Oilers tried, abandoned same lame-duck approach Raiders are attempting

Oilers tried, abandoned same lame-duck approach Raiders are attempting

ALAMEDA -- Soon after the NFL approved the Raiders' move to Las Vegas, coach Jack Del Rio wondered if anyone had a handbook on how to handle being a lame duck in Oakland.

While there might not be a book about how to handle playing in a city a team plans to abandon for richer pastures, there is a franchise that tried a similar path before deciding life as a lame duck proved to be untenable.

Just weeks before the start of the 1995 season, Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams announced he had an exclusive negotiating deal to move the team to Nashville, Tennessee. A ballot measure was approved the next spring in Nashville to fund a stadium that wouldn't be ready until 1999 so the Oilers decided to spend three seasons as a lame duck in Houston.

But with dwindling crowds at the Astrodome and increasing animosity from a fan base about to be deserted, the Oilers changed plans and played the 1997 season in Memphis and the `98 season on Vanderbilt's campus in Nashville before finally moving into the new stadium in 1999.

"We started off planning to stay in Houston the whole time like they're talking about in Oakland," said former Oilers general manager Floyd Reese. "After the first year, we said this is just not going to work. That's how we ended up in Memphis for a year and Vanderbilt after that. That certainly wasn't great, and the truth is I'm not sure it was better than just staying in Houston. But you knew that staying in Houston was going to be so distasteful and be really hard to listen to the negativity every day. We couldn't do anything right. We said anything is better than this and you make the move and you find out it was better in some areas and not as good in others."

The Raiders now will see how it works for them in Oakland after the NFL approved their move last month to Las Vegas for the 2020 season. The Raiders are staying in Oakland in 2017 and have an option to play at the Coliseum in 2018 that they plan to exercise. They have no lease for 2019, leading to uncertainty about where they will play that year.

Oakland officials have indicated they don't want to give the team a lease for that season and owner Mark Davis has said he doesn't want to play in Las Vegas until the new $1.9 billion stadium is ready.

That could lead to the team playing at another Bay Area location, like Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara or Memorial Stadium at Cal, or they could look for a short-term home.

Much of that decision will depend on the fan reaction in Oakland starting this year. If Houston is any indication, it doesn't figure to be good.

The Oilers averaged less than 32,000 fans a game in 1996, getting big crowds only when fans wanted to cheer for Pittsburgh and San Francisco. By Thanksgiving, the fans stopped coming with the team drawing about 20,000 for its sixth and seventh home games before playing in front of a crowd of 15,131 in the home finale.

"I'd seen that place in an NFL playoff environment at its peak," former offensive lineman Brad Hopkins said. "To see 15,000 people in a 65,000-seat stadium was completely unbelievable. Just the quietness. We had preseason games with better attendance. That was completely shocking. The fans were saying don't let the door hit you on the way out."

The only thing that made the experience a little easier on the players is that the venom from the fans was almost entirely directed at Adams and local politicians and not the players.

"They completely blamed the bureaucracy," Hopkins said. "They didn't look at us like we had anything to do with it."

Those late-season crowds made the decision to leave Houston easy for the franchise. Reese remembers talking after that game to a shell-shocked rookie Eddie George, who was used to playing in front of crowds of 100,000 in college at Ohio State.

"I went by his locker and said, `Hey, it's not going to be like this forever. This is not the NFL. What you see later on will be,'" Reese said.

Playing at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis in 1997 wasn't much better as the average attendance was even lower at about 28,000, and many of the fans came to cheer for the opponent because they had no connection to the vagabond Oilers.

The team got only slightly more support the following year at Vanderbilt before finally finding a real home in 1999 when their new stadium opened for the newly named Tennessee Titans.

That led to a successful run with the Titans making the Super Bowl following the 1999 season and averaging more than 11 wins a season over a five-year span.

"It bound us because we understood that we were searching for a new identity," Hopkins said. "We had to do it on our own. We came together and became a team."

 

McKenzie, Del Rio ‘unified since Day 1,’ ushering Raiders into next phase

McKenzie, Del Rio ‘unified since Day 1,’ ushering Raiders into next phase

Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Jack Del Rio have done three pre-draft press conferences now. They’ve got the routine down, knowing when to deflect questions, when to put people off the scent and, more importantly, how to seem unpredictable.

They were in lockstep again Friday, less than a week before the 2017 NFL Draft.

During their first, McKenzie offered one criticism of his head coach.

“Can you guys get Jack out of my office?” McKenzie said in 2015, with tongue firmly in cheek.

The rhetorical question was answered with a laugh. McKenzie was acknowledging how much Del Rio and staff wanted to support the scouting process. McKenzie ultimately pulls the trigger on draft day, but Del Rio has a loud voice in the room as he looks for players who fit his locker room and his schemes.

McKenzie has open ears, taking advice from the entire coaching staff while arranging his draft board. This time of year especially, coaches and scouts are working together.

“It’s been unified since Day 1,” Del Rio said. “Reggie and I are very unified and much on the same mission and that is to bring a world championship home to this organization. Everything we’re doing is attacking that, adding these impact players where we can.”

The pair was focused on improving a lackluster roster that featured Derek Carr and Khalil Mack but finished 3-13 the year before. Now their partnership is entering Phase II.

They must decide which players to add, and decide which previously drafted players to keep. There are some obvious extensions in the works, with Carr, Mack and Gabe Jackson. They had to let some homegrown talent go in free agency as they attempt to upgrade depth and build a championship roster that can build on last year’s success.

“There’s a whole different phase that we’re about to go through as an organization as you begin to mature, some of those players have to be re-signed or not. Those are decisions you have to make in all of this. This is year three for us working together and I feel like the relationship with the scouts and the coaches and the sharing of information is excellent. We want to continue to work that way.”

Locals among cornerbacks who can help Raiders early in NFL Draft

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AP

Locals among cornerbacks who can help Raiders early in NFL Draft

The Raiders have an opening in their secondary.

Finding a slot cornerback is a top priority with DJ Hayden now in Detroit. TJ Carrie is an option there, but the Raiders could add a young, versatile talent capable of taking a more prominent role down the line.

That’s true despite the fact Sean Smith signed a free-agent deal through 2019 last year and David Amerson received a contract extension through the 2020 season. Those contracts, however, become pay-as-you-go deals after this season.

The dead money goes away, freeing the Raiders to look for long-term upgrades if they see fit.

Head coach Jack Del Rio loves creating competition and depth, especially at such an important position in today’s NFL. The Raiders like larger, physical cornerbacks with ball skills, and there are plenty in this year’s draft.

Many analysts have the Raiders taking a cornerback at No. 24 overall, and that’s a realistic possibility. They could certainly look to help last year’s No. 24-ranked secondary in the early rounds.

Let’s take a look at some top options available in this week’s draft:

Good fits:There are quite a few quality cornerbacks who could be available at No. 24 overall, even if there’s an early run on the position.

Oakland native and Washington alum Kevin King visited the Raiders during the pre-draft process, and certainly fits what the Raiders like in a cornerback. He’s confident and aggressive, unafraid to use great physical traits to make plays on the ball. He’s tall and long and isn’t afraid to tackle.

USC’s Adoree Jackson has the quality ball skills the Raiders like, and is adept high-pointing the ball. Analysts say he can play several coverage techniques and has the agility to make up for mistakes. He can work in the slot, but at 5-foot-10 isn’t as tall as the Raiders like. They’d have to take him in the first round. He may not last beyond that.

San Jose native and Colorado product Chidobe Awuzie is another interesting local defensive back ready to turn pro. He can play outside or in the slot, and analysts say he has excellent one-on-one coverage skills but needs tackling work. He was a solid slot blitzer at Colorado, and could fill an immediate need crucial against so many three and four receiver sets.

Louisiana State’s Tre’Davious White has experience playing the slot, and could help right away there before transferring outside if asked. He can cover extremely well, though analysts say he isn’t much of a tackler. He might be a tweener as far as the Raiders are concerned, not worthy of the No. 24 pick but long gone before the Raiders pick in the second round.

Central Florida’s Shaquill Griffin visited the Raiders this spring, and rightfully so. A willing run defender with good ball skills and tackling ability who could be available in the third round should intrigue them.