You love 'em. You hate 'em. Is anything tougher than being a Raiders fan?
So you have this girl. You treat her like Bridget Fonda and everyone knows how obsessed you are with her. (Saw Singles 28 times). Not that the relationship is 50-50. Remember the Tori Amos concert you pretended not to hate? You think things are on cruise control. You think wrong. One day, she splits. For years, let's say 13, you pine. You beg. You join a gym, lose some weight, move out of the service industry. Then, miracle. She comes home. You renovate the house for her, even though the repo man is about to snag your Gremlin. But things aren't the same. You're bitter and aloof. Those little quirks, like her acute paranoia, used to be so cute. Now they bug the hell out of you. Then she starts yammering about leaving again. What do you do? Suicide? Homicide? Move back into Mom's basement and play with your GI Joes?
Now you know what it's like to be a Raider fan. Torture, like their first game against the Chiefs. Playing easily the worst half in their 39-year history, Oakland began '98 with two toxic quarters featuring five turnovers, pathetic special teams play and 15 individually idiotic penalties for the game. Neither Pride nor Poise was evident as the Raiders lost 28-8.
It has never been easy. Remember the Antichrist, aka Franco Harris? Frenchy Fuqua touched that ball, goddamn it. Sure, there were good times. Blanda. Snake. Biletnikoff, the sticky guy who puked before every game, taking home the Super Bowl XI MVP trophy. Ghost to the Post. Sipe throwing that interception. Just Win, Baby. That's what Al Davis said and you loved him. But then, in 1982, the Raiders booked. Marcus was okay, but way too L.A., and they didn't quite seem like the Raiders when they won Super Bowl XVIII. And those quarterbacks. For the love of God! Marc Wilson? Jay Schroeder?
In 1995, your boys came home. In '97, things looked glorious. A new QB so surly he must be a Raider. Plus, Tim Brown, Chester McGlockton and Napoleon Kaufman. Super Bowl-bound? Not without a ticket. A crushing Monday night loss at K.C. Botched field goals against the Jets. On it went. 4-12. Jeff George said it best: "We sucked."
Now, the tease begins again. Can you say Charles Woodson? How about a boy-wonder coach? Meet Jon Gruden, already dubbed Cubby by a dyspeptic local media. Pressure? How about the fate of a city in your hands? Davis, the once Black Prince who now dresses like the Queen Mother in sweats, murmurs about moving back to L.A. He claims the City of Oakland promised him 62,000 sold-out seats. Instead, the team will likely average 40,000. The city, out $198 million in loans and stadium renovations, is suing the Raiders to prevent a Colts-like night move. Unless Gruden starts fast and fills those seats, your Silver and Black boys could be gone. Still on board?
If you'd been there, you'd have praised Allah and Lamonica. It might have convinced you to buy some Raiders season tickets. However, this field nestled in Napa has only three rows of bleachers and is surrounded by a fence draped with a black tarp. At Camp Raider, you need a laminated pass or the 6'5", 300- pound dude at the gate will mess you up.
Jeff George drops back, glances at Rickey Dudley, turns and beams the ball 25 yards downfield through three defenders into the hands of Tim Brown. He clamps down and scoots upfield. Two luxury-suite holders with connections rattle their jewelry and are reminded, "Please, no snapshots while the team is in formation." Meanwhile, one man-perhaps the shortest on the field-raises his own rabble.
"Golly, that's the way I like it," growls Jon Gruden, resplendent in a Raiders black cap, windbreaker and shorts. "I like it, I reeaally like it."
To paraphrase noted Raiders fan Jesse Jackson, Gruden keeps hope alive. Sure, the last time you heard from him you couldn't see him. Ricky Watters, then an Eagle, shook his fist menacingly at his pint-sized offensive coordinator sitting in the Vet's press box last year. Seems that Watters, who carried the ball 975 times in his three years in Philly, lusted for the ball on every play. What you didn't see was Gruden shooting the bird back. Now that's Raider-like. It wasn't the first time the 35-year-old son of 49ers scout Jim Gruden got in a ballpark scrap. Back in 1980, while Dad was backfield coach at Notre Dame, 17-year-old Jon popped a 40-ish fan who was heckling his dad. "
Jon walked around the tailgate parties looking for anyone saying something bad about the team," remembers brother Jay, a wunderkind himself as the 30-year-old coach of the Arena League champion Orlando Predators. "He'd come back with bloody knuckles."
He had been a quarterback at the University of Dayton from 1983 to '85, but Gruden's days as a gopher during the 49ers' Joe Montana years were what convinced him to become a coach. "I'd sit in the back of the room and soak it all in," remembers Gruden, whose freckles and strawberry-blond hair lead to inevitable Dennis the Menace jokes. He laughs and gestures about his 5'10" height. "Plus, I knew I wasn't going to make it as a player."
Working as an assistant to Mike Holmgren and George Seifert, he mastered the West Coast offense while computerizing the teams' plays and schemes. (Gruden was such a computer geek that the Eagles confiscated his hard drive when he left the team.) In 1992, Gruden hooked up with Holmgren at Green Bay, spending three years with his mentor before becoming the Eagles' 31-year-old offensive coordinator in 1995. Somehow, with Ty Detmer and Rodney Peete taking snaps, the Eagles led the NFC in offense in 1996 and finished third in 1997 with Bobby Hoying starting six games. The "somehow" might have been Gruden's work ethic. It took only one week of his workdays, which began at 4 a.m., to drive off his visiting brother. "I thought we'd get in, read the sports page and shoot the breeze," says Jay. "It didn't happen. It was right to work. Breakfast and lunch at the desk."
Gruden almost got the Raiders job as Mike White's replacement in 1997, but he was beaten out by Raiders assistant head coach Joe Bugel when 30 Oakland players went to Davis in support of Joe. Alas, the players failed to show their support during the season, so the Bugel Era was as brief as it was brutal. Davis hired Gruden on Jan. 22 after interviewing him a half-dozen times. Even then, young Gruden was not exactly put on a long leash. Davis was heard mumbling at the Super Bowl that he'd give Gruden a year and then reevaluate.
So things look promising, right? Hey, Madden was only 32 when he came on board. But then you remember Mike Shanahan, run out of town after 20 games. Whatever happened to him, anyway? Fortunately, Jon Gruden's either really brave or really stupid. Disregarding the horror stories-a former Raider swears Davis listens in on the head coach during games-Gruden got busy. Training camp was a rat-a-tat-tat regimented workout much different from Bugel's '97 Club Med approach. No vets sitting on helmets here. Raiders rave about the pace of Gruden's practices. "The main thing is the tempo," says George. "There's a discipline and an energy going around the team."
Gruden knows crisp drills alone won't keep Davis off his back. Gone is the long-ball game, replaced by the West Coast schemes of the hated 49ers. George will run an offense that promises to be more diversified. Last year, Brown piled up monster stats in lost causes, such as catching 14 passes in a 20-9 loss to Jacksonville. By getting the ball to tight end Dudley and deep threat/butterfingers James Jett more, Gruden hopes Brown's catches will be more qualitative than quantitative. Gruden has joined a long list of now-exhead coaches who sang the praises of George. "It took time learning how to coach him," says a starry-eyed Gruden. "Sometimes he passes, and I'm going 'No, no, no ... ah, nice throw.' I try not to inhibit him. He's a brilliant talent."
So is Brown, who decided not to become a free agent despite the team's recent miserable performances. Even while catching a team-record 104 balls, the receiver had taken some shots for mutinying against then-coordinator Ray Perkins' game plan. In the off-season, he pushed for Art Shell's return. When Gruden was hired, Brown called senior assistant Bruce Allen, Davis' lieutenant, to find out if things really were going to be different in 1998.
"Bruce and I talked quite extensively about what the role of the head coach was going to be," says Brown. "Maybe you shouldn't be having to have that conversation, but I thought it was necessary. Too many times when the coach is packing his bags, he says, 'Well, I just didn't have a chance.' Now you have a 34-year-old guy coming in here. My deal was hey, if you're not going to let the guy coach, I understand. But I don't know if that's the best situation for me." Somehow, Allen convinced Brown that Gruden would really be the boss. Actually, it might have been Brown's gridiron love of Jeff George that persuaded him to stay. When asked how important George was to his decision, Brown grins. "If he would have gone with me, that would have been something different, but there weren't any package deals."
Brown has helped George, too. In a season of chaos, George largely kept his mouth shut and just threw Timmy the damn ball. Before last season began, Brown and George had a chat. "I assured him I'd do everything I could to protect him here," says Brown, "and if he needed to speak out, maybe it would be better coming from me rather than him."
George, his hair receding and sprinkled with silver, hopes he finally can settle into a groove in his ninth season. "I'm jealous of other quarterbacks who've been in the same system for eight or nine years," says George, now working in his sixth offense. "That's why you don't win. I hope this one lasts five or six years." Unfortunately, with Al Davis, the tendency is for a system to last only five or six losses, and then it is back to the long bomb. Fortunately, Gruden has some cover. Defensive coordinator Willie Shaw's new defense should garner some of the general managing partner's attention. Shaw junked Davis' cherished man-toman style for a zone blitz system. Malcontents like McGlockton and Larry Brown were shipped out. At the corners, a man named Woodson was added, along with longtime Eagle and Saint Eric Allen. The 11-year vet sees Woodson's brilliance already. "He never makes the same mistake twice," Allen says. "At a scrimmage down in El Paso, Michael Irvin beat him on a slant route. Then, against the Packers, Charles caused an interception on the same play. He closed on it perfectly, not because of his great athletic ability, but because he expected it."
A preseason playmaker, Mr. Heisman, once known for his bountiful boasts, has kept quiet, saying simply, "If they throw it my way, I'm going to come down with it." Too bad Woodson doesn't play any of the front seven positions. Lacking depth and ferocity, Shaw will have to use more stunts than a John Woo film to keep up the pressure. Raider fans are worried that Woodson's career will be shortened because he's making too many tackles.
Davis mostly has kept his distance. But Gruden knows rebuilding is a dirty word in Oakland. "This is a crisis" he says, acutely aware of Davis' legendary impatience. "We got to get it going here. I see this as an urgent situation."
You, members of Raider Nation, are still teetering. Maybe Gruden can do it. Woodson looks like Willie Brown with speed. Pencil Kaufman in for 1,400 yards at five a pop. Still, there's that defense and that owner.
Okay, meet one of your unholy brethren. In the Coliseum parking lot before a preseason clash with the Bucs, bumper stickers proclaim "L.A. Sucked, We're Back." Among the hardy revelers downing Coronas is Skullman. You've seen him on TV: He wears a full Raiders uniform outfitted with spikes and swords and 17 coats of silver and black face paint. Hasn't missed a game for a decade. When asked about L.A. fans, he sniffs derisively. "Man they're wusses. These are the hardcore fans." He has high hopes for this season. "Woodson is going to dominate," he says. Will he go to games if they move back south? "Definitely. It makes things a lot easier." Why? "Because I live in L.A."
The Raiders get hammered before one of the smallest Oakland crowds since 1967. Dressed in white warmups, Al Davis floats through the locker room like a ghost haunting his own house. A reporter asks him about the attendance of 32,017. His eyes shoot venom.
THE CHIEF BELIEF
After thrashing the Raiders 28-8 in the opener, the Chiefs have won more games in the AFC over the last nine-plus seasons (94-59-1) than any other team. What makes them so good? Coach Marty Schottenheimer's tough practices. Says receivers coach Al Saunders: "I think our intensity is much greater than most teams in the league, and that prepares us for the long haul."
The Chiefs' grueling sessions are enlivened by frequent taunting and practical jokes-CB Dale Carter once rolled himself up in tarp before practice and lay in wait for teammates to discover him as they unrolled the tarp. While these practices can be the NFL's best weekday entertainment, football is still the focus. C Tim Grunhard will throw his helmet farther than an Elvis Grbac pass if the defense, the league's most aggressive, shuts down running plays. Carter regularly accepts $100 challenges to frustrate and shut out receivers on any given day. They fight. They curse. They win.
"I've always been a true believer that you practice like you play," says Carter. "We believe in each other."
And believe this: The K.C. defense is scary. No two cornerbacks are nastier-physically and verbally-than Carter and James Hasty. LB Wayne Simmons' purpose in life is to destroy tight ends. LB Derrick Thomas (107 sacks) will blitz with extra emotion knowing that new teammate DE Leslie O'Neal tops him for career sacks with 122. The most intriguing addition is DE Chester McGlockton, whom Oakland traded because of his lax practice attitude. "Guys look at him in practice and marvel at the things he's able to do," Thomas says. Teammates will cut McGlockton some slack as long as he blows up the interior blocking schemes of opponents. But with a nine-player injury list at the season's start, are the Chiefs too damaged by friendly fire? No, says Saunders: "Marty has always felt that we outwork everybody-that's why we win."