Just 48 hours ago, the Oakland Raiders were a nice story, reviving the ghosts of an old-world AFL team that stormed into the NFL, with their iconic owner and iconoclastic style, bagged three Super Bowls and annoyed everyone in the process.
They were 5-0 on the road for the first time since John Madden stalked the sidelines. They were 6-2, tied for first place this late in the season for the first time in five years. They were giving fans a sense that the autumn wind was, once again, a pirate.
But they were still a story, like a fairy tale, with midnight looming, and soon the silver & black would turn back into an NFL pumpkin. Beating the Buccaneers was one thing. Wait until they rumbled with the big boys.
Then last night something seismic happened. And it was more than a single game in the standings. The Raiders whipped the Denver Broncos… the Super Bowl champion Broncos. And they did it in different ways.
We all thought the Raiders were a one-trick pony, Derek Carr and a sprawling route tree. But rather than rely on their aerial attack, they went grunt all game, with Latavius Murray scoring three touchdowns. They did it with the blue-collar ethic that wins championships, with a robust running game and solid defense that entered the game ranked near the worst in the league. And, of course, Derek Carr, who’s blossoming into a star, played with the poise and aplomb that belies his years.
It’s a captain obvious assertion now, but this space was quite effusive with praise over the Raiders’ quarterback, who has shed the stigma stuck to his last name, giving his family tree extra NFL branches.
Now Carr has joined fellow signal-callers Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and Matt Stafford as midseason MVP candidates. And if the vote were held today, yours truly would pull the handle for Carr, who is not only wildly gifted, but is just as essential and identifiable as the team’s leader as any QB west of Foxborough.
It’s been some time since the Raiders were serious contenders. They became way less character and way more caricature. Their owner was just old, stuck in his sweatsuits and Member’s Only outfits, tooling around in a golf cart, lording over a team that grew old with him. Both were stuck in an era that no longer mattered.
It’s a shame the old man isn’t around to see what’s happened to his “Raidiz” (think Brooklyn accent) and what happened last night, in Oakland, in the creaky Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
In a rivalry that goes back to holy trinity of Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford and Don Meredith, in a stadium where the renowned trio actually called those games, the Raiders are partying like it’s 1976.
Those Raiders had a swashbuckling QB in Ken Stabler, a granite offensive line that kept the QB upright, a deep threat in Cliff Branch, a possession receiver in Fred Biletnikoff and a burly coach who fit the team ethos. And the owner loved to tweak the league and threaten to move the club.
After years of heartache, first at the hands of the Lombardi Packers, then against the Steelers, the Raiders punched through the decade-long membrane and won their first Super Bowl title in ’76.
Today’s Raiders haven’t been a serious threat in 15 years. But like the 1970s iteration, they are building from the bottom up, through adroit draft picks — Khalil Mack, Murray, Carr and Amari Cooper. They’ve also brought in some discarded players (Michael Crabtree) and undrafted free agents (Seth Roberts).
Like their ’70s ancestors, the Raiders are an amalgam of blue-chip and blue-collar players who somehow make the alchemy work, buying into the past and present, crashing the party reserved for the aristocracy. Other than the Patriots, there isn’t an AFC team with a better record or better roster than the one we see in Oakland.
And now, the 2016 Raiders are something they were exactly 40 years ago — serious Super Bowl contenders. The autumn wind is once again a Raider.
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.