When I tell people I'm a Raiders fan, I get the same reaction every time: the Raiders?!?
To those outside the Black Hole, the Raiders represent a decade of losing, a franchise without a plan and, frankly, a team that has teetered on the verge of laughingstock. To this type of person, you can begin to understand (or at least try) why the prospect of someone rooting for this group might bring about some shock, disbelief and confusion.
As a Raider fan, I've recently come to know the feeling of being on the other side of this type of emotion. Unfortunately, it was upon reading part of the list of interviewed coaching candidates for the Raiders head coaching vacancy.
For a quick second, I thought the Oakland Raiders were on their way to changing the culture, changing their image and changing their trajectory. With names like that, however, I'm not as sure as I once was that we're headed in that new direction.
Of course, not all the names on this list are so discouraging. In fact, I'd place the six confirmed interviewees into three categories — those who would facilitate progress, those who would maintain the current slow-motion pace of improvement and those who would represent the press of a figurative "pause button" for the franchise.
Candidates of progress — Mike Shanahan, Jack Del Rio
Of all the guys listed, these are the two at the top of my list for a simple reason: they bring instant credibility.
Shanahan — although really old — brings with him a 169-137 record and two Super Bowl championships. While his latest venture in Washington was kind of a mess, it is becoming more and more clear that the franchise as a whole probably played a large part in that situation.
With Shanahan, however, you get a guy who has been around the league, who has won, and who will immediately change the culture in Oakland. Hiring Shanahan would send a message to the league that this job is no longer undesirable, but one capable of attracting a big name coach.
Next on my list is Del Rio, the current defensive coordinator in Denver, and former Jacksonville Jaguars head coach (2003-2011). In nine seasons, Del Rio went to the playoffs twice and finished with a 68-71 record. Yes, far less impressive than Shanahan, but still nothing to scoff at.
The fact that Del Rio lasted as a head coach in Jacksonville (look what has happened since he left) for such a long time, and with an almost .500 record, speaks to his ability. Like Shanahan, I think hiring Del Rio would send a message that this isn't a job for an up-and-comer, but a job for someone who has already experienced life as a head coach.
Slow-Motion Progress Candidate — Tony Sparano
At the beginning of the process, the thought of retaining Sparano terrified me. As candidates have turned down Oakland or gone elsewhere, however, he's beginning to enter the realm of, "it could be worse."
Many will point to the fact that players are lobbying for Sparano to stay, but my point is simple: if those guys like Sparano so much, where were they when the team lost 52-0 to St. Louis? Where were they in the 8 losses he oversaw?
Do those people realize that in Oakland's eight losses under Sparano that they were outscored by an average of 20.5 points?
On the flip side, as I've said, it could be much worse (we'll get there).
I like that Sparano seemed to guide a team to some minor improvements, I like that the players are so vehemently defending him and I like that he has been a head coach somewhere else (albeit with a .438 winning percentage). At least with Sparano we know what we're getting and we can expect some consistency for younger guys like Derek Carr and Khalil Mack.
While not setting the franchise back, I do think retaining Sparano limits how quickly this franchise gets turned around.
Pause-button Candidates — Pep Hamilton, Pat Shurmur, Eric Mangini
I'll group these guys together in the same category for one simple reason: talk about uninspired choices.
In two seasons as the coach in Cleveland, Shurmur went 9-23. Exciting!
In five seasons as the coach in Cleveland and New York (Jets), Mangini had a career record of 33-47 (including three seasons with 5 or less wins). Invigorating!
And then there's Hamilton, the guy who spent the 2010 season as the co-offensive coordinator for New Mexico before moving on to Stanford and Indianapolis, where he has been riding the coattails of Andrew Luck ever since. The guy has zero head coaching experience.
Now, could any of these three guys come to Oakland and be part of the solution? Sure. But is it likely? Absolutely not.
Of the three, I like Hamilton the best just because we don't know that he's a mediocre head coach yet. Mangini is next (because at least he had two winning seasons), and Shurmur is last (who, of course some think is the favorite).
As I said at the beginning of the search, Oakland needs someone who is going to walk through the door and make both the players and fans believe that something is different. This isn't Dennis Allen, Art Shell, Tom Cable or Lane Kiffin 2.0, but it's a franchise on the rise with a future brighter than it has been in a long time.
This is a defining moment in the history of this franchise because of the young talent, cap space and draft picks the next coach will inherit. Making the wrong choice here could set Oakland back another five years, while making the right choice could propel them back into contention for the first time in a decade.
But hey, all we can do know is hope Mark Davis can tell the difference between the two choices.