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Re-committed to excellence: Raiders plot a return to relevance

A new culture. An aggressive off-season. A star-studded roster. Don't look now, but Oakland is a viable playoff contender.

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.”