Al Davis died 10 years ago next week, and his beloved NFL team now plays its home games a nine-hour drive from Oakland. But the Raiders are not ready to move away from his go-deep, “Just Win, Baby” legacy – and they may not ever be. Ten years on, they still wear tiny black shield-shaped stickers with AL on those lustrous silver helmets.
His 66-year-old son, Mark, who has owned and run the Raiders since his father’s death, angered the legion of loyal fans in Oakland by bolting to Las Vegas before last season, even though he said he tried to get a new stadium built in Oakland even after the city jacked up the rent on the old one.
Since Al Davis died in 2011, the Raiders have not been all that great, either, posting one winning season and losing their only playoff game in that span. Even after Jon Gruden, the brash coach they actually traded to a team that beat them in the Super Bowl, returned to sign a then-record, 10-year, $100m contract before the 2018 season, the best the Raiders could do was 8-8.
But wait. Take another look. Three games is too early to label them contenders, but the Raiders are 3-0 after a hairy 28-25 victory on Sunday over the Miami Dolphins, their second OT win this season. They have not been 3-0 since 2002, the season after Gruden, traded to Tampa Bay, beat Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII.
“We still haven’t played our best football. And I think that’s a frustrating thing and an exciting thing,” Derek Carr, the Raiders’ veteran quarterback, said in a post-game interview with CBS on Sunday.
There have been several interesting developments so far in the 2021 NFL season – the Panthers, Rams and Broncos are 3-0 with new QBs – but the Raiders, tied with Denver for first place in the tough AFC West (two games ahead of Kansas City!), are holding their own and emerging from the shadows of a dreary decade.
They play the Chargers, last-minute winners on the road over the Chiefs, next Monday night in Los Angeles. But they still are the Raiders, the team NFL fans loved to hate long before the Patriots. They have Gruden, the animated, 58-year-old former TV analyst known by both fans and detractors as “Chucky,” the slasher-movie character.
With three Super Bowl victories and 28 Hall of Famers in their history, a resurgent and relevant Raiders are good for the NFL. The Raiders have been good for the league lately, anyway, considering the way Davis and Gruden strongly supported the defensive lineman Carl Nassib in June when he came out as the NFL’s first gay active player. “If he’s happy, I’m happy,” Davis told the Las Vegas Review-Journal at the time.
The Raiders have a long history of running ahead of the curve. Al Davis, with his Brooklyn background and his AFL roots, often scrapped with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, the league’s image-maker. Davis hired Art Shell in 1989 to become the league’s first Black coach in 60 years. Amy Trask, a longtime team executive, became the NFL’s first female CEO in 1997.
Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas is state of the art and filled with fans now that the gates are open again. The Raiders have found a way to somewhat recreate the Black Hole, the sections in Oakland where the team’s most rabid fans, many of them in garish costumes, congregated to back the Raiders by raising hell, even during the down years.
(Winning them over was a project. Rob Rivera, a resident of Hayward, California, who was the president and co-founder of the Black Hole, died earlier this month from coronavirus. He never saw a game in Vegas, telling the Guardian last year, “The move has broken our hearts, pissed us off. They proved loyalty is a one-way street in the NFL.”)
Carr improved statistically in each of the last three seasons, but only had 19 victories to show for it. Carr passed for 386 yards in their ungainly, come-from-behind victory over the Dolphins, leading the Raiders to two field goals in overtime. “Maybe my pregame speeches aren’t very good,” Gruden said afterward.
Justin Herbert, the Chargers’ superb young quarterback, will offer a more serious challenge next week than Dolphins back-up Jacoby Brissett did Sunday – as will the Broncos’ Teddy Bridgewater … and, of course, the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes. Two times each. So it gets tougher.
But the Raiders are enthusiastic. Gruden said again last week at a news conference that he never lacks confidence, but his players now seem to be following his lead and winning games they might not have won in seasons past.
The Raiders brought with them to Las Vegas something called the Al Davis Memorial Torch, which is lit, usually by a former player or coach, before each home game to pay tribute to his belief that “the fire that burns brightest in the Raiders’ organization is the will to win.” It sounds, at least so far this season, that the team does not really need the torch.
“That’s how me and Gruden are, man,” Carr said. “We always talk about, ‘Man, do we have to leave?’ We have so many plays; we have so many things we want to do. You’re like, ‘Can we play a doubleheader?’ I don’t know if our bodies would be able to hold up, but our minds are sure willing.”