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Patrons of The Graduate in Rockridge watch Saturday afternoon's playoff game between the Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints. Like the Raiders in the postseason, fans of the Oakland franchise were absent.

Raiders in familiar territory at season’s end despite measured success

on January 10, 2011

The first round of the professional football playoffs kicked off this weekend, and for the eighth consecutive year, the Oakland Raiders were nowhere to be found. In perhaps a symbol of a franchise fallen on hard times, the local Oakland bars lacked any noticeable presence from the generally boisterous fan base as well.

Fans had enjoyed a renewed sense of hope heading into this season, which started with what was considered a great draft, a few key free agent signings, and stability in the coaching staff for the first time in a while. And it showed on the field, too: The Raiders had their best season in recent memory during head coach Tom Cable’s third year at the helm. Despite being unable to muster a postseason berth by just one game, the Raiders did manage an overall record of 8-8—6-0 in the division—their highest win total since making it all the way to the Super Bowl in 2002. Before this season, they had not won more than five games since that last playoff appearance.

But after what basically amounted to the firing of popular coach Tom Cable, occasionally questionable talent on the field, and a losing record for the seven previous seasons, some fans have been left to question what was once thought of as an unshakable faith in their team. On Saturday afternoon at The Graduate in Rockridge, it was almost empty while the TVs displayed the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints and host Seahawks playing in Seattle. Positioned right next to one of the flat screens so he could watch one of his favorite teams in New Orleans was East Oakland resident Johnny Thomas. A regular at the bar, he mentioned that he was not surprised that Raiders fans did not come to watch the other games because frequently they can’t even see their own team on TV locally.

“The only [Raiders] games I get to see on TV are when they are away,” said Thomas, referring to the NFL’s rules governing television blackouts, which are designed to boost attendance at home games. If a team does not sell out a game 72 hours before its start, the game is blacked out on local TV within a 75-mile radius of the stadium to encourage ticket sales. The Raiders sold out only one game this season—their November 7 contest against division opponent Kansas City—to avoid a TV blackout.

In fact, according to the NFL, since moving back to Oakland from Los Angeles for the 1995 season, the Raiders have sold out just slightly more than 35 percent of their games. Their previous sellout was their featured Monday night season opener against rival San Diego in 2009. In a stadium that has more than 63,000 seats, the Raiders averaged a little under two-thirds capacity at each game this season.

But like the lowly attended games, The Graduate had just a handful of patrons by halftime of the first playoff game on Saturday. “I thought it would be more crowded in here,” said John Krull of Elmwood to the bartender. Al Green’s “I’m Still In Love With You” could easily be made out from the jukebox in the usually noisy atmosphere.

Krull, who is originally from Washington state and is a self-described “NFL aficionado,” stopped in to watch his Seahawks over lunch. Living in the Bay Area since 2000, he said that, based on proximity, the Raiders have slowly started to grow on him. But he said the continued mismanagement of the team by ownership upsets him and makes him question his support.

“I think Cable got a raw deal,” said Krull of the recently let go head coach, who was told on January 4 that his contract would not be extended. “I started liking the team because of Cable. I think the players like him and played hard for him. They were workmanlike.”

A sign inside The Grand Oaks Sports Bar in downtown Oakland invites fans of the embattled hometown team. The Raiders 50th season was their best since 2002.

A sign inside The Grand Oaks Sports Bar in downtown Oakland invites fans of the embattled hometown team. The Raiders 50th season was their best since 2002.

The way Cable’s deal was structured, had the organization chosen to pick up the team option on his contract, it would have been guaranteeing him $5 million over the next two years. The coach was let go two days after the end of the Raiders’ 50th season.

Many football fans, whether they are members of the Raider Nation or not, believe that it was a mistake to jettison Cable; some say that 81-year-old team owner Al Davis is too big a meddler in the team’s day-to-day and personnel decisions. And as of Sunday, it seems that a clause that voids cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha’s contract will allow arguably the team’s best player to leave as a free agent.

The Raiders organization declined to comment for this story.

In town for the weekend and hanging out at The Grand Oaks Sports Bar in downtown Oakland was Raider fan Nick Tulach, who has resided in the Lake Merritt area between stints of living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Tulach said that it’s been the same old story for the better half of the last decade.

“Al Davis is a genius, but the game has passed him by,” said Tulach during Saturday evening’s Indianapolis Colts-New York Jets game. “He recognizes talent, but is a barrier now. His presence has become too big. Whether he is directly involved in the decision making is not as important as the disconnect for a shared vision of success that he creates.”

Friend John Vilandre of Milpitas, a 49ers fan, agreed, saying that Raiders fans have lost interest due to the lack of success based on the way the team is run. “It’s kind of a running joke,” said Vilandre, “Al is going to live forever. It’s my way or the highway, and the fans don’t like it, it confuses the players and confuses the team. Al’s voice will keep them that way for a long time.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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