After 7 rough years, Raiders show signs of life
AP Sports Writer
ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) – When Quentin Groves was traded to Oakland in April, friends offered condolences for his fate of joining a franchise that had endured so many years of losing and turmoil that it had become a laughingstock of the NFL.
“Guys were like, ‘Man, that’s where you go for your career to die,”‘ Groves said. “I said, ‘It can’t be like that. It can’t be that bad.”‘
It might have been that bad the past seven years, when the Raiders had a record run of futility matched only by off-field distractions.
There were frequent coach firings, constant internal bickering and botched drafts and high-profile free agent busts that turned one of pro football’s most successful franchises into one of its sorriest.
A strong draft, smart personnel moves and some much-needed stability this past offseason have led to a resurgence in Oakland with Al Davis’ team heading into the bye playing its best football since winning the 2002 AFC championship.
“We’ve turned the corner on some issues,” coach Tom Cable said. “We’re becoming a winning football team. We’re becoming a confident football team with some faith and belief. Now we understand that we have to go out and do it a certain way every time.”
The Raiders (5-4) have done that for three weeks, following up blowout victories over Denver and Seattle by rallying for a 23-20 overtime victory over AFC West rival Kansas City last week that moved Oakland within a half-game of the division lead.
That win brought back memories of Oakland’s run of three straight division titles from 2000-02, with a sold-out crowd at the frenzied Coliseum cheering on the home team.
Punter Shane Lechler noticed the different feel while fighting traffic on the way to the stadium with kicker Sebastian Janikowski.
“That was pretty cool,” Lechler said. “That’s kind of how it was back in the days through 2002. There was traffic going to the stadium. I was riding over with SeaBass and I was, like, ‘Man, this kind of feels like the old days.’ But it was good. The place was packed, they were loud and that made it even better for us.”
That win gave the Raiders their first winning record at any point since three games into the 2004 season and first at this stage since back at 2002.
That the high mark came so soon after what looked to be yet another low when the Raiders lost 17-9 to winless Bay Area rival San Francisco on Oct. 17, shocked outsiders but not those inside the team’s compound.
“You all thought I was crazy when we were struggling early in the year, and I just knew that we were that close,” Cable said. “Make a kick here, score a touchdown across the bay, do just a couple of things and it’s a whole different world for us. But we didn’t.”
Many of the players credit a mantra from their coach for the sudden turnaround. He has been pleading with his players to simply “cut it loose,” which to him means to stop worrying about the past, don’t dwell on the negative and just go out and have fun on the field.
They also credit the stability that came from Davis’ decision to keep Cable for another year. Cable had a 9-19 record in one-plus season since taking over for Lane Kiffin in 2008.
He was in limbo early in the offseason as Davis mulled whether to make a fifth coaching change since losing the Super Bowl in January 2003. But he ultimately decided to keep Cable, while bringing in offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to take over play-calling duties.
“I just think we’ve stayed the course,” offensive lineman Robert Gallery said. “That’s what coach Cable has always said, stay the course. Everybody’s kind of bought into what he’s been preaching the past couple years. Things don’t always happen overnight. I think it’s now that turning point where people see if we do things right we’re a pretty good team.”
That wasn’t the case before this year. Since that 2003 Super Bowl defeat, the Raiders became the first team in NFL history to lose at least 11 games in seven straight seasons.
There were draft busts, most notably the $39 million wasted on quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the No. 1 overall pick in 2007 who was released in May following three miserable seasons.
There were wasteful free agent signings like receiver Javon Walker, who was paid $14 million for 15 catches before being cut last offseason. And there were high-profile trades gone awry, like the failed two-year experiment with Randy Moss and the $8 million spent for eight games from DeAngelo Hall.
At the center of all those decisions was Davis, the 81-year-old owner who built his beloved franchise into three-time Super Bowl champions and then saw it crumble.
Davis is still actively involved in every aspect of the team, serving as his own general manager and personnel director who has extensive say in the draft, player acquisitions and many smaller details around the franchise.
For all the bad moves that hampered the Raiders, Davis is on a run of much more successful decisions. Draft picks that looked to be misses are developing into big hits, like 2008 first-round pick Darren McFadden.
The Raiders have gotten big contributions from many players in this year’s draft, which features three players who started regularly in middle linebacker Rolando McClain, defensive end Lamarr Houston and left tackle Jared Veldheer; and receiver Jacoby Ford, who gained 306 yards last week on receptions and kick returns.
Quarterback Jason Campbell, hasn’t yet lived up to Davis’ prediction of a modern-day Jim Plunkett, but has won three straight starts.
The most important acquisition might have been the trade that brought three-time Super Bowl winner Richard Seymour over from New England just before last year’s opener. When Seymour took five days to report, many skeptics questioned why the Raiders would give up a 2011 first-round pick for aging player with only one year left on his contract.
Seymour brought over leadership skills, along with the play that has made Oakland’s front-four the strength of this year’s team. The players watched how he prepared, listened to his advice and followed his lead since his arrival.
His commitment to the team was crystalized when he chose to sign his franchise tender tag before the start of training camp and arrived in Napa on the rookie bus.
“He’s probably one of the best to ever do it,” Groves said. “He’s a guy that leads by example. I told him at the beginning of the year, he’s not a vocal guy but I’m trying to make him a vocal guy. Because we follow him whenever he talks. That’s just the way it is.”
How far Seymour leads the Raiders remains to be seen. Despite the good feeling that comes from a three-game winning streak, Oakland still has plenty of work to do to make it to the playoffs.
The schedule is particularly daunting, with trips to Pittsburgh, San Diego, Kansas City and Jacksonville remaining, along with home games against Indianapolis, Miami and a Denver team still smarting from the 59-14 beating Oakland delivered last month.
“It’s going to take time,” defensive tackle Tommy Kelly said. “You know everybody hates Al Davis. They’re going to jump on us any time that they can. But they can’t argue with the results.”
For the first time in eight years that’s the case.