Monday, January 28, 2008

January Football Now Means Something Else For NFL’s One-Time Great Teams

It was just a question, asked glibly, but the words cut to the bone of the die-hards of Da Bums in Brooklyn.

“The Dodgers...are they still in the league?”

It’s a quote I’ve known about for years and years, but only now, as I verify its source on the Internet, do I learn that it was uttered 74 years ago this week, on January 24, 1934. The questioner was New York Giants manager Bill Terry, and he was curious as to the existence of the rival Dodgers. The remark didn’t play well among Dodgers fans.

Terry was talking about possible contenders for the pennant in the upcoming ’34 season. When the matter of the Dodgers was brought up, Terry delivered his zinger.

74 years ago this week, Terry zinged the Dodgers

I’d like to propose a new question, this one for followers of the NFL.

“The Oakland Raiders...are they still in the league?”

I’d also like to ask it of the San Francisco 49ers, and of the Miami Dolphins.

Their fans may get mad at me all they want – still I’d like to ask it.

The truth is that those teams are, indeed, still in the NFL – but they’re not in it the way they used to be. Not even close. They’re all making news this January, but it’s the equivalent of the police blotter in comparison to their long ago days in the society pages.

January used to be glory time for the Raiders, 49ers, and Dolphins. It was the month when they were either crowned NFL champs, or at least played for the opportunity. They owned the first month of the year, often lending it to one another, the same way the Yankees and Dodgers used to swap October back and forth in baseball.

January meant Joe Montana and Jim Plunkett and Bob Griese and Dan Marino. It meant Jerry Rice and Cliff Branch and Paul Warfield and Mark “Super” Duper. And it usually meant that one of these three franchises would be clutching the Vince Lombardi Trophy in a parade a couple days after a Super Bowl.

But here’s what January is giving us in 2008.

The 49ers, five years removed from their last playoff game, fired their offensive coordinator and hired Mad Mike Martz, erstwhile Lions coordinator and certified genius. It wasn’t long before Martz’s hiring was adjudged to be a desperate move by a desperate organization, and one that it will regret in relatively short order.

The Dolphins, winners of one game in 2007, cleaned house. They hired Bill Parcells to run the show, and it didn’t take long for the firings to begin. The GM and the coach have been replaced, for starters. Some reports indicate that Parcells, about as qualified as anyone on this planet to resurrect moribund NFL franchises, placed a couple of phone calls to the Lions, who didn’t show any interest. The 1-15 Dolphins were amenable. Which means that Miami will soon leap frog the Lions, once again. Just a matter of time.

Then there’s the Raiders.

Al Davis is still the patriarch/Don of this very dysfunctional franchise. Then again, the Raiders have always been dysfunctional, even when they were winning. One of their favorite ploys was to take the league’s ne’er-do-wells and resurrect their careers, thru the magic elixir of wearing silver and black and conforming to a “Commitment to Excellence”. Many of the players on the champion Raider teams were deemed too old or too naughty by other squads. But then they signed to play for Davis’s team and while they may have indeed been too old or too naughty, they nonetheless found a way to win at remarkably high clips.

Davis: Losing more than football games in recent years?

The Raiders, somehow, made it to the Super Bowl as recently as five years ago. They lost – their first championship loss since Super Bowl II – and things have gone haywire ever since. The Super Bowl coach was fired a year later, and Davis is now going thru coaches at a rate that would make George Steinbrenner blush.

The latest victim is a bright young man named Lane Kiffin.

Kiffin is the son of longtime Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. And dad is having a much better year, already, than the kid. Monte Kiffin just inked a contract extension with the Bucs; Lane is being asked to turn in his playbook by Davis.

Lane Kiffin, in his first year as a head coach, went 4-12 with the 2007 Raiders. Now it’s being reported that Davis wants Kiffin to quit. Why? One reason is that if Kiffin resigns, Davis doesn’t have to pay the remainder of his contract – which Davis would have to do if he fires him.

Welcome to the life of an NFL head coach, kid.

The Raiders were bad in 2007, though they weren’t quite as bad as they were in 2006, in which their badness qualified them for the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. They were bad in 2005, and pretty bad in 2004. And they look to be bad again in 2008. In another generation, it meant something completely different to be “bad” when it came to the Raiders. In those days, the Raiders were bad – which meant that they were very good, in a Mae West sort of way.

January doesn’t belong to the Raiders, or the 49ers, or the Dolphins – not anymore. At least, not on the football field. Theirs is now the news of losers and desperados.

To which we say in Detroit, “Welcome to our world.”

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