By Jason Keidel
The Oakland Raiders have slowly flowered from the NFL ashes, from doormat to decent to the edge of dominant. It has taken awhile.
Not too long ago, the Raiders were a sad caricature, led by their iconic and iconoclastic owner, Al Davis, the Brooklyn kid who shook the NFL down to its foundation. Through his ambition and innovation, and for being avant garde regarding race, Davis was well ahead of his time. Until suddenly he wasn’t. He became an old man in a jumpsuit, tooling around on golf carts from one practice to the next. His siren call — Just Win, Baby! — had long echoed out of the Coliseum he crowned for decades.
But now the Raiders (please say “Raydizz” one last time for the old man!) are on the rise, Through diligence, drafts and some serendipity, the Raiders are not just a flashy or trendy club, they are damn good.
And it starts under center. (Doesn’t it always?) They bagged a good QB in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft. While the blue-chip studs are often gobbled up in the first round, if not the first few picks, the Raiders struck gold in ’14, hence the serendipity.
Maybe because he played at Fresno State, not considered a hotbed of Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks (forgive us, Trent Dilfer). Maybe because his brother, David, didn’t fare so well, particularly for a No. 1 pick. Maybe because they felt this QB apple didn’t fall far enough from the family tree.
Whatever the logic, 31 teams passed on a franchise quarterback, which is what Derek Carr is. So, the Raiders, now born-again prescient, just signed Carr to a five-year, $125 million deal. We know there’s more fine print on an NFL contract than the rolling credits after a Star Wars movie. But Carr will likely see every nickel of this deal, of which $72.2 million is guaranteed, according to Spotrac. At 26, he hasn’t even hit his prime, and he’s already primed to get the Raiders deep into the playoffs.
If not for a freak injury — a snapped right fibula near the end of a 33-14 romp over the Colts — at the end of the 2016 season, perhaps the Raiders rumble toward the Super Bowl, and not the New England Patriots. Perhaps it’s premature. But the larger point is: the Raiders are ready.
They have the best offensive line north of Dallas. They have a freak of athletic nature in Khalil Mack, who’s already the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and arguably the best defender in the NFL, or a head behind JJ Watt.
Oakland predictably fizzled without Carr in the playoffs, losing to a Houston Texans team that also played without a stud QB. But there’s no sense or suggestion that Carr will be anything less than 100 percent in 2017, which is good news for the natives in northern California, and ominous for the rest of the NFL.
Even those who abhor the Raiders, as they might the Cowboys, Yankees or Lakers, must admit their resurgence is good for football. Watching a game filled with equal portions of loving and loathing is what makes sports churn forward.
And they have the key to their renewed Commitment to Excellence — Carr, whom, according to NFL.com’s Greg Rosenthal, is actually underpaid at $25 million per season. Not only is he Oakland’s first franchise quarterback since Ken Stabler left town 11 years before Carr was born, he tied Peyton Manning for the most fourth-quarter comebacks over a two-year period, with 11 since 2015.
And, as Rosenthal asserts, Carr is the 14th NFL signal-caller to make at least $20 million per season. So while the brass in Green Bay and Atlanta wince while reading the particulars, knowing that Aaron Rodgers will command Bill Gates money, and Super Bowl QB Matt Ryan will command something in that range, Carr hardly broke the bank, or any records. Heck, Kirk Cousins makes more than Rodgers, Drew Brees or Andrew Luck.
When Rosenthal asked NFL insider Ian Rappaport what Carr would attract on the open market, he said considerably more. And let neither us nor the Raiders feign ignorance or innocence here. For the first three years of his NFL career, Carr made a combined $4.3 million, which, by NFL standards, is a coin kept between sofa cushions.
Carr is not only an excellent passer and excellent player, he’s a football geek of the highest order. No posse, no entourage, no demands, no worries. He speaks in team-first platitudes at all times, and he’s the rare player who means them.
It has to be bittersweet for the franchise and fans, knowing how good they’re about to become together, right before they part ways. The Raiders will flee again, this time for the Vegas Strip, where the autumn wind blows one more pirate into a place renowned for mercenaries, marriages and divorces.
But for this year, at least, the team and town are together. And they have their franchise quarterback. For one more year, in Oakland, it might just be time to win, baby.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.