We are going down the rabbit hole. But before we do, let me draw your attention to two moments of unadulterated football bliss, the kind of joy that makes you forget, for a second, about all the other things you have to do with your Sunday — all the errands you have to run and the deadlines you have to hit and the people you should really text back. The sort of moments that allow you to ignore, however briefly and guiltily, that slippery feeling you get in your stomach every time you hear the thud of a helmet colliding with a solid object. I offer you two moments when football felt like something greater, something beautiful and fun and important.
1. Donald Penn, a 6-foot-5, 340-pound offensive lineman, leaping backward into the Black Hole at Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum after scoring his third career touchdown, a 3-yard catch that tied the 2014 Battle of the Bay in the second quarter and left even the Raiders’ official Twitter account puzzled. Penn was then bathed in sloshes of beer by a sea of bouncing fans.
2. Oakland defenders Justin Tuck and Antonio Smith sneaking up behind interim head coach Tony Sparano with 33 seconds left in the fourth quarter and emptying a Gatorade cooler on his head to celebrate a 24–13 win.
On December 7, 2014, the Oakland Raiders were not supposed to win the Battle of the Bay. They were supposed to lose, because losing was what the Raiders did in 2014: That morning, the team was 1–11 and a week removed from losing 52–0 to the Rams.
Moreover, the 49ers were supposed to win: Their record was 7–5, and while their 2014 season hadn’t gone entirely according to plan, they still had head coach Jim Harbaugh at the helm. The team was just two seasons removed from a Super Bowl appearance; just the season before, the Niners made their third of three consecutive visits to the NFC championship game.
Instead, the Raiders won and the 49ers lost. Two years to the day later, none of this seems very surprising, but the result came as a shock at the time. On the second anniversary of the 2014 Battle of the Bay, it’s worth reflecting on the two franchises and their changing fortunes in the NFL.
It’s difficult to overstate what a joke the Raiders were in 2014. Over the preceding 11 years, Oakland had not made it through a season with the same starting quarterback it entered the fall with, a stretch in which the team also employed seven different head coaches. In the 2014 season, the Raiders were eliminated from playoff contention in Week 11, the fastest a team had managed to be ruled out in a decade, by which point it seemed eminently feasible that Oakland, then 0–10, might become the second team in NFL history to go 0–16. The franchise hadn’t won two consecutive games since 2011, and in 2014 checked off the dubious achievement of going an entire calendar year between regular-season victories.
Then, on November 20, the Raiders beat the Chiefs in a soggy, 24–20 matchup, which was thrilling in the way that finding out you merely have to get a filling instead of a root canal is. Most Raiders fans were content to leave it at that: Their team was not the 2008 Lions, and that was about as much as they could hope for.
The old cliché about the East Bay being the forgotten sibling of San Francisco had seldom felt more true than during the first few years of this decade, at least from a sports standpoint. The Warriors still hadn’t won a championship in nearly 40 years; the A’s were, as ever, caught in a cycle of promise and rebuilds. While the Raiders were at the tail end of a 12-season streak of failing to finish above .500, the Niners were pirouetting atop the NFC West, seemingly on the brink of a new dynasty. A month before the Raiders and Niners would face off in their first matchup since a 2011 preseason game, the San Francisco Giants won their third World Series in five years. Things came easily in San Francisco. In Oakland, they hardly seemed to come at all.
You know, probably, a bit about the transformation that the Bay Area’s football teams have undergone in the past 24 months. The Niners got rid of Harbaugh in December 2014. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick subsequently struggled, losing his job to Blaine Gabbert before retaking it and continuing to struggle. Jim Tomsula took the reins in 2015, leading the team through a 5–11 campaign before he, too, was fired. Chip Kelly was brought in from Philadelphia in the hope of revolutionizing San Francisco’s offense, which he did in so far as awful represents a revolution from merely pretty bad.
Meanwhile, in Oakland, Derek Carr snapped the franchise’s quarterback carousel and emerged as a veritable star. Carr was a rookie in 2014; the Raiders parlayed their 3–13 finish that season into the no. 4 pick in the 2015 draft, which they bestowed on receiver Amari Cooper. Khalil Mack established himself as one of football’s most fearsome defenders. Former 49ers wideout Michael Crabtree signed with Oakland in free agency. Head coach Jack Del Rio was hired.
Two years after eking out an improbable win over the 49ers, the Raiders are 10–2, in first place in the AFC West, and one of the most fun teams in the league. The 49ers are 1–11 with little to be excited about on the near-term horizon. Raiders fans would be forgiven for doing a little gloating.
Teams rise and fall in the NFL. The 49ers will not always be terrible; the Raiders will not always be great. Several of Oakland’s wins this season have been the result of fourth-quarter heroics, and while the 49ers are bad, they are perhaps not quite as bad as their record would suggest. If anything, the radical changes that both teams have undergone since the 2014 Battle of the Bay are a reminder of how quickly things can flip in the NFL. After all, just a season before Harbaugh took over the Niners — and made the NFC title game for three straight years — the team went 6–10.
And then there’s the fact that the happiness of Raiders fans in Oakland comes with a massive asterisk. 2018 could be the Silver and Black’s final season in the city if plans move ahead in Las Vegas, where lawmakers approved new taxes to finance a stadium in October. Oakland fans find hope where they can: An investment group led by Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott has insisted it has the means and wherewithal to build a new stadium in the East Bay — and surely there’s no time to rally financial support like now, with a young, exciting roster. Meanwhile, the A’s, who share the decrepit, 50-year old Coliseum with the Raiders, are formally being phased out of MLB revenue-sharing, which will intensify the team’s quest to build a new park in Oakland, perhaps as part of a multisport complex. But there is little indication that the Lott group has secured the support of Raiders leadership, and Vegas, now officially a sports town, is beckoning.
So where will things stand on December 7, 2018? Neither team, probably, will be 1–11. Better times likely aren’t so far away for the 49ers, if only for the sheer unlikelihood of sticking around in the league’s basement. And Raiders fans — well, enjoy every damn second of this 2016 ride. Sometimes the things that endure are the ones that are the most fun.