By Jason Keidel
If everyone brands a team the sleeper pick of the season, then they’re hardly a secret. And it seems anyone with a studio gig, radio mic or Twitter handle has picked the Oakland Raiders as the new darlings of the NFL.
No matter how high you place them on the NFL totem pole, it’s good for gridiron business to welcome the Raiders back to the fold. After 15 years of syndication as a corporate satire, with a solemn turnstile at the head coach’s office, and the slow, sad decay of the team’s eternal patriarch, Al Davis, it seems Oakland is finally back on the football map.
And they have a fervor and flavor that would make old man Al proud.
The Raiders have a deep running game, led by Latavius Murray, and a passing game reminiscent of the Cliff Branch days, with deep threats in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. And they finally have a quarterback, Derek Carr, who can bring it.
Some of us were cynical over Carr because his brother David never lived up to his status as a No. 1 draft pick. In fairness, the elder Carr was bludgeoned while playing for a fledgling Texans franchise, and may literally have left the NFL with PTSD. Derek has been through his baptism, and has proved his NFL bona fides.
It’s heartwarming to see the Raiders, a flagship franchise since the AFL-NFL merger, back in the headlines for the right reasons. Perhaps Sunday’s opening-day win at New Orleans was a good example of their newfound swagger. Maybe it’s even the start of something beautiful for their notoriously rabid fans, a group that used to sweep across America from the 1960s until Jon Gruden’s bunch was crunched in their last Super Bowl appearance.
Oakland won in New Orleans, a notoriously tough venue for road teams, at least since Drew Brees and Sean Payton became the most potent quarterback-head coach tandem east of New England. And the way they did it — with a two-point conversion at the end, when a kick would have tied it — may also double as a time portal back to the old Raiders, the original, silver-and-black pirates of the sport.
Those Raiders of Al Davis and John Madden and Tom Flores defied convention. And these Raiders now use the same, old-school blueprint today.
The defense didn’t remind anyone of those old, ornery clubs of Gene Atkinson, Jack Tatum, Willie Brown, Ted Hendricks and Howie Long. Indeed, Drew Brees shredded the Raiders, passing for 400 yards for the 14th time in his career to tie Peyton Manning for the most in NFL history. His 98-yard-bomb to Brandin Cooks — a franchise record — will be on loop all season.
Okay, maybe the Raiders aren’t quite back. And today’s team has ways to go before reaching their iconic and iconoclastic predecessors, who still live on through slow-motion montages, massaged by John Facenda’s booming baritone, in those old NFL films.
But the Raiders are on the upswing. They are 1-0 for the first time in five years. And they have the right leader. Not only a former player, but a darn good one, Jack Del Rio was a hard-hitting linebacker who would have fit nicely on those old squads. He seems to have landed in Oakland with the perfect amalgam of latitude, attitude and experience.
Like so many players Oakland plucked from the recycle bin, players left for gridiron carrion, Del Rio was in coaching limbo after being fired by the Jacksonville in week 12 of the 2011 season.
He soon became the defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos. But there was no assurance he would get another shot at one of only 32 NFL head-coaching jobs, especially after the Seahawks dropped 43 points on the Broncos in the Super Bowl.
Del Rio has the perfect, aggressive style and persona for the nouveau pirates. After sneaking past the Saints on his gutsy call, he called out ESPN for saying he made the wrong move based on analytics. The new coach with an old soul realized that games aren’t played on paper, or inside a computer. Stats will always have an important place, but they don’t replace people.
Millions of fans love and loathe the Oakland Raiders. And what better way for them to re-enter our consciousness than a post-game Tweet from the head man?
It’s the perfect statement from the retread coach of a reborn franchise.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.