OAKLAND, Calif. -- Let's get this out of the way first: As far as modern stadiums go, Oakland Alameda Coliseum is a dump. (That's a big reason the Raiders are moving to Las Vegas next year, to get the modern stadium the Bay Area has no interest in building.) But over the years, even as it has slid further into a death spiral of disrepair and neglect, the Coliseum has always retained a certain amount of charm because of its history and its clientele.
Sure, there is trash strewn about the neighborhood that abuts the stadium, unusual smells wafting out of every other tailgate and a hint of danger that always lingers in the air (Is that blood on the ground or is it barbecue sauce? Is that ... Guy Fieri hugging our coach?). But it's all part of a weird and wonderful community of people who feel emotionally attached to this franchise, many of whom have felt that way for their entire lives.
Raiders fans have been exhausted, teased and tormented by bad football decisions and bad football teams for the better part of a decade, held hostage by a pair of owners seemingly addicted to nostalgia. Yet they've always turned out for home games with impressive enthusiasm, ensconced in silver and black and willing to direct menace at the opposing team. Something unique and original will disappear next year when the Oakland Raiders cease to exist; something corporate and soulless will be replacing it, and that might be why it seemed like everyone there was soaking up every moment of the final home opener at the Coliseum and the stadium's final Monday Night Football game.
"Monday Night Football used to be our night!" former Raiders coach Tom Flores said in an emotional pregame tribute to recently deceased Raiders. "So just win, baby!"
Even Raiders coach Jon Gruden couldn't resist joining in, sprinting to the end zone to high-five fans and even hugging a man in a full-body gorilla suit before the night was over. "That's one of the reasons I came back to coach," Gruden said. "I miss going down to the Black Hole after a win. Those people are crazier than I am, and I'm nuts."
No one knew what to expect from the Raiders against the Broncos, especially coming off a week where wide receiver Antonio Brown orchestrated one the most bizarre chapters in franchise history, acting out in the locker room and annoying the Raiders on social media until they felt they had no choice but to release him. (He quickly signed with the Patriots, leading to theories about whether he'd duped the Raiders into releasing him.) Several Bay Area sports talk radio hosts wondered before the game if the team might be on the verge of an embarrassing implosion. Instead, Oakland played one of its best games in years, beating Denver 24-16.
The Raiders, understandably, did not want to linger long on the topic of Brown, especially considering his theatrics had already been the dominant storyline for the entirety of the team's training camp. But Brown was certainly still on the minds of fans (particularly those in the section known as the Black Hole, many of whom took the opportunity to chant "F--- AB!" in unison every time the Raiders scored a touchdown or connected on a big pass).
"Let's get the elephant out of the room -- Antonio is no longer with us," Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said after the win. "We love Antonio, we wish him the best. But we knew with the guys we had in our locker room, we already had a good football team. And if he wanted to be a part of it, awesome. And if he didn't, awesome. I hope he goes off and has a great year. But the guys in this locker room, the guys who competed all offseason, we grinded, we came together, we're a family. This family is pretty special and I'm glad to be the quarterback and be a part of it."
Gruden was a bit less magnanimous on the topic of Brown, confessing during his postgame news conference that he felt exhausted by the entire affair. He rejected the premise that the team was motivated by Brown's exit, and scoffed when the questions continued. "As much as people talk about it, my God, I feel like someone is smashing my temple," Gruden said. "Get over it, man. It's over. We were good in preseason without him. We're going to be fine without him. We wish him the best. We gave it a shot, and now in New England, it's their turn. Good luck to them. But I just can't deal with it anymore. Sorry."
For all of Gruden's bluster (and exaggerated facial contortions -- his default expression during games is probably best described as "bemused suburban dad who can't believe you're trying to pull a fast one on him, again"), he remains one of the best minds in professional football when it comes to diagramming plays and creating mismatches. Carr completed 22 of 26 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown. He showed enough creativity within the structure of Gruden's system that you could even imagine the two of them working together long term, a development that seemed unlikely last year.
"We'll have to look at those four incompletions and say, 'What the hell were you doing?'" Gruden joked. "But we think his potential is off the charts, and now we've just got to surround him with a lot better players and better coaching and he'll be fine."
Carr admitted after the game that he had gotten emotional thinking about the fact that it was his last home opener in Oakland. It has to be annoying, at times, to be the only remaining NFL team that shares its field with an MLB team, meaning rock-hard dirt from the infield takes up half the grass through October. It might be weird that the Raiders have to hold their postgame news conferences in the A's indoor batting cage, or that a whole section of the upper deck is blocked off with a tarp. But this stadium is still home to the only fan base Carr has ever known. Yes, they dress like Darth Vader or the Crypt Keeper or Chuckie the murderous doll, but they're family.
"I'm going to be completely honest with you, and it might make some of you laugh," Carr said. "I don't think people really know how much I love this place. When I woke up this morning and came to the stadium and I saw that gold crest on my jersey, when I saw my name on it and I knew this was the last time we'll play the Broncos in this stadium, I had a tear in my eye. This means so much to me. Kenny Stabler, Tim Brown, Charles Woodson, I can go on and on, but to think that we get to be the last team that gets to play here? That's pretty special."
When rookie running back Josh Jacobs scored early in the fourth quarter to essentially put the game out of reach, he couldn't resist jogging over toward the Black Hole and diving into the arms of frenzied Raiders fans. "I don't think there is a better feeling than jumping into the Black Hole," Jacobs said. "They were cheering me on, like telling me to come do it, before I even thought about it." When he made the leap, a gleeful woman in a crop top threw her arms around him, then an army that looked like it had as many hipsters as bikers joined in; black, white, Latino, Asian and Indian arms all thumping Jacobs' shoulder pads.
Brown didn't want any part of this. He wanted, apparently, what New England has to offer, which is understandable -- he might even get a Super Bowl ring out of it. But the Raiders who remain -- including their head coach -- are happy to see themselves as a rogue band of misfits, outcasts and afterthoughts who are loyal to one another above all.
For one more season, Oakland gets to be part of that, too.