I showed up for my first game as Raiders insider sporting a brand-new suit, a poorly knotted tie and a notable spring in my step. I was far too early for this preseason affair, so I waltzed through security and headed for the press-box elevator.
Tap, tap, tap went the “Up” button. A light came on, but the car never came.
Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap.
I was left to zig-zag my way through an Oakland Coliseum concourse, up a stair well and through a back door to reach the press box. At least that’s how I remember it. It was six-plus seasons ago now, when I was charged to cover the Silver and Black during a deconstruction phase in the years following Al Davis’ death.
I reached the press box, surveyed the aging stadium’s outdated features, shook my head, and went immediately to Twitter and made a wisecrack about the elevator not working.
The replies were all the same. No duh. No surprise. Didn’t you know this stadium stinks?
One Raiders employee (Hi, Jerry Knaack!!) named me the elevator monitor that day, and didn’t let me live it down for years. I learned two things from that 2013 evening at the Coliseum: 1. No way the Raiders’ run there would be a long-term engagement. … and … 2. I was in line to watch a lot of bad football.
Those things, more than anything else, defined a Raiders decade dominated by great change and a terrible on-field product.
Al Davis’ death changed everything
As the article’s introduction states, I was not covering the Raiders when Al Davis died on Oct. 8, 2011. He was 82 years old, a true titan and the lifeblood of the Raiders' organization. I never met the man who turned a starving team into a three-time Super Bowl champion and one of the AFL and NFL’s greatest teams. That’s a disappointment of the highest order, even if he disdained the fourth estate.
This is a personal account of the Raiders' decade, but Ignoring this pivotal moment is impossible. It has impacted everything after.
Davis was everything to this organization. That was well described in this quote pulled from the San Francisco Chronicle relaying what Davis told defensive lineman Tom Keating after arriving in a trade from Buffalo.
"Young man, let there be no mistake about this -- I do everything here,” Davis said. “I hire people and I fire people, and I decide how many wastebaskets we'll have in this office."
Deconstruction, reconstruction and other excuses for poor play
Al’s death obviously left a void. A black hole, to be more accurate and apt.
I came to cover this team after Davis had passed, after Mark Davis took control of the team, after general manager Reggie McKenzie was hired to handle post-Al Davis personnel decisions, and after Dennis Allen replaced Hue Jackson as head coach.
McKenzie inherited a terrible situation, with the Raiders in salary-cap hell and no early first-round draft picks to start rebuilding the old-fashioned way. He made a lot of tough cuts to get right with the cap, at the expense of the on-field product.
Mark Davis called that the deconstruction phase, a fancy term to make awful football more palatable and keep butts in the seats. It was synonymous to the 76ers’ “trust the process,” a promise that better was ahead of all this bad.
That lead to the reconstruction phase and McKenzie’s defining moment …
Reggie’s signature draft
McKenzie couldn’t believe his luck. The Bills had selected wide receiver Sammy Watkins No. 4 overall in the 2014 NFL Draft, over the dominant edge rusher from their local college. Crossed fingers turned to cheering without restraint, making the Raiders' next move a literal no-brainer.
With the No. 5 pick in the NFL draft, the Raiders select … Khalil Mack, University of Buffalo. More cheers. More astonishment. More of a belief that better times were coming.
That sentiment continued the next day when the Raiders stole Derek Carr at No. 36 and Gabe Jackson at No. 81. McKenzie took an elite pass rusher, a franchise quarterback and a road-grading interior lineman with three consecutive picks.
McKenzie filled out the class with two more impact rookies, but things didn’t turn around until …
The Sio sack dance
I’ve never seen Justin Tuck so pissed. The veteran defensive lineman has some intimidating qualities, but he’s too cordial and cerebral to seriously scare. I was in the postgame locker room when Tuck said he was “ready to fight” Sio Moore and Mack for celebrating a sack 15-ish yards behind the play, while the Kansas City Chiefs were trying to orchestrate a comeback drive.
Tuck was not lying.
The 2014 Raiders were, after all, less than a minute away from snapping a 10-game losing streak. Allen had been fired after four losses. Tony Sparano buried a football in a failed attempt to exorcise some demons.
Nothing stopped the skid until Carr threw James Jones a touchdown for the first of his 18 career fourth-quarter comebacks, and the defense made it stand despite the instantly infamous Sio sack dance. Tuck and Charles Woodson still were so mad at their young teammates post-game that they had to remind them the fight over a boneheaded loss would’ve been real.
“I’ve been in this league for 10 years,” Tuck said. “C-Wood has been in this league 18 years. We’ve never seen anything like that. Ever. You know how you say, ‘I’ve seen it all’? I’ll never say that again.”
That started a solid finish to the year. The Raiders started 0-10 and wrapped 3-3, beginning an ascent that led to the best year of this decade.
Scared to death
I played a part in NBC Sports Bay Area’s now-defunct Raiders Postgame show, which aired right after each game. I had to be on the air shortly after the final whistle, opening the show with a news update on the game that had just finished.
They often occurred while players and fans were rushing through the tunnel, leading to some interesting exchanges while I was on the air. I once got mugged by someone dressed as Santa Claus while doing a report at the Coliseum. I was live in Tennessee, right next to Nissan Stadium’s visiting locker room, when then-Raiders offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave hit me in the crotch with a play-calling card while I was answering a question.
[RELATED: Mark Davis reflects on Oakland era]
Those incidents paled in comparison to what happened in San Diego, circa 2016.
The Raiders had just clinched their first playoff berth since 2003 after beating the Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. I was prepping for my report when Donald Penn came up and scared me to death, celebrating into the camera. (Check my Twitter avatar for proof.) Then Menelik Watson gave me a bear hug that I didn’t expect just moments from me going on air.
That’s how pumped the Raiders were to make the playoffs that year. Things went downhill from there, though, with MVP candidate Carr breaking his ankle, Penn busting up his knee and the Raiders being bounced from the playoffs while using a third-string quarterback.
The 12-4 season was loaded with dramatic affairs and stellar play from Carr, Mack and an awesome offensive line, and seemed to suggest good times to come. It didn’t last, but an old favorite brought renewed optimism to the end of this decade.
The return of Chucky
I ran into Mark Davis at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott the night before the Raiders’ 2017 regular-season finale. Reports swarmed that Jon Gruden was set to leave the ESPN broadcast booth and return to the Raiders' sideline. I asked Davis about that prospect then, well before he was comfortable publicly addressing the issue.
“Those rumors come about every year,” Davis said.
Gruden also was ducking and dodging them. This time, they were real.
Davis fired Jack Del Rio in a tunnel of the then-Home Depot Center, and the dismissed coach announced his own firing in a press conference a few minutes later.
Gruden formally came aboard the following week in a press-conference spectacle with most every living Raiders legend in attendance. It was a true Raiders spring in the dead of winter, an attempted renewal of a bygone era when the Silver and Black were both feared and respected.
Gruden has made several controversial moves since trying to re-establish a foundation for sustained success, with the Mack and Antonio Brown trades, to name but a few. The Raiders have made significant progress building up after Gruden tore it all down, thanks to an awesome 2019 draft class that has helped create faint playoff hopes and a bright future in another location.
The longest goodbye
The Raiders tried and failed to find a building in Oakland. Mark Davis needed help that he never got from the city or Alameda County. He never was interested in input from Floyd Kephart or Ronnie Lott or others with pie-in-the-sky stadium plans.
He tried to leave for Los Angeles with the Chargers in 2016, but ended up “third in a three-horse race,” with the Rams, and eventually the Bolts headed to L.A.
Davis never wavered in his desire to secure a permanent stadium throughout the second half of this decade, securing a sweetheart deal in Nevada to build a venue off the Las Vegas Strip. Allegiant Stadium is nearly done now, with the Raiders set to move there in 2020.
The Raiders hosted their last final game at Oakland Coliseum a few weeks back -- they had one in 2015 that doubled as Woodson’s retirement ceremony, and another last year when Carr and Gruden took a victory lap following a win -- and it ended with anger.
Oakland Raiders fans planned to party ‘til the beer ran out, but after a humiliating loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, they sent water bottles and a perfectly good plate of nachos onto the Coliseum turf in disgust.
The Raiders will spend what’s left of 2019 and the 2020 offseason here, but they're moving on from the market. Despite leaving it twice, the East Bay always will hold a vital place in their history.
“The Raiders were born in Oakland,” Davis told our Monte Poole before the Coliseum finale. “Oakland will always be part of our DNA. There’s no doubt about that.”