Silver and black was out in full force Saturday afternoon as fans packed the O.co Coliseum parking lot hours before the Oakland Raiders defeated the Detroit Lions 31-20 in the third preseason game of the year. Footballs flew, beer flowed and grills were hot as the Raider Nation prepared for the start of the new season, now just two weeks away.
The Raiders finished last season 8-8, failing to break .500 or qualify for the playoffs for the ninth straight season. But the offseason brought many changes to the organization, and fans’ expectations for the new year are mixed. The passing of legendary owner Al Davis last October ushered in a new era for Raider football. Davis’ son, Mark, took control of the team on October 8, 2011, and quickly began making changes. On January 6 of this year, Davis hired general manager Reggie McKenzie to handle football decisions, a role that Al Davis long filled himself, refusing to hand over crucial decision-making powers to someone else. McKenzie quickly fired coach Hue Jackson and much of the old staff and installed new head coach Dennis Allen. The franchise now enters the 2012-2013 season— the first in the post-Al Davis era—under completely new leadership.
For many fans, the changes represent a fresh start, a time for guarded optimism. “I’m just a fan hoping for the best,” said Joe Davison of Stockton while wielding metal tongs and attending to grilling sausages. “We were so close to making the playoffs last year. If not for a couple hiccups, we would’ve made it.” Davison predicts a 9-7 season that sees the Raiders back in the playoffs.
Making the playoffs would make the 2012-2013 season a success, according to 14-year season ticket holder Michael Boatright of Fairfield. “I think we’ll be better this year. The defense looks good. But the offense is questionable,” Boatright said as he sat on a popup chair in front of his open car trunk, which was filled with a cooler and other pregame paraphernalia. “I like the idea of having a new general manager. For years, I thought we needed one.”
But Boatright is quick to emphasize the legacy of Al Davis, “one of the greatest owners of all time,” as he put it. “We just need someone focused on making football decisions,” he said. With the new regime in place, Boatright is optimistic the playoff-drought will end soon. “I’m looking forward to coming to a playoff game in Oakland,” he said. “It’s been a long time since 2002.”
Morgan Maeda, of Antioch, led a boisterous tailgate group of about ten people and many more alcoholic beverages—a group that has high expectations for the new year. “We’re gonna be great this year. I guarantee more wins than losses,” Maeda said, surrounded by his friends. “There’s no 49er game this year, so we’ll have to see them in the Super Bowl,” referring to the Raiders’ San Francisco Bay Area rival and NFC counterpart. The two teams are not scheduled for a regular season game this year.
Away from the loud pre-game revelry, in a much quieter section of the parking lot, two older gentlemen sat quietly discussing the team and the new season. 30-year fan and Oakland resident Dale declined to give his last name because he considered his predictions for the new season “the most disloyal thing [he’s] ever said.” At best, “it’s a building block year,” Dale said. “We’d be lucky to be 8-8. I think the team’s worse than last year.”
His counterpart, George, also of Oakland, refused to give his last name for the same reason. “I’m on the border of heresy,” he said. “I don’t want the spirit of Al Davis to come down and wreak havoc.” While George mostly agrees with Dale’s assessment, he considers himself more optimistic. “It’s too soon to tell if the shift in culture will take hold,” he said. “I’d be happy at 8-8, but I don’t think they’ll make the playoffs.”
Both George and Dale described the “new culture” as a shift towards a more team-oriented approach, one they say is more disciplined and united. Last year’s team wracked up the fourth most penalties in the entire league.
Jim Begley, who was selling programs in front of the stadium before Saturday’s game, is also taking a wait-and-see approach. “It’s hard to tell now, it’s too early. But I think we should be OK,” said Begley, a Raiders employee for 34 years. “I’d say it’s a 50/50 chance of making the playoffs.”
A more conservative estimate came from Castro Valley resident Lisa Franco. “I have faith, I’ll never give up hope. But, I’d say 5 wins, 7 if I’m really stretching,” she said bursting into laughter.
Parking attendant El Mohammad, of Oakland, said she just hopes everyone has a good time throughout the season. “I don’t really know about the football thing,” she said. “I’m just hoping things stay safe for everyone, players and fans both.”
Mohammad, who has worked at Oakland Athletics and Golden State Warriors games for the past two seasons, sees Raiders fans as a special breed. “Raiders fans are great because they are out here rain or shine. They are happy win or lose,” she said. “I guess that’s what makes you a real fan.”
The Raiders kick off the new season Monday, September 10 at home against the San Diego Chargers. Tickets are on sale here.