The Raiders' Black Hole Decade: Looking Back At The Insanity, And What Lies Ahead

If the New Orleans Saints are America's team, then who in the world would claim the Raiders?

Maybe Afghanistan?

It's not meant as a dig at Raiders fans, either; it's just, no team in professional sports has enjoyed a more chaotic run than the Oakland Raiders of the past 10 years. To the point where it's impressive. If not necessarily in a constant state of disrepair, the franchise has been one of perpetual disrepute--whether it's complaining about the Tuck Rule, getting blown out in the Super Bowl, Al Davis getting taken to court by his co-owners, the Randy Moss era, the Art Shell era, the Lane Kiffin hiring, the he-said she-said Kiffin firing, and we haven't even gotten to the Tom Cable years.

The Raiders are like the alcoholic franchise of the NFL; a perpetual mess, and even when they get it right, it happens as a blunt force strike to the face of logic and decency, to the point where we worry about what kind of example they're setting. Just win, baby!

We're not congratulating the Raiders here, because obviously, they are insane, and they've put their fans through an absolute hell. But isn't insanity its own kind of accomplishment? For instance, would you rather have rooted for the 49ers or the Raiders for the past decade? You can love a team that's quietly mediocre or spectacularly manic: San Francisco or Oakland?

As Chris Rock once said, "The only exciting relationships are BAD ones. You never know what's going to happen tomorrow when you in a bad relationship. ... That's exciting!"

Indeed, and watching from a distance, the Raiders have got to be the most fascinating franchise in the NFL. There's nothing inherently exciting about a team like the Patriots, who found a formula for success and stuck to it. But Al Davis? He decided the NFL's new formulas are for sissies and Mike Shanahan. So he stockpiled receivers, traded for disgruntled superstars, and fired coaches just as whimsically as he hired the next one.

Look at the men who have graced the sidelines in Oakland since 2000:

  • Jon Gruden — 1998-2001, 38-26
  • Bill Callahan — 2002-2003, 15-17
  • Norv Turner — 2004-2005, 9-23
  • Art Shell — 2006, 2-14
  • Lane Kiffin — 2007-2008, 5-15
  • Tom Cable — 2008-present, 9-19 

It's one thing to recycle head coaches, it's something else to recycle those coaches. Only Jon Gruden is someone a sane team might actually want to hire, and of course, Al Davis shipped him out of town because of Gruden's reluctance to embrace a "vertical passing attack." From there, it's just a murderer's row of feckless, spineless, know-nothings: beginning with a Norv Turner sighting, cresting with hiring a 31-year-old Kiffin (the youngest coach since 1946), and then plateauing with Cable, who has been charged with assault on an assistant coach and accused of domestic abuse since his hiring in 2008.

And don't think we're forgetting Art Shell, who's still trying to figure out the challenge rule.

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And that's just the head coaches. We haven't even mentioned the ownership disputes, the whole situation with Rob Ryan, and about 1,000 different stories involving players brought into Oakland as saviors, and sent out of town as villains. Just unreal.

One day, somebody should write a book about this team. But absent the time or perspective, let's highlight a few of the more insane Raiders stories from the past decade. In fact, let's look through the lens of a Raiders fan—these are the five stages of grief that they've experienced in the past 10 years, starting with...

Denial

It was 2002, it was snowing, and the Oakland Raiders got royally screwed. Even if it was the correct interpretation of the rule—a concept that's still difficult to grasp—no team deserves to lose on a play like that. But even if it wasn't the correct interpretation of the rule, and the officials did screw the Raiders out of a trip to the AFC Championship Game, well... That happens in sports.  But that didn't stop the Raiders and their fans from complaining about it for the next 10 years.

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"If it weren't for a new rule that came into being," Davis said, "We'd have played three years in a row in the championship game." And nearly a decade later, he couldn't get over it. As Davis remarked in 2008, "The Tuck Game was the undoing of a lot of things." And in a way, it was. The Raiders made the Super Bowl just a few years later, but even so, sanity has been elusive ever since that snowy night in 2002.

That's when Al Davis and Raiders fans became convinced that there was a conspiracy against his franchise. It was the last game Jon Gruden coached in Oakland. And more than anything, it began a bitter divorce from reality that continues to this day with the Davis regime. The Raiders didn't lose to the Patriots; they were cheated, and in the minds of fans, it epitomized what the league's been doing to them since the Immaculate Reception.

Anger

We can't talk about the Raiders without mentioning their horrorshow of a fanbase. It's not that Raiders fans are overly-aggresive relative to other fans (Philly, Pittsburgh, etc); but they look so much worse. It's why the pity for Raiders fans only goes so far. Doesn't it seem appropriate for the NFL's most batshit insane franchise to belong to people like this?

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Calling Raider fans "scary" is like calling rapists "sexually frustrated." Which isn't to say Raiders fans make me think of rapists, because they don't, and I didn't... Eh, let's just move on.

Beyond the dystopia that is Oakland Coliseum's "Black Hole" of Raiders fans, the team itself has seen some pretty spectacular fights amongst themselves. In addition to Tom Cable allegedly cold-cocking an assistant coach last season, there was the incident in 2003, where Bill Romanowski beating the living crap out of teammate Marcus Williams in training camp, ending Williams' season and ultimately, his NFL career. Later, the attack led to a lawsuit.

"My reaction was a reaction from being pushed in the back,'' Romanowski explained.

"I just didn't understand what had happened," Williams said, denying that he'd ever pushed Romanowski. "I was wondering, 'What did I do?'"

It's not as funny as some of the other Raiders hijinks, because there's real violence involved, as you can see in this picture of Williams after the attack. The only reason it's mentioned is because in hindsight, it's the moment we should have known that the wheels had completely come off in Oakland.

Bargaining

The Raiders carnival ride hit its wildest point when Al Davis set out to fire Lane Kiffin after four games of the 2008 season. With cause, of course, meaning he wouldn't pay the remainder of Kiffin's salary. An excerpt from one of the more memorable press conferences in recent history:

I reached a point where I felt the whole staff, we were fractionalized ... that the best thing to do ... was to make a change. It hurts because I picked the guy. I picked the wrong guy. This is regretful, but I thought it was best for the Raiders. And I wanted to make it work, because I want the Raiders to do great. Someone said to me the other day, a newspaper man, 'Why don't you tell us your side of the story? Why don't you tell us what's happening?'

And I said to him, look, I don't want to win in the press, I want to win on the field"

Of course, as Davis uttered those words, he was actively trying to "win in the press" and decimating his former coach's credibility at the same time. Not surprisingly, since Davis was refusing to pay the balance of Kiffin's salary ($2.6 million), the whole thing went to arbitration with the whole world asking, "Is it possible for both sides to get screwed here?"

Really, no specific screwup encapsulates the Oakland's dysfunction quite like the most morally ambiguous owner in NFL history—Al Davis, looking half-dead in his trademark Raiders jumpsuit—viciously attacking Lane Kiffin's integrity, and saying essentially, "We're better than this guy."

..."And we think Tom Cable is a step in the right direction for this team." Only in Oakland.

Depression

The testimonial from former Raider Javon Walker fits nicely here:

I was in an unfortunate situation in Oakland… A lot of people know that situation when you go to Oakland so it’s no surprise. When I was in Denver I performed. I was in Green Bay I performed, so now you’re trying to tell me that now I’m in Oakland I can’t perform? I never really got a fair chance.  I’m not the first athlete who went into Oakland and all of a sudden it looked like his talents have disappeared. ... Everybody knows how Al Davis is.  What fans don’t realize is when I signed that contract I offered to give it back.

Indeed, Javon Walker offered to pay back his signing bonus if the Raiders would release him. Do you have any idea what it takes to get a pro athlete to pay back his salary? And it sort of became a trend in Oakland. Randy Moss offered to restructure his contract to facilitate a trade, and after Deangelo Hall was released and freed to join another NFL team, his teammates got jealous. As Adam Schefter reported at the time:

Last summer, Raiders wide receiver Javon Walker offered to return his bonus money in an effort to leave Oakland. If given that same opportunity today, numerous Raiders would take it, according to multiple league sources.

Players in Oakland are so unhappy with the environment, the losing, the instability, that many would prefer to leave. This is not entirely uncommon around a losing team, but it is more extreme in Oakland than anywhere else.

Fact: It has gotten so bleak that, just this past week, at least one prominent player actually considered quitting, taking a leave of absence, just because he feels like he cannot take it anymore. He wound up not doing it, but chances are he is hardly the only Raider thinking it.

For a second there, players would rather quit and/or return millions in salary than continue playing Oakland. That, my friends, qualifies as rock bottom. And it was, because things are finally looking up.

Acceptance

Say this much for Al Davis: He might just be the most stubborn person on the face of the earth. Despite pleas for him to sell the team, a neverending avalanche of criticism regarding his management style and player personnel decisions, and the practical concerns of, you know, aging, Al Davis remains in the captain's seat.

To win over the team's best player, cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, Davis overpaid. By a lot. He put up $45.3 million over three years, and inadvertently skewed the entire salary structure of the NFL—Albert Haynesworth, Julius Peppers, and every other defensive star that's gotten a contract that made you say "He makes WHAT?" They can all thank Al Davis, who set the market price with Asomugha's absurd deal.

Does that make him crazy? Of course. But he accepted that Oakland wasn't the most desirable place to play, and he compensated by making it worthwhile for Nnamdi to stay. And now, for the first time in years, the Raiders actually have hope.

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Why can the Oakland Raiders make the playoffs this year? I'll give you five reasons:

They can win their division. Oakland played San Diego close both times they met last year, losing 24-20 the first time, and 24-16 the second. For them to leapfrog the Chargers, San Diego will have to regress at the same time Oakland jumps forward. That's possible, right? The Chargers have collapsed in the postseason for what feels like a decade straight. Eventually, that sort of thing catches up with you. And Oakland, with a new quarterback in Jason Campbell, a better defense, and a slew of players coming into their own at the same time, will improve on last year's record no matter what. So, if the Chargers regress... The Raiders should be able to make the leap over San Diego, Kansas City (a credible threat themselves), and Denver (Josh McDaniels ... LOL).

Defense. Oakland had the no. 3 pass defense in the NFL last season, and the no. 8 defense overall. That's not necessarily proof that they're ready to dominate, but it's at least proof that they've got some of the pieces in place. Add to that the additions of Rolando McClain at LB (to mitigate the loss of Kirk Morrison) and Lamarr Houston and John Henderson at DT, and there's reason to believe that Oakland's got a Top 5 defense in the NFL. And if they can stop people...

Jason Campbell's Inevitable Success Story. Jason Campbell has studied under so many offensive coordinators throughout his career that "Look how many offenses he's had to learn!" has become cliche. But it's true; Cambell's been put through the ringer from a mental standpoint, and he's still standing. His time in Washington was never as bad as everyone pretended, and as a lifelong Washingtonian I can speak with authority: whenever D.C. gives up a promising young player, he'll be successful wherever he goes. Campbell, surrounded by talent in Oakland (Michael Bush, Darren McFadden, Zach Miller, Louis Murphy), should add to that lineage, especially now that's he been freed of the expectations that come with being Washington's Quarterback of the Future. In Oakland, he's already a success—anyone's an upgrade over Jamarcus Russell.

Tom Cable relinquished play-calling duties. I realize any predictions of Raiders success means tethering my credibility to Tom Cable, but hey, at least he's not calling the shots on offense this year. And besides, Cable's part of the attraction here, because...

Parity. The NFL has gotten to the point where it's impossible to predict which teams will succeed year-in and year-out. Aside from a handful of blue bloods, the league is full of teams like the Raiders; solid talent, a couple big question marks, and wildly varying expectations. But every year, one or two of these teams surprises everyone. It's just the way the NFL works now. You can safely guess 4 of the 6 teams that'll make the playoffs in each conference, but the last two? You might as well pick out of hat. And the Raiders, after years of disarray, finally have some of the pieces in place to make a run. It can really happen.

And imagine if it does. Whatever happens, someone needs to write a book about the Raiders of the new millennium, but imagine if the final chapter of the "Black Hole Decade" has a happy ending. It really isn't that far-fetched when you consider the league and the team the Raiders have this year. And it'd be a pretty phenomenal story.

We don't even need to broach all the off-the-field drama—ties to the Balco scandal, Al Davis' ownership struggles, Cable's struggles. Just on the field... This is a team that's employed the two best receivers of all time (Rice, Moss), suffered through the biggest officiating controversy of the NFL's replay era, traded their boy genius head coach after a 10-6 season, made the Super Bowl the next year and got blown out by a team coached by that same boy genius, followed up their Super Bowl season with a 4-12 season, hired Norv Turner, traded for Randy Moss, then fired Turner, hired Art Shell, went 2-14, drafted Jamarcus Russell first overall, hired and fired the youngest coach in NFL history, ceding the head coaching position to a man whose only head coaching experience produced a .239 winning percentage at Idaho. And here we are.

Now, in 2010, after all that... The Raiders might just win, baby.

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