Picking Favorites: Why the 2002 Oakland Raiders are NOT My All-Time Team

Lionel HillContributor IJuly 7, 2009

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 19:  Rich Gannon #12 of the Oakland Raiders throws a pass against the Buffalo Bills at Network Associates Coliseum on September 19, 2004 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

My favorite team of all time is not only outside the box, it might be downright blasphemous. I might have my Raider Nation membership card revoked and get lashed by Black Hole residents on my next journey to Oakland (speaking of which, if you ACTUALLY have a membership card, you're not a Raiders fan).

In other words, if I'm going to stick my neck on the guillotine, at least let me beg for mercy first.

I don't think a "favorite team" should be one the favoriter didn't see. That takes away all of the fun of going through a season.

Some guys get misty-eyed to choppy NFL Films footage of Jim Plunkett tossing TD's to Todd Christiansen, but I'm not moved by that sort of thing. It's like sleeping with someone's ex-wife...no...it's like being told what sleeping with someone's ex-wife was like.. by John Facenda.

There's only five Raider double-digit winners in my fan-life (your "fan-life" starts when you consciously follow a sport), and each met a depressing fate in the playoffs.

1990 - 12-4 - Bo Jackson's career ends on the field, then the team gets crushed 51-3 in the AFC Championship a week later.

1993 - 10-6 - the Raiders go up 17-6 on Buffalo in the Divisional playoff, only to watch the lead evaporate in 6:18 of the second half.

2000 - 12-4 - The first AFC Championship played in Oakland since 1976 saw Rich Gannon get plastered by Tony Siragusa, then limps through the rest of a 16-3 loss (with a cameo by Bobby Hoying).

2001 - 10-6 - Woodson hits Brady...Brady fumbles the ball...recovered by the Raiders! We did it! We won a playoff game in the snow! The futility is over! Now let's go to Pittsburgh, even out that 2-3 all-time playoff record, and wipe the Immaculate Reception off th...WHAT IN THE BLUE HELL IS THE "TUCK RULE?"

2002 - 11-5 - the best Raiders team of my fan-life and the 2nd best of my lifetime (I popped out of the womb a few months before Super Bowl XVIII). The Raiders brought the west coast offense full circle, revitalizing Jerry Rice's career by using him as a possession receiver instead of a primary playmaker.

They passed, and passed, and passed, then handed the ball to Zack Crockett on the one yard line. It was truly poetic. Even when things didn't work, they did.

The whole season can be summed up on a week two play—backed against their own end zone on third and 20, Rich Gannon tossed a little shuttle pass to third-string RB Terry Kirby, who turned the play into a 23 yard first down. That was the 2002 Raiders—dink and dunk, but PERFECT dink and dunk. Well executed, successful dink and dunk.

I wasn't even angry about losing the Super Bowl, at least not Raider fan angry. I'd never seen a team wearing silver & black have a season like that, and the following seasons only magnified the importance. The Raiders were relevant—REALLY relevant—for three straight years!

Why, then, is this not my favorite team of all time?

The Raiders were the least flawed team in a horribly flawed AFC. Jay Fiedler, Tim Couch, Brian Griese, Jeff Blake, and the ghosts of Drew Bledsoe and Mark Brunell were starting games and putting up decent numbers.

There was no 12-win team in the AFC in 2002. Three of the four NFC division winners won 12 games each, and the one that didn't (the 10-6 49ers) defeated the Raiders in week nine. 

The Titans, the second best team in the AFC, were lead by a QB with a wrecked back, cracked ribs, turf toe, an injured neck, a concussion and a messed-up right shoulder (who still threw for 3,387 yards, a 22-15 TD/INT and a 61.2 CMP percentage - RIP Steve McNair).

The third best team, the Steelers, were lead by LA Xtreme MVP Tommy Maddox. Tom Brady lacked a true No. 1 option without Deion Branch and the Patriots were mediocre, so they took the year off from winning and let everyone else have a chance.

Which brings me to another problem...the Raiders' No. 1 option was Jerry Rice.

Jerry Rice wanted to be a No. 1 receiver after losing his gig to an emerging T.O. in San Francisco. Al Davis was happy to bring Rice's Hall of Fame hands to a system that didn't rely on long passes. Rice was happy to stay in the Bay Area and take back a No. 1 role. It was an imperfect match that seemed to work out perfectly.

Davis did two things when he inked Rice: signed the greatest 49er of all time, and stuck a giant dagger in Tim Brown's heart. The message sent to Brown was simple: "you're getting older, your skills are diminishing, we need you to take a step back...and our new No. 1 receiver is four years older than you."

Brown may have taken this in stride, but the football gods did not. Rice was not a Raider, he was a legend in search of a ring to spite his former team. Brown watched Jerry Rice catch seven touchdowns to his two, and gain 1,211 yards to his 930, all in a shiny silver and black uniform, all in front of the only fan base he'd ever known.

Suddenly the Black Hole was in love with Jerry Rice. All this was magnified by Tim Brown's 1,000th catch, which set up a third-and-long. The next play? A touchdown pass to Jerry Rice.

This was wrong...terrible.. ridiculous...it was "Karl-Malone-to-the-Lakers" before "Karl-Malone-to-the-Lakers" was "Karl-Malone-to-the-Lakers." No matter how good it makes your team, the gods of your sport won't let it end in a championship. They let Clemens-to-the-Yankees slide, and regret it to this day.

Rice could not hoist a trophy in silver and black. He couldn't make the 49ers look dumb for picking a young athletic speedster with an insane vertical leap over a 40-year-old man. Michael Jordan was averaging 20-6 with the Washington Wizards...young athletes didn't need Jerry Rice making them look bad too.

The whole thing played out like two formerly successful people (Rice and Davis) jarring their souls in Satan's fridge and saying "if we win a Super Bowl, they're yours."

And while it's tough to expect an undefeated season, the Raiders took some unacceptable losses. They lost to an 0-5 Rams team, giving Marc Bulger a win (and a 3 touchdown performance) in his first start at quarterback.

They played catch-up with a mediocre Chargers team and took an overtime loss for their trouble. Their offense needed three-and-a-half quarters to score a touchdown in an ugly loss to Miami.

The home loss to the 49ers was gut-wrenching, as the Raiders had every chance to win the game handed to them and ultimately fell to a huge Garrison Hearst 4th and 1 conversion and a field goal in overtime.

On that day, the Raiders proved they were a flawed team. They got pounded by a superior running team and torched by Terrell Owens. It showed the league that any offense matching the Raiders' passing efficiency just needed a little defensive help to win.

A city has to buy into a playoff run, and the Bay Area lacked buyers. As an LA transplant to the Bay, I was used to fanfare. Los Angeles becomes a sea of car flags when the NBA playoffs begin, gaining ground with every Lakers win. Months before, the Giants won the NLCS and San Francisco turned into an orange and black madhouse.

Muni trains shook after every Giants win, "LETS GO GI-ANTS!" became the city's motto, and the scene at Phone Company Park was out of control. Surely Raiders fans wouldn't be out-done by wine-sipping, Halloween color-wearing west bay starch-collars, would they?

Walking around the East Bay after a Raiders game wasn't like the West Bay when the Giants inched closer to the playoffs in September. It felt like being a Raiders fan didn't come with territory, like we were more or less just "not-Niners fans."

Al's 13 year LA vacation proved disastrous. He lost the hearts of most of his die hard fan base, and lost an entire generation of Bay Area fans to Joe Montana and the 49ers' potent offense. The Raiders rarely sold out games, and a large percentage of fans came from outside the city.

Four hundred miles south, East Los Angeles was raging over the Raiders' Super Bowl run. A whole generation of children had been raised with the Raiders and were now having kids of their own. 70 percent of the Bay Area wasn't just disinterested in the Raiders, they were rooting against them.

The 49ers took a spanking in the NFC Championship, and if they weren't winning it all, they sure as hell didn't want to see little brother celebrate in the process.

So without the hearts of their own area, the Raiders set out on the "forgone conclusion" AFC Playoff tour, as they played two teams they'd already beaten at home during the season: a Jets squad that was the product of gross "get the big market involved so the ratings don't stink" media hype, and a broken Titans team that gave everything in a backyard brawl with the Steelers in the divisional round.

The most exciting part of the AFC Championship may have been Metallica's impromptu parking lot performance, as the game was just a countdown to something the Raiders should have had years before—an AFC title in the modern era.

The Raider Nation also had something else it'd never seen before—a bandwagon. Suddenly, there were Raiders fans all over California who'd never even watched football. The jersey they'd been wearing because it looked cool now meant they liked an awesome team.

Most of these people didn't even see the tuck rule game the year before. They hadn't experienced the lows, just the highs. They assumed the Raiders had always been good, and front office drama, relocation, poor drafting and continuous shifts at the head coach position were not a problem with this team.

They weren't prepared for a fall, and when it happened, they slowly packed their silver and black gear back into the closet and bought Chargers jerseys.

Which brings me to the final point—was the entire 2002 season not just one giant scripted karma-bash for Jon Gruden? Al sends him to Tampa Bay for two first-round picks, two second round picks and $8 million in cash, and looks like the smartest man in football 20 weeks.

The results of that trade are now as follows: one humiliating Super Bowl loss, a whiff pick on CB Phillip Buchanan (with Javon Walker and Ed Reed on the board), OT Langston Walker (who is now starting for the Bills as the Raiders struggle to find a consistent OT), DE Tyler Brayton (with Anquan Boldin, Osi Umenyiora, and Rashean Mathis on the board), and LB Sam Williams.

In other words, Al Davis wasn't being punished with a bad season... that would be easy and humane...the gods couldn't do that. For his crimes against football, Al was made a modern-day Sisyphus. He wasn't just going to climb to the top of the mountain only to fall a step or two; he was going to spend a decade chasing the rock back down.

AD didn't realize what he was messing with. The signing of Rice and the trade of John Gruden upset the balance of the NFL. Like a jolt in the space-time continuum, it thrust pro football into a bizarre world where nothing worked like it was supposed to.

And that's ultimately why the 2002 Raiders aren't my favorite team of all time—the whole thing felt fake!

Jerry Rice in silver and black, Bill Callahan taking a team to the Super Bowl, Rich Gannon morphing into Joe Montana, then back to Rich Gannon a year later, the Gruden trade, the silent spite of Tim Brown, the uneasy nature of the Bay Area...Bill King's call at the end of the 1978 "Holy Roller" game could have been the soundtrack for the 2002 Oakland Raiders—"there's nothing real in the world anymore!"

And truth be told, I liked the 2001 team a lot more. They had the perfect Raider combination of cast-offs and physical specimens, and won with them!

Gruden roamed the sidelines screaming at his team...and it was HIS team. Players played for him, if only to prove they could match his intensity. The gods didn't hate the 2001 Raiders, the refs did, and that's why I don't have a 2001 World Champions t-shirt.

But I can argue with the refs all I want. Gods? I'd like to wake up with my limbs tomorrow. Therefore, I could never call the 2002 Raiders my favorite team of all time, just the best my team has ever been.


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