of the guy who's presided over some of the most disastrous drafts of the past two decades.
Defenders of Davis -- who will turn 80 in two months -- say he's crazy like a fox.
And that is true -- provided the fox is aging, compromised and semi-delusional. But give Davis this: The man is always entertaining -- in the same way it is entertaining to try to divine the intentions of other such unstable autocrats as Fidel Castro, Kim Jong-il and Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. Let us examine Oakland's first two selections in the '09 draft, in descending order of coherence.
With the seventh overall pick, the Raiders selected Darrius Heyward-Bey, a Maryland junior who had a strong combine, running the swiftest 40 (4.3) and reportedly acing his interviews (rather lower on the priority list of those members of Raider Nation occupying the Black Hole). Once again, a player's straight-ahead speed and other enticing "measurables" eclipsed, in the eyes of the franchise's godfather, such trifling concerns as his mediocre production and questionable hands.
Heyward-Bey -- a terrific young man, by all accounts, who can't be blamed for the erratic behavior of the NFL's most dysfunctional franchise -- caught 42 passes for 609 yards and five touchdowns in Maryland's pro-style offense last season. He was named to the honorable mention All-ACC team, which sounds nice until you consider it means he finished behind four other receivers in the conference. Compare his bona fides to those of Texas Tech wideout Michael Crabtree, the two-time Biletnikoff award winner and consensus All America who in '08 snagged 97 passes for 1,165 yards and 19 TDs in Mike Leach's spread system.
By opting for the potential of DHB over the production of Crabtree -- or, for that matter, Mizzou all-purpose threat Jeremy Maclin -- Davis exposed, once again, his preference for all things retro. The man who favors track suits, black leather and the tonsorial stylings of Bowzer from Sha Na Na is in the throes of a life-long love affair with the vertical passing game. Heyward-Bey, he hopes, will end up on the business end of many a JaMarcus Russell long ball.
The problem being that the ex-Terrapin is still learning how to catch the football. As Los Angeles Times NFL columnist Sam Farmer expressed in a recent cautionary note, "Speed [minus] hands = James Jett."
By passing on Crabtree, Davis triggered a joyous bedlam on the other side of the Bay. Starved for the sort of game-changing, marquee receiver with which their franchise was once synonymous, the San Francisco 49ers jumped on Crab with the 10th overall pick. Within minutes, the team's chief operating officer, Andy Dolich, was on local sports station KNBR reciting the 800 number for Niners season tickets.
Oakland's second pick was, by a degree of magnitude, a more outlandish reach than its first. Indeed, the selection of Ohio Bobcat free safety Michael Mitchell -- whom ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper identified as the 73rd-best safety on his "board" -- served to make the Heyward-Bey pick seem safe and practical.
Mitchell was, by all accounts, a fine safety in the MAC: a hard-hitting, heads-up ballhawk -- albeit one who wasn't even invited to the combine or any of the college all-star games. ESPN had no footage of him to air when Mitchell's name was called for the 47th pick. NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock took the Raiders apart, declaring Mitchell would have been available several rounds later, if not in free agency, although Mitchell told Bay area reporters that, just before Oakland took him, the Chicago Bears had called him with the news that he would soon be a Bear.
As the progenitor of bump and run coverage, Davis sees himself as a connoisseur of defensive backs. Sometimes he nails it, (Willie Brown, Jack Tatum, Vann McElroy, Lester Hayes, Albert Lewis, Nnamdi Asomugha), and sometimes he whiffs (Fabian Washington, Derrick Gibson, Phillip Buchanon, Michael Huff, Darnell Bing.)
Regardless of how DHB and Mitchell pan out, we can be certain of this: if they succeed, Davis will bask in the credit. If they flop, and the team goes south again, he'll deflect blame until it's time to fire another coach, call another press conference and talk about how he was undermined. It will be painful for Raiders fans, but highly entertaining for the rest of us.
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