There’s an old axiom among compulsive gamblers that says, “It’s only a gambling problem if you’re losing.” At the moment, the Oakland Raiders have Lady Luck on their side. The team was destined for Las Vegas since the day they made Al Davis the AFL's youngest head coach.
Unlike a vast majority of the NFL's owners, the Oakland-Vegas Raiders are a family business. After stepping down as AFL commissioner, Al brought a 10 percent stake in the Raiders and in 1972 completed a daring hostile takeover of the franchise. If his gamble hadn't paid off, he could have wound up being exiled from the organization.
Since the death of his revered father, Mark Davis has been looked down upon as the daft and goofy son overseeing the demise of his family heirloom. For all of Da Raiders’ mystique and folklore, two years ago the franchise was ranked 31st out of 32 teams in valuation and was dead last in team revenue, and Davis’ net worth made him a pauper among NFL owners. At the root of their woes was Oakland Alameda Coliseum, which is arguably the most dilapidated facility in pro sports.
This spring, Mark put on his poker hat and proved he's a chip off the old block. After alienating the city of Oakland by throwing themselves into the three-team LA sweepstakes and getting body checked by the NFL Board of Governors, the city quadrupled the team’s 2016 stadium lease. Davis got Vegas to contribute $750 million—the largest public subsidy toward a stadium in NFL history. The Raiders’ valuation shot up to 20th in an instant.
Al ran the Raiders with the work ethic of an ashen-faced compulsive gambler who spends eight hours a day at the slots. Mark's Vegas gambit was the equivalent of finding out Zach Galifianakis’ squirrelly character in The Hangover could count cards.
However, Vegas has its own built-in risk. Oakland was the nation’s sixth largest media market. Las Vegas is 40th. In a league that talks a lot about distractions, what should be said of Vegas’ lascivious nightlife and rampant gambling? The Raiders must also hope that the two NFL franchises in Los Angeles don’t siphon off each other’s support.
In the meantime, they’ll awkwardly linger in Oakland until 2019. The Raiders’ on-the-field product is a manifestation of that high-risk, high-reward strategy. With less than a minute remaining in their 2016 season opener against New Orleans, BlackJack del Rio set the tone for the season by risking overtime and attempting a 2-point conversion. Michael Crabtree outleaped cornerback Ken Crawley for Derek Carr’s lob and gave Oakland a 35-34 Week 1 win.
Cardiac Carr became known for his late-game heroics in 2016 and the Raiders finished 9-2 overall in one-possession games.
While last year's rushing attack ranked sixth in yardage behind the NFL's sturdiest offensive line, general manager Reggie McKenzie rolled the dice by allowing former Pro Bowl tailback Latavius Murray to walk in free agency. They pulled an ace out of their sleeve and rebounded with Marshawn Lynch.
Beast Mode's homecoming will be a heartwarming tale if he still carries the rock like a man on fire. It takes gumption to bet on a 31-year-old running back who was a spectator for all of last season, even if he has Oakland running through his veins. If they get a tamer Beast Mode, that puts an even greater onus on Carr, who was newly bestowed with the richest contract in NFL history.
But none of those risks compare to the monumental chance Oakland took in drafting Ohio State defensive back Gareon Conley. Projected to get drafted in the top 15, Conley's stock plummeted after he was accused of raping a woman in a Cleveland hotel on April 9.
In a league where public perception is paramount, the specter of a sexual assault rap made Conley radioactive at the 2017 NFL Draft. Two years prior, NFL teams completely abandoned LSU tackle La'el Collins after he was questioned in relation to the shooting death of a woman he once dated. In 2016, Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman fell off every team's draft board after he was accused of sexual assault three weeks before the draft.
The Raiders have never been able to resist raw talent. Conley allowed the fewest yards of any defensive back prospect from an FBS conference and they made a shrewd, calculating move by using a first-round pick on someone who could either plug their pass defense or face suspension while legal proceedings were ongoing.
After three harrowing months, an Ohio grand jury decided against indicting Conley on July 31. However, the chance Oakland took on Conley never playing a down is indicative of the Raiders’ “Just Win, Baby” culture, for better or worse.
in the past, the raiders' disregard for groupthink has served them well.
In the past, their disregard for groupthink has served them well. Al blazed trails by hiring the first Hispanic coach (Tom Flores) and the first African-American (Art Shell), appointing the first female CEO (Amy Trask), and fostering a culture that bucked the establishment. He sued the NFL for relocating the team from Oakland to LA and sued again when they moved back.
Al's mantra permeates through Mark’s and the Raiders’ DNA. At times, it works to their detriment. It’s been a year since the Raiders signed pass rusher Aldon Smith. It seems his ban for violating substance abuse and personal conduct policies will be upheld for a second consecutive season.
The Smith decision aside, throwing caution to the wind and embracing risk has elevated Davis’ franchise back into the NFL’s upper echelon. But conventional thinking says that teams with such a lopsidedly positive win-loss ratio in close games often tumble down to Earth in following seasons. Proving their worth as a Super Bowl contender is the next part of their high-stakes act. Don’t bet against them.