In the past few issues, we’ve been taking a look at teams who, despite being successful in the past, are now struggling franchises and teams who don’t live up to expectations. The first edition featured the Fighting Irish from Notre Dame, and last issue we looked at the Arsenal Gunners in the English Premier League. This week, we turn to the NFL and focus on a team who, like the previous teams in the first two issues, have a strong winning tradition, but who has seen the wheels fall off the proverbial bus in recent years. There are probably a handful of teams that fit this description, but we’ll take a look at the Oakland Raiders.
The Raiders are no strangers to winning, especially under former head coach John Madden. During the Madden era in the 1970s, the Raiders won six division titles and one Super Bowl. They were a dominant franchise who specialized in Al Davis football. What was Al Davis football? It’s pretty simple really, very fast wide receivers (think track stars), big-armed quarterbacks who could throw the ball down field, and huge offensive lineman that could protect the quarterback. There was no real focus on defensive dominance (although the Raiders did get a reputation for being dirty defensive players) or any type of power running game. Instead, Davis loved to draft the combine studs—those athletes who were fast, strong, and possessed all the physical traits to excel at the NFL combine. It was this same mentality that got the Raiders the reputation they have today: a losing team who is amazingly 4-2 in the 2011 season.
So, how does a team that made it to the Super Bowl in 2002 become a team that spent the next eight years without even a hint of a playoff appearance? In my less-than-expert opinion, it stems from two main problems: a lack of head coach and poor player management decisions.
Let’s back up to before the 2002 Super Bowl. Jon Gruden was the Raiders head coach and had a successful 2001 campaign. But, many people believe that Gruden and owner Al Davis fell out of favor with each other. The result, Gruden was allowed to exit his contract early to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now, fast-forward to the 2002 Super Bowl. The Oakland Raiders, led by quarterback Rich Gannon, led the Raiders to a 11-5 regular season finish and an AFC title, only to be blown out by non-other than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was all downhill from there. The Raiders became a coaching carousel, hiring five different head coaches in a seven-year span. In 2008, Oakland finished 5-11, marking the first time since 2002 that they did not finish last in the AFC West. As recently as last year, the Raiders’ woes continues as Oakland became the first team in NFL history to finish their division undefeated (6-0 AFC West), but still failed to make the playoffs (8-8 overall). So, during the Raiders most recent skid, they had no set leader at head coach like they did during the 60s and 70s and even the early to mid 90s.
Not only did they lack a head coach, the Raiders also lacked the type of stars that franchises are built around. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a team that had as many first round draft busts and poor trades that the Raiders have had recently. Let’s start with the most obvious. In 2007, the Raiders picked Jamarcus Russell as the number one overall pick. He held out much of his rookie season only to turn out to be one of the least-motivated and worst decision-making quarterbacks in the league. He made his millions and is now frequently compared to Ryan Leaf as the worst quarterback bust in history. Who else was available that draft? Nobody really, some wide receiver from Georgia Tech who plays for Detroit now, a running back named Adrian Peterson, and a linebacker named Patrick Willis. In 2006, the Raiders selected safety Michael Huff in the first round. Huff has four total interceptions in four years of playing and he can’t tackle. But at least he is still on the roster. In 2009, the Raiders drafted Darrius Heyward-Bey out of Maryland. His career is still young, so he has time to meet those lofty first-round expectations, but he finished his rookie season with nine catches for 124 yards and one touchdown: he played 11 games that season. One could even mention McFadden, who as a number four pick in 2008, only started living up to expectations during the 2010 season. Let’s be honest, there is only one franchise that would have made all of these draft picks, and there is only one franchise who would trade the seventh overall pick to get Randy Moss on their team (Moss played for two seasons, posting subpar numbers before moving to New England). That team is the Oakland Raiders, who through poor decisions about which coaches to hire and fire and poorer draft choices, valuing speed and athleticism over football skills, have suffered from a losing tradition as of late; however, there is hope. The Raiders started their first six games at 4-2, and this year might be the year that the Black and Silver return to the playoffs.