Somewhere in that house of thrills in the sky, Al Davis is smiling. For short spurts the mystique of the Raiders was back. His last draft pick was Terrelle Pryor and on Sunday he showed a lot of people why Mr. Davis wanted him. Mr. Davis would be even more proud of his attitude.
Looking back in Oakland in 1979, You would have thought the sky was falling. After their second straight 9-7 season, Raider fans were in an uproar. Talk shows, newspapers and sportswriters wanted to know how the team with the best winning percentage in any sport for two decades could even come near being average. Local sportswriters Lowell Cohn and Glenn Dickey were as giddy as teenage girls at the prom due to all of the anger. Words like unacceptable and embarrassing were used often. That was the Raider fan of yesteryear and it seems like a long time ago. Just win baby.
The most telling thing for me that happened last Sunday, didn't occur during the game, but after it. While being interviewed after the Raiders tough loss to the Indianapolis Colts 21-17, Terrelle Pryor was asked about his performance. A dejected Pryor said, "I was awful. I don’t care what my numbers are. I just want to do well for the team, and I didn’t do well enough. What happened today was unacceptable, and that’s on me.” After losing to the Steelers in a tough playoff game in Oakland 4 decades ago, a dejected Kenny Stabler said pretty much the same thing. Stabler looked like someone had ripped his heart out of his chest, and Pryor had that same look. Stabler once said, "moral victories are for church, not football". Winners are strange that way.
Money changes a lot of people but losing changes a franchise and it's fan base. A contentment and a bizarre denial comes upon people and teams with prolonged losing. Teams and fans try to say the the next player, the next draft pick or the next game or the next year will show everyone that the team and the players are ready for the playoffs or even a championship. To them the next triumph is always just around the corner.
It's been hard to watch too. Time after time the Raiders would make bizarre draft picks that made sense to no one; even to people on the Raiders. Darrius Heyward-Bey will be the next Cliff Branch; Jamarcus Russell just needs time; Robert Gallery will be the next Art Shell; Mike Huff will be the next Jack Tatum. Add all of those crazy picks for fast defensive backs and non Raider fans couldn't have had more fun ripping on the Raiders. Payback time for all those years of winning. Until the player left, some fans would predict great things for these players but they were mostly wrong. It's like making a kid eat beets and then trying to convince them it's as good as ice cream.
The Raiders have needed to wake up for a while and maybe it's come full circle with Pryors comments. For 10 years the Raiders seemed like lost people in a dessert who see mirages that promise water but when they get there all they find is more sand.
Reggie McKenzie began the change. He was taught by the great Ron Wolf who was the architect of many of the Raiders drafts and signings in the glory days. Wolf showed McKenzie the ropes when Wolf lead the Packers back to a Superbowl win. McKenzie said enough and gutted the whole thing by getting rid of almost all of the bad draft picks and signings. He knew that for at least 2 years, the Raiders might not be very good, but they would be creating a foundation. He wanted generals and not just foot soldiers.
In steps Pryor. A born leader who has excelled at every level of football he played at. Unlike party animals like Mark Sanchez, Vince Young and Matt Leinart, Pryor wants to be great. He's a hard worker that listens and appreciates the chances he gets. He demands excellence and always wants to improve. This is what is setting him apart from the others that have been given the chance. Like an old school Raider, he wants to win, and win badly.
The "P" Word:
Potential is a funny word. As Ohio St. university celebrated what would have been former football coach Woody Hayes 100th year of life, I remember watching a special on him. After a big win, Coach Hayes was asked by a reporter about the potential of his talented young quarterback Rod Gerald. In true Woody Hayes fashion he snapped at the reporter and said, "Potential? Potential means you ain't no damn good yet!". Terrelle Pryor has potential and a little more.
Pryors criticism of himself is not new and it's warranted. He struggled at times with making bad decisions in the red zone in college. This pattern has continued in the pre season games with more bad decisions and turnovers. To me great quarterbacks are judged by three things. How do they handle a rush; their 3rd and 4th down conversion rate; and how many touchdowns does the offense make when they are in the red zone. The latter needs a lot of improvement.
In the Colts game, Pryor was awful at times in the red zone. It's mostly on him but the coaches have to help him out too. What I liked about Jim Harbaugh last year is that when Colin Kaepernick came in to play, for weeks he micro managed him. He was constantly talking to him and preparing him for what was to come. How does the Raiders coaching staff not remind Pryor in those situations to throw the ball out of bounds or into the ground in front of the wide receiver if there is a blitz? How does Pryor take a sack and throw 2 red zone interceptions and then a delay of game penalty? A quarterback draw or a shovel pass in the red zone would also greatly help. The Raiders coaches need blame too.
A New Beginning:
I hope that the Colts game made the Raiders and their fans turn the corner. The Raiders came into this season with several questions and I think after the first game they already have answered two of them. They now have a quarterback of the future, and they have their linebacker core as well.
In the NFL world, seeing happy Raider fans makes me happy. The NFL is a better place and a better product when the Raiders are relevant. It's great to want to win every game but the Raiders probably are not a playoff team and a .500 season would be pretty amazing. Fans should be excited for the future and with a little more patience, good things might be ahead.
Some of the great Raider fans of the glory days are old and gray and some have sadly passed away. I hope that in honor of those amazing fans, that the new core of Raider fans would once again have a commitment to excellence and settle for nothing less than winning. It's not a bad thing to tell the truth or complain or talk about obvious misgivings of the team, all the while supporting good quality decisions and actions and the hard working players who want to win.
No one has been harder on the Raiders than I have in the last 10 years. I am here to say today though that I'm all in on the Terrelle Pryor bandwagon and the direction of these new Raiders. I know talent when I see it and for 10 years I've been waiting for it. There will be growing pains, so don't get too high or low. I think the Raiders will have a lot of ups and down this year but a .500 season is in the works for next year and the playoffs are possible for the next.
The Oakland Raiders and some of their fans forgot; or maybe never knew; what the mystique of the Raiders really was all about. During the Raiders glory years, players, coaches, fans, and of course Al Davis, always knew what it was about. The mystique of the Raiders wasn't about their attitude, or the Raider Nation or dressing up for game days or the zany personalities on the team and stands. The main reason for the mystique of the Raiders was one thing; WINNING! The rest of the stuff was fun, eccentric, and were the spoils of winning.
Muhammad Ali once said, "it ain't bragging if you can back it up". Well for 10 years there's been a lot of talk about what's going to happen, without any actions backing it up. As Al Davis taught the former foundation of Raider players and fans, hopefully now Terrelle Pryor and Reggie McKenzie are teaching the new foundation of Raiders and fans. Just win baby.