The Oakland Raiders spent most of the last two decades not giving their fans anything close to a fair shake. Too many losses (204), not enough wins (135), almost twice as many head coaches as playoff games (12-7), and a general forlorn world view from being the team that was either hated or simply dismissed.
And it may end that way as well, depending on how many owners feel like letting them jump back on the I-5 hamster wheel next months. If Raider fans know anything, they know the cold backhand of a hostile world, and now, they come scheduled in the offseason, too.
But on this night, they got everything they had any reason to expect. A 23-20 win. A 23-20 overtime win. A 23-20 overtime win over the AFC West rival San Diego Chargers. A 23-20 overtime win over the San Diego Chargers in which the winning drive featured five Oakland penalties and Charles Woodson carrying the football for the first time ever. A 23-20 overtime win over the San Diego Chargers in which the winning drive featured five Oakland penalties and Charles Woodson carrying the football for the first time ever, and Rich Eisen nearly asking Woodson to marry him afterward, and fans taking out seats that they didn’t come in with, and one fan flipping off the officials through the auspices of the NFL Network.
That enough for you?
No, probably not. There is one final crack at Kansas City, then the icy hand of other cities’ billionaires is still to be reckoned with. Hell, Woodson’s carefully crafted retirement may lose some of its glorious finality if the Raiders end up staying (or marooned, depending on your viewpoint) in Oakland.
But Raider fans long ago learned to take their joy in smaller portions, and with the occasional bilious aftertaste. They were beaten remorselessly by all comers for most of the 21 years of their East Bay renaissance, starting with the second most famous Christmas Eve in franchise history, when Mike White was fired as head coach.
There was Jeff George and Joe Bugel, Mount Davis and the sewage backups, Walt Coleman and the Rule that rhymes with F---, Barrett Robbins in Tijuana and Tony Siragusa on Rich Gannon, Jamarcus Russell and Lane Kiffin, the overhead projector and the 76-yard field goal, and Hue Jackson coming and Hue Jackson going, and Al Davis in slow and bitter decline through it all.
It was almost as if Planet Football had taken on Raider fans as some cruel science project to see how many indignities they could endure. And they endured them all, sometimes with a full stadium, sometimes with huge swathes of empty seats.
And Raider fans were always capable of lashing back, albeit in futility. They were a dangerous and angry crowd until active measures to change them and their behavior over a number of years turned them into merely a loud and passionate one. Other teams have passed them in the mindless violence department, and the odd middle finger here and purloined stadium seat there is hardly a return to the bad old days.
So they came out, perhaps this one last time, to get their money’s worth, and head coach Jack Del Rio, understanding both the moment and the history, gave them all they could reasonably expect. They got Woodson the ball carrier, a win for sentiment over sense, and a win against all mathematical trends (one first down in the second half, Derek Carr’s fourth consecutive game with a quarterback rating under 80, 16 penalties). Del Rio has been a godsend of sorts, taking a team just beginning the process of congealing, nursing them through the growing pains as the learn how to view the Raiders as a worthwhile enterprise rather than merely a place to cut a check until an NFL team comes along.
This is a team that is on the verge of being on the cusp (six other Raider teams won more than their immediate predecessors, but only one ever made it stick). It would be one more finger in the eye of Oakland fans if they watched their team become a powerhouse in the city that has stolen it twice. It took the Baltimore Ravens five years to stick a Super Bowl in Cleveland’s eye, and the Colorado Avalanche only one year to bludgeon Quebec City with the Stanley Cup. It’s happened, in other words, and Raider fans have a tendency to believe in the face of overwhelming evidence.
So Thursday was a feelgood performance, showing their team at its most dysfunctional, its most appreciative and its most historically aware. The moment will surely fade if they stay in Oakland, but stand out as a more-than-fitting goodbye if goodbye it actually is.
After all, a heartfelt thank you at the end may not balance their scales for 20 years of malicious groinings, but it counts for something. It did on Christmas Eve 2015 -– the night The Franchise Of The Endless Metaphor got it right.