Throughout my life as an Oakland Raiders fan, there have been many kind of seasons. There have been the ones when I was pretty sure the team was going to be pretty good (ok, there haven't been all that many of those seasons, most of those were around 1999-2002), seasons where I knew the Raiders were going to be bad and it was going to be a tough season, seasons when I tried to talk myself into the Raiders being decent (how many retread quarterbacks did I try to convince myself could lead us to the playoffs), seasons where I had no real idea. But I can say that, without a doubt, heading into this season is the strangest I've felt about the Raiders and a Raiders season. The strangeness, for once, doesn't have as much to do with the performance on the field. In fact, this is one of the most promising upcoming seasons for the Raiders. Last season, they had their highest win total since the 2000 season and made the playoffs for the first time since the AFC Championship season of 2002. The unfortunate injury to QB Derek Carr cost the Raiders the chance to make any noise in the playoffs as they were dispatched in the Wild Card round against the Houston Texans, but it does not change the fact that the season was a big step in the right direction for the team. This offseason saw the Raiders make one very big move in acquiring former Seattle Seahawks RB and Oakland-born and raised Marshawn Lynch to provide a bit more depth and strength to the running game that could compliment the prolific passing of Carr and WRs Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. The Raiders look to be the favorite in the AFC West and, provided their major players stay healthy, one of the best teams in the league.
No, the strangeness has to do with the future of the Raiders. This year, it was announced that the Raiders had made a deal to move from Oakland (again) to Las Vegas as they had secured the funding for a state-of-the-art stadium in Las Vegas. The Raiders will play the 2017 and 2018 seasons (and potentially the 2019 as well) in Oakland before moving to Las Vegas in 2020 (or 2019 at the absolute earliest). It won't be the first time the Raiders have left Oakland (famously moving to Los Angeles from 1982-1994) and they've been fighting with the City of Oakland and Alameda County since their return in 1995. It's also not that big of a surprise, given that the Coliseum is the only dual-purpose stadium left and its shortcomings have been made abundantly clear. Coupled with tensions between the franchise and the City of Oakland and it's not all that surprising that the Raiders would be looking to move.
The other reason that the pending move of the Raiders is so galling and why it puts me, and most Oakland-bound Raiders fans, in such a strange place is that for the first time in a remarkable amount of time the Raiders are actually... good. If the Raiders were a team like they'd been for the previous few seasons, perpetually drafting near the top of the draft, never being close to contention, lacking in good players that you knew would be with the team for a long period of time, it would be easy enough to check out and say "good riddance." But for the first time in a long time, this is a team that one should want to watch and be a fan of beyond out of sheer loyalty, a team that's probably the favorite in the AFC West and one that could go far in the playoffs.
I wasn't alive when the Raiders moved to Los Angeles so I don't know what it felt like when they left then. But as it became clear that the Raiders were going to leave Oakland, it became clear that Los Angeles... wouldn't be so bad. The combination of them having been there before as well as it being, you know, in the same state as Oakland could soften the blow a bit. And yes there is something very appropriate about the Raiders moving to Las Vegas. But the problem in all this, and why I think it's so galling, is that it's not just a football team that's leaving but the Raiders. When Art Modell famously tore the Browns from Cleveland after the 1994 season, the Browns name and franchise history "stayed" in Cleveland to be brought back as an expansion team in 1999.
The Raiders leaving, with both the team and the franchise itself (the name, the colors, the history) is closer to the Rams leaving Los Angeles for St. Louis in 1995 (though the Rams had moved out to Anaheim away from the city of Los Angeles years earlier) or the Colts' midnight ride from Baltimore to Indianapolis. It might not be so bad if the "Raiders" were staying in Oakland but the team now as going to Las Vegas to become something else. But part of why Las Vegas would make the investment in the team is the power that the Raiders brand carries and thus that was never going to happen.
An NFL team could, in theory, be set up in Oakland again but it wouldn't be the same, it wouldn't be the Raiders. They fit the persona of that city and the East Bay as a whole. I remember when I was a kid before the Raiders came back and seeing all the memorabilia and signs and things from when the Raiders were first in Oakland that made it clear they were something important to the East Bay community. And I saw it first hand when they returned from their Los Angeles sojourn in 1995 and re-estabilshed some of those bonds and became so closely tied to my home in my mind. If the Raiders go, then that's it. There's nothing that can really come in and replace them because the only thing that fits is the Raiders.
As we head into this NFL season, I find myself a mix of emotions. I'm excited that the Raiders look like a strong team that could be a contender, I'm looking forward to spending my Sundays watching a good football team, I'm angry that this team I've invested so much in on its way out, and I'm sad that this team is leaving my home and that we all are going to lose this team. It's a strange mixture of excitement and dread that I'm feeling as we head into this new Raiders season and I'm not quite sure how to process it all.