NAPA, Calif. – The practice gates in Northern California opened in late July, and Oakland Raiders fans filed in. There were no protests. There were no signs or howls of discontent. The stands filled to capacity, and for all intents and purposes, this season began like any other.
So far, the beginning of the Raiders’ long goodbye has been fairly quiet and uneventful, a vast departure from the most recent tumultuous relocation of the St. Louis Rams to Los Angeles. Indeed, Oakland quarterback Derek Carr might have framed everything best when he asked rhetorically, “This is a weird deal, right?”
Yes. It is definitely weird. So much so that when Raiders owner Mark Davis ambled to a VIP tent in front of training camp fans on Aug. 1, his presence drew little more than a few raised eyebrows in the stands.
No screams of protest. No audible animosity. No backlash. Just hopeful business as usual, on the field and off.
“It’s definitely different than how it could be,” said Raiders tight end Jared Cook. “I’ve seen it the other way, and it wasn’t smooth. You’ve got to give respect to the [Raiders] fans for that.”
Cook would know. He spent three shuddering seasons with the Rams from 2013 to 2015, a period of franchise relocation that dragged out like a divorce smothered in betrayal. Cook’s feelings of déjà vu were understandable when he signed with the Raiders in mid-March, only to watch from afar as NFL owners approved the team’s relocation to Las Vegas less than two weeks later – a relocation that is set to take at least three years, mirroring the time Cook watched fan support in St. Louis crater around the Rams.
“It’s definitely a little weird,” Cook said. “This is a little bit wild.”
Wild, but not off the rails. That’s the unique space of this long goodbye. The Raiders have a chance to buck the prolonged, horrific transition of the Rams and so many other franchises that came before them. Rather than sputtering on their way out the door, the Raiders have the opportunity to give the fans a gift on the way out the door. A Super Bowl kiss of sorts.
“The bottom line, we have a chance of giving the fans what they want – especially the Raiders of the past, too – giving them a championship,” Cook said. “We can give them winning seasons and good football being played at home. For fans to see that, especially longtime Raider fans, it’s imperative. This is our chance to show love and give something back to the city of Oakland.”
That’s the idea in this place. To leave the city on top – or as close to the top as possible.
As Carr noted, “There’s no book on how to do this situation. No one has done it yet.”
For now, that leaves the Raiders with a common goal: why not write this book a little differently? After all, it doesn’t have to be the typical rip-the-heart-out-of-chest finish. This is a franchise that can still forge some special memories on the way out the door. That might be why only 1,000 or so fans sought refunds for season tickets – all of which were re-sold to a waitlist almost instantly.
The low refund number delivered a massive sigh of relief to some team staffers, particularly those of whom had no hand in the relocation and are just helplessly along for the ride.
“When the season-ticket refunds came in, it was like, ‘OK, this isn’t going to go crazy. This might be OK,’ ” one staffer said. “It’s still a little weird, but that took some of the [anxiety] out of it.”
Adding running back Marshawn Lynch hasn’t hurt, either. The local homegrown favorite has become a strong part of this team’s narrative all summer, creating a focus on a star whose DNA is as much a part of the city and fan base as anyone else. Despite Lynch rarely speaking to the media, he has been a welcome storyline for fans to embrace – a sort of salve to stave off the reality of what’s coming.
It also doesn’t hurt that coach Jack Del Rio has basically crushed any talk of the Las Vegas move with a sledgehammer.
“I talk to people about it all the time and I say an NFL season is almost like how you look at dog years,” Del Rio said when camp opened. “It’s like, add seven years to it. We’re going [to Las Vegas] in like 21 years.”
A week later? Del Rio had all but banished the topic.
“It’s a thing – but it’s not a thing that’s going to get my attention,” Del Rio said.
None of this is to suggest everything is normal inside the Raiders. On the field it’s business as usual, but off the field it has seen the odd mixture of long-term preparation and solicitation. Even though the move is three years away, team employees are already contemplating the process of selling homes and relocating school-aged children. Couples who aren’t married? They’re having some necessary relationship conversations. And the phones, well, to put it mildly, they’re ringing with calls from Oakland to Las Vegas.
“Oh my god, so many real estate agents,” one staffer said of messages that have piled up.
Just about every member of the Raiders franchise, from top to bottom, has likely had someone offer to sell them living space in Oakland or to be shown new ones in Las Vegas. Those offers have come in voicemails, emails and social media accounts. None of which is uncommon in an NFL relocation, which rouses seemingly every business-minded predator in the swamp. One Raiders staffer was contacted by a dentist.
But that’s also been the upside of this move. Most of the nonsense is going on behind the scenes with support staff. For the most part, the players haven’t felt an immense impact, largely because the fan base hasn’t delivered one. There was the initial outrage after the move was approved, of course. And also the wince-inducing foible of Raiders season-ticket holders being sent a commemorative pin set with one of the pins proclaiming “LOYALTY”. But protestation has been at a minimum. And for a guy like Cook, who has seen the worst before, that seemingly makes the players appreciate the fan base even more.
— Matthew Saydah (@masaydah) August 2, 2017
“St. Louis was tough, because we still had a whole year of football to play,” Cook said. “You could see a lot of fans didn’t want to come out and watch. They all knew we weren’t going to be the St. Louis Rams anymore. As a player, it kind of put you in a hard spot. Even as an organization it put you in a hard spot. You don’t want to disrespect the fans you have, but you also don’t want to disrespect the fans that you have coming. It’s kind of like you have to play the happy medium. You know the reality of it. Everybody knows the reality of it. You just have to play both sides of the fence.”
With that, the Raiders have begun the work at hand. The long goodbye is underway. Whether it’s measured in success or dog years or dental solicitations, this one has started a little weirder than any one before it.
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