America's Next Top 'America's Team'
Who better to replace the Dallas Cowboys as America's Team than the Raiders?
It wasn't easy, finding America's Next Top "America's Team." It is no casual thing; the implications are severe. You saw what happened with the Cowboys.
Dallas was "America's Team" for well, forever. But over the past few seasons, the Cowboys have worn that moniker like an anvil around their collective neck. There's an implied pressure to perform that, let's face it, can be a little wearying when it's so nonstop. (As it turns out, Wade Phillips' team this year opted not to perform at all, so no worries. But still.)
And even if the Cowboys were on top of the football world right now, the title needs to change hands occasionally. What's the fun in having something like "America's Team" to throw around if it's always the same bunch? There's a new Top Chef every year. There's a new Top Model every year. A new Idol. Everything in our country is subject to review, except perhaps the key plays of a Major League Baseball game.
So, ladies and gentlemen, after much deliberation, we are both happy and a little anxious to present to you America's Next Top America's Team.
The Oakland Raiders.
We'll wait here. You may need to take a moment.
Right, it's understood: The Raiders might not, at first glance, be the obvious choice. There's no question about that. We're as surprised as anyone that the voting wound up going the way it did.
OK, so maybe "America's Team" doesn't have the "ring" it once did. And who really has any business talking about rings around the recent-vintage Raiders?
Whatever. We looked around at the other options. Clearly, fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers can make a case for their team; the Steelers win all the time and they're a family business. The Green Bay Packers are literally owned by their fans, at least in part. The Philadelphia Eagles are being led by a quarterback who is making the most of a second chance at a football life. The Patriots have that revolutionary-sounding nickname. Worthy candidates all.
But in almost every way, the Raiders are a living snapshot of America right now. They're a big, sloppy mess. They don't always know what they're doing. They make some lousy choices and some inspired ones, and they often spend futilely. You can question their leadership almost any day you feel like it.
And yet, they're forging ahead, reaching for better days. They can even see some of those days within their grasp right now. What could possibly be more emblematic of the country that that?
Despised by the other powers? Check.
Often caught overvaluing their assets? Check.
Confusion at the upper levels of administration? Oh, baby.
We have a winner.
Oakland's ascent to relevance in the NFL this season beats the odds in every way that can be measured. It wasn't even a sure thing that the coach, Tom Cable, would make it to the start of the campaign. Cable finished last year with a not-untalented team and a 5-11 knot on his noggin. He had a fat, immobile quarterback (JaMarcus Russell), and he called out owner Al Davis by enthusiastically embracing an interviewer's suggestion that the team was a potential playoff entry if only Cable had been allowed to bench Russell in favor of Bruce Gradkowski.
Usually, potshotting Davis around Oakland is a one-way ticket out of the Bay Area. And if that didn't do it, some people figured that the incident in which Cable allegedly went after one of his assistant coaches would have taken care of things. Instead, Cable got to the end of that miserable season with his job intact and, however improbably, the respect of his players very thorough and rather deep.
Even a few weeks ago, though, the 2010 edition of the Raiders looked eerily similar to previous versions. Oakland was in another QB quandary with Jason Campbell, who was brought in to give Davis the precious vertical game he covets, losing his job to the consistently underestimated Gradkowski. The defense was up and down. The O-line was banged up, and the record was 2-4.
But that was three straight wins ago. Gradkowski got hurt, Campbell was forced back into action, and Oakland hasn't lost since. The return of Darren McFadden and the run game has made a huge difference. A healthy offensive line matters tremendously. There is a sense among the Raiders -- a very new sense, mind you -- that they are going to compete in every game they play.
Of course, this being America's Next Top America's Team and thus a symbol of the current state of affairs in our country, that could all change radically, and soon. Oakland's overtime victory against the Chiefs on Sunday raised its record to 5-4, an unheard of plus-.500 showing this late in the season for recent-era Al Davis teams. The Raiders' reward? A trip to Pittsburgh to play the Steelers, following a bye week.
Again, though, that kind of uncertainty is the way of our nation right now. So much of the Raiders' experience is quintessentially American: They have a nutty owner and, as a result, some ongoing confusion over who's calling the shots. (The Contra Costa Times reported this week that despite Gradkowski's return to health, Cable chose Campbell as the starting QB because he was pressured by Davis to do so.) And they've spent terrible money at different times (DeAngelo Hall, Larry Brown, Javon Walker, Russell).
But they can still surprise you. Sure, they had a draft year in which Darrius Heyward-Bey was their big choice, but that same draft produced Louis Murphy. This year, they snagged unheralded rookie Jacoby Ford in the fourth round; Ford personally dismantled the Chiefs with his receiving and kick-returning brilliance.
Will it last? You'd be crazy to think so. The Raiders have put together so many consecutive losing seasons (seven and counting) that no one is yet willing to christen them as some sort of winning outfit. It's only fair, after all.
Then again: This constantly sputtering, smoke-spewing, overspending, overly nostalgic entity just found a way to become part of the big conversation once more. Who is really to say what could happen?
It's anybody's ballgame. Very American.
Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His work, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. His next book, "The Voodoo Wave," will be released in 2011 by W.W. Norton. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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