I love the NFL. The sweatpants, the couch time, the weekly parade of game upon game on Sundays is one of the brighter sides of life for me. It's especially sweet in the winter when there is no guilt for missing a beautiful autumn afternoon indoors watching football. There's no way I can give it up, which has sprung about a recent conundrum.
My favorite team is, of course, the Cincinnati Bengals—far from a secret. Despite all the anguish and torment we fans have lived through this season, along with the complete indifference to the losing shown by team ownership, I still care. Sometimes—many times really—I wish that I didn't, but I keep right on caring weekend after weekend. I'm proud that I'm from Cincinnati but it's hard to be proud of the Bengals, and it's downright impossible to be proud of the team's owner, Mike Brown. Not only does he run his organization like a stubbornly backward totalitarian, he has gouged the city for millions of tax dollars to pay for his stadium. He is morally heinous and cannot be supported with good conscious. Therefore, while keeping an eye on the continually strange developments of the Bengals, I have officially incorporated another team into my NFL interest: the Oakland Raiders.
Why the Raiders?
The most depraved part about being a Bengals fan is how damned interesting the team is for all the wrong reasons. Their failures are typically epic, and, if nothing else, it makes for good theater. Mike Brown makes such bad decisions most of the time, one can't help but watch the predictable train wreck with mouth agape.
The Raiders too know a thing or two about eccentric team ownership. Al Davis has outlived his brain yet the jump-suit wearing salamander is still perched atop his Raider empire, falling in and out of sleep and calling everyone by the same name. He's become that uncle that everyone smiles and nods to but has know idea what it is he's asking for. The biggest difference between Al Davis and Mike Brown, however, is that Al has won the Super Bowl three times; MB has only sniffed a championship hanging around the heels of his legendary father. Since he took over the team in 1992, Brown's team has appeared in the playoffs twice and have won maybe 40 percent of their games. Anyway you slice it, he's a loser. Al Davis, on the other hand, may be past his prime, or even past his life expectancy, but you can't say he's a loser. He's passionate about his team and will make hasty decisions to get them back to winning immediately. Based on his history, he doesn't appear to know how to appropriately rebuild because he isn't used to losing. Because the quick fix has proved elusive for ol' Uncle Al, the Raiders have had a rough go of it since Jon Gruden, but, in more ways than one, times are a-changin' along Coliseum Way in Oakland, and mostly for the better.
The Raiders are finally drafting well and composing their team in a sensible manor in regards to player and coach personnel. Tom Cable has the look of a Raider coach. First off, he's an overweight line coach, just like John Madden and Art Shell once was, he is spirited and the players seem to respond to him, and he apparently has a mean right cross (or was it the left? It doesn't matter). It appears he is a contributing reason for the offensive line's recent improvement and he also seems to have solid position coaches.
Bengal fans should remember Hue Jackson, once the Bengals receivers coach and now the offensive coordinator for Oakland. Jackson has worked with two quarterbacks this season in hopes of finding the right rhythm for the offense, and is apparently now stuck with Jason Campbell for the remainder of the year. Despite that uncertainty under center, Jackson has crafted an offense that has helped Oakland become one of the stronger rushing units in the league today.
Quarterback Jason Campbell wanders across the whole spectrum in terms of his consistency and effectiveness, but one thing is for sure, the less the Raiders need to pass, the better off they are. Oakland has vacillated between Campbell and fellow QB, Bruce Gradkowski, but the latter swashbuckled his way to the injured-reserve list and Campbell is now the man. I've seen some catastrophic implosions centered around the inability for teams to stick with one starting quarterback and I felt like that same syndrome had started in on this year's Raiders after Week 12, but with Gradkowski shelved for the remainder of the year the team can now prepare in a more focused and hopefully more efficient way. Honestly, losing Gradkowski may have saved the season for Oakland; not because he's bad, but because now there is certainty, and that goes a long way in practice. I personally think the way to go is letting Campbell grow into Jackson's offense not only for the remainder of this season, but even into next year as well,
The defense has its share of veterans, especially on the front line, but the youth on the team brims with potential. Middle linebacker Rolando McClean has excellent size, solid play-recognition skills for a rookie, and a power-packed tackling form that removed Darren Sproles from the game last week. Having a stud middle linebacker to build the defense around is a great place for general managers to start when assembling a roster. Another promising rookie on the defensive side is lineman LaMarr Houston. This guy is 305 lbs, but carries his weight around easily encompassed in a rather sleek physique for such a big man. I've watched him throw tackles around and burst with speed toward the quarterback in the last three weeks. He has four sacks in 12 games and looks like he could play end or tackle; hybrid-type players like Houston are typically the future of the league as they allow franchises more flexibility in their planning of coaching scheme and player personnel.
With the stellar corner Nnamdi Asomugha lurking in the secondary and whole slabs of aged beef up front in the form of Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly and big John Henderson, this defense is an interesting mix between explosive youth and grizzly veteran leadership. They still have their weaknesses (shallow cornerback depth and limited run-stoppers), but they are tied for first in sacks (36) and play with an adequate chip on their shoulder—defenses that don't mix it up with some pushing and shoving aren't doing their job.
The Short Term
We shouldn't quite write off the Raiders from the postseason just yet. Teams that peak late in the year often carry momentum deep into the playoffs with them. Look at the Jets of last season. This latest win in San Diego is the perfect spring board for Oakland to plow ahead into their next four games. If the team fully buys into Campbell as their man (which it has no reason not to), and they stick with their smash-mouth team-persona, they can surprise a lot of pundits by charging out of nowhere and winning the AFC West. They certainly need a little help with a Kansas City letdown here and there in the stretch run, but after pulling ahead of San Diego, they have the Chiefs in their sights.
I watched the Raiders get hammered by the Steelers, but I feel that happened because Oakland was not familiar enough with the trickery that makes up the secret ingredient to Pittsburgh's success. As long as the Raiders are a power-run team, opponents like the Steelers will remain their ultimate challenge. Had Oakland been more ready for the flea-flickers, the end-arounds, and anything involving Antwan Randle-El, the score would have been closer. It was a rough loss, but a necessary one to help Oakland accurately reevaluate themselves.
Then I watched the Miami Dolphins fly to Oakland and put the Raiders in a headlock that they simply could not escape from. Once more the team learned that Gradkowski could not freestyle himself to more than a long—and arguably lucky—pass play for a touchdown. Even though they led at halftime and were in it for most of the game, it was clear the Dolphins had outplayed them by being more physical at the line of scrimmage. Instead of being ready for a bare-knuckle brawl, the Raiders were forced to rely on a few big plays by the electric Jacoby Ford to keep the score from becoming dismal earlier. Miami did nothing all that sneaky or unusual—they ran their offense and dared the Raiders to stop it—they also picked on rookie Walter McFadden who had a forgettable day to say the least. Overall, it was a fairly flat performance by a team who wilted a bit under the playoff microscope.
This past weekend, though, I finally got a taste of real Raider fandom as I watched them run through the Chargers with a play-calling scheme that highlighted the unique abilities of each offensive player. It was fun to watch and I caught myself yelling; that surprised me.
Getting Michael Bush involved in order to gain tough yards and wear opposing defenses out is key for the fourth quarters of this team's season. Mixing in Darren McFadden as a change-of-pace back will maximize his potential and make him a star as long as he stays in his optimal role. Designing a short, ball-control passing attack that looks for five to seven yards a play, along with the occasional deep ball to keep defenses honest, can perserve the identity of the offense along with protect Campbell from pressure and hopefully injury. Hue Jackson managed to do all of those things Sunday and it ended with an offensive performance that didn't blow the doors off of anything, but kept the ball in their hands and dictated the win (pressuring Philip Rivers all day helped too). If the Raiders wanna play football in mid-to-late January, this is the way they have to go about their business, and that is with a two-headed running monster sprinkled with a west-coast passing game. They have all the pieces, it's just a matter of being physical to make it work.
So that's why I am now, from this day forward (but really three weeks ago), also a Raider Fan. They are strangely fascinating with their weird cast-away fan-base and their wrinkled and whacked-out owner. They have a young and promising power-run team with a mean pass rush, and not only should they be good for years to come, they may actually make some real noise in 2010. Plus, they easily have the best uniforms in football and let's face it, that matters somewhere in the football universe.
So there you have it. I know many of you will not respect this curious shift in loyalty and allegiance but it's what I have to do in order to remain a happy football fan. I'm not completely breaking up with the Bengals, but I'm clearly seeing someone else.
Mojokong—it's complicated; just go with it.