Raiders slowly returning to elite status
The good-old days were very good to the Oakland Raiders.
"The Ghost to the Post."
"Just win Baby."
Three Super Bowl titles.
And the self proclaimed "Team of Decades."
Then, all of a sudden, the Raiders — who will face the Steelers today at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field — had seven consecutive 10-loss seasons, JaMarcus Russell, 11 consecutive home games not sold out, Bill Callahan, Norv Turner, Art Shell and Lane Kiffin.
In a blink of an eye, the "Team of Decades" Oakland Raiders became the laughing stock of the league. The Black Hole became a worm hole. The wins became losses and Davis went from a genius to a mad man.
"I am not going to lie, it got to a point where it got pretty depressing," Steelers running back Frank Summers said, who grew up in Oakland as a Raiders fan. "It was very depressing. I had season tickets and was just going as a fan of football after a while and not to watch the Raiders."
Recently, there hasn't been much to cheer about when it comes to the Raiders, who have had only nine winning seasons since winning Super Bowl XVIII in 1983.
The Raiders have lost 83 football games since losing to the Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII.
However, as 1970's star safety George Atkinson once said, 'Bad is back.'
The Raiders are 5-4 and have won four of their past five games to rise to the top of the AFC West standings.
"The whole country feels the rumbling again, and they're liking it, because everyone loves to see the Raiders being the Raiders," former Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano told Sports Illustrated earlier in the week.
The Raiders are indeed back. If there were doubters, they went away two weeks ago when they rallied in front the first sold-out Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum crowd in more than a year to beat Kansas City, 23-20.
It was Oakland's third consecutive win. It was eight years since the Raiders won three games in a row.
"It's fun watching Sunday or Monday nights and Chris Berman doing the highlights on ESPN and he goes 'and now we go to the Raaaaiders,'" Summers said. "It has been a while since he has been able to do that. It is great for them to get back on track."
The Raiders are better than .500 this late in the season for the first time since 2002 and are one win away from surpassing their victory total from any of the past seven seasons.
"No matter how much they struggle, there are always going to be die-hard Raiders fans out there," said backup quarterback Dennis Dixon, another Bay Area native. "They are committed to their team 100 percent and you see that."
Raiders coach Tom Cable has realized that, too. After taking over for Kiffin two years ago, Cable has gone through plenty of tough times.
But his desire to return the Raiders among the NFL's elite is what kept him motivated.
"It's what drives me every day," Cable said. "It's very dear to me to get this place back to respectability and back to being a team that everybody talks about like the Steelers, like the Patriots, like Baltimore, like the teams that have been good here for awhile. It does drive me and it is very dear to me to be the guy that gets this thing turned around."
Only five of the 22 offensive and defensive starters were starting for the Raiders at the end of the 2008 season.
But the resurgence of the Raiders can be traced to two players — Darren McFadden and Richard Seymour.
McFadden, a former No. 1 pick out of Arkansas, leads the league in rushing yards per game (108) while the veteran Seymour anchors a big and talented defensive line.
"When you look at the Raiders, now they remind you of the old Raiders," Tunch Ilkin said, who played numerous games against the Raiders during his Pro Bowl career with the Steelers. "They have a giant offensive line, they have a tight end who is very good in space just like Todd Christensen or Dave Casper. They want to stretch the field. They get a lot of penalties. It has taken a while for them to get the Raiders back to the way they had them in the '70s and '80s."
But more importantly, and more unlikely, the Raiders have learned how to compete and have learned how to handle adversity, such as releasing Russell, a former No. 1 overall pick.
"We are excited about the success that we have had," Cable said. "But like everything, you are never there unless you have become a playoff-type team and that is what we are still trying to do, and we are getting closer, but we still have a lot of work to do."
Still, the Raider Nation is happy to have its team back even if one of them comes for an unusual place.
"Black and Silver," Summers said. "They are back and it's nice to see."
Raiders this decade
2000 — 12-4, first place AFC West
2001 — 10-6, first place AFC West
2002 — 11-5, first place AFC West
2003 — 4-12, third place
2004 — 5-11, last place
2005 — 4-12, last place
2006 — 2-14, last place
2007 — 4-12, last place
2008 — 5-11, third place
2009 — 5-11, third place
2010 — 5-4, first place