Sports biz: A team for the times
Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day
And tell the world that everything's okay
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back
'til things are brighter, I'm the man in black
- Johnny Cash, "Man in Black"
To paraphrase Pat Bowlen, the color of the current NFL season is predominately black.
Black as night, as Mick Jagger sang. Black as coal.
Black, as in "TV blackout," an unlikely affliction that has kept 13 NFL games off the air through early November because teams couldn't sell out their stadiums.
Black, as in murky and uncertain: the only way to describe the future of a league that may be headed toward a player lockout that could turn out the lights on the 2011 season.
Black as in bleak, the way the rest of the season looks for a defeated, dispirited Denver Broncos team.
Black, as in distressed, dour, disjointed. Black like the black Johnny Cash sang about.
All of which makes this the perfect year - wait for it, Broncos fans - for the Oakland Raiders.
I know: I can't believe I said it either.
Don't think I'm finally coming out as a closet fan. I've hated them all along just like you. Hated them all: Biletnikoff and his stickem. Stabler, lucky as sin. Lester Hayes: cheater, misfit, freak.
Branch, traitor to Colorado. Romanowski, post-Bronco stage, lunatic madman. Howie Long? Don't get me started.
I count among my favorite memories ever watching Jim Turner trot into the end zone untouched in '77 on a fake field goal so improbably and perfectly executed that you'd swear the play call was sent into the huddle from heaven, not from Red Miller. A stone-cold miracle, that play. Left those silver-suited Axis of Evil Oakland bloodsuckers and their puff-jowled coach flabbergasted on the sideline. It is said, and I believe this, that the cheer erupting from the stadium that sweet Sunday afternoon can still be heard echoing somewhere around 20th Street and Federal Boulevard.
So why is it that the Raiders - the hated, cheating, penalty-prone, eye-gouging-when-the-referee-isn't-looking Raiders - look so majestic now?
You saw it if you watched the Nov. 7 game against Kansas City. Even if you were just biding time, flipping through channels during the Broncos' bye week, it stopped you cold. It was as if you were watching a game from 1966, sucked into a time-warp wormhole, staring into the teeth of the old AFL, half expecting Otis Taylor to come galloping onto the field.
By the third quarter, there were grass stains mixed with bloodstains on uniforms and players flying through gaps, and one Chiefs lineman had a hole ripped in his pants where his bare knee protruded. It was close, back-and-forth, and every play seemed apocryphal.
With the game on the line, third-and-long, a Jason Campbell pass seared its way through the Chiefs secondary and was somehow snatched from the clutches of a defender by the Raiders' rookie Jacoby Ford, who bobbled the thing like a poorly timed joke before clutching it safely to his chest and tumbling down on the 22-yard line.
The kick from Janikowski sent it to overtime, and the next Raiders possession featured another schoolyard lob fetched from the sky, sending the Oakland crowd into delirium. Janikowski was good again, and Oakland won, defeating an old rival that once again looked like a rival, to move within a half game of first place in the AFC West.
The Raiders left the field, fatigued but victorious, in the familiar silver-and-black uniform they've always worn. No logo updating or brand enhancement here. That's the thing about the Raiders. Very little changes. But they are authentic. They enforce a tradition that seems vacant sometimes in the NFL, where high-tech stadiums and polished TV announcers can remove us from the game's essential brute humanity.
In a league of contrived promotions and controlled presentation, the Raiders really are the men in black. And until things are brighter, there's something about that that even diehard Broncos fans - or maybe especially diehard Broncos fans - might be able to appreciate.