Kenny Stabler came to Charlotte once. Somebody paid him to show up and he stayed two days. I knew his image and was thrilled he lived up to it. He was who he was supposed to be.
The Snake was friendly, funny, unpretentious and impossible to keep up with. No matter how late you could stay up, he could stay up later. His comebacks werent limited to the field. If he talked about his accomplishments an 18-point victory against Minnesota in Super Bowl XI, four Pro Bowl appearances, an array of late-game rallies it was because somebody asked.
Stabler, who played for Oakland from 1970-79, was the Raiders. The NFL is a league of rules, and the Raiders lived outside them. To pull it off, they had to be good, and they usually were. Guys who caused trouble on other teams seemed to beach up in Oakland. The Raiders swaggered onto the field and into the end zone and, man, they were fun to watch.
The Raiders who will show up at Bank of America Stadium Sunday still wear the silver and black, perhaps the best colors in sports. But they long ago forfeited the right to swagger.
Oakland was 4-2 last season when it gave Cincinnati a 2012 first-round pick (which the Bengals used on Dre Kirkpatrick, a cornerback who doesnt start) and a 2013 second-round pick for quarterback Carson Palmer. Once a star, Palmer had lost interest in the bottom-feeding Bengals and was languishing without a team.
The Raiders made the trade because they thought they were one player away from being special. Theyre a season away, or maybe a decade.
They finished last season 8-8 and are 4-10 in 2012. Bettors think so little of them that oddsmakers had to make the Panthers a nine-point favorite.
So this is what the schedule gives us a home finale against a bad team. But as bad teams go, theyre a good one. They have a compelling history and unusual fans.
You probably werent in Oakland in 2008 when the Panthers and Raiders last played. Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams was so moved by the Road Warrior look fans favor that he went to the bleachers before the game to talk to them. The Panthers won 17-6. Afterward, Williams raved about the crowd.
The NFL leads the league, any league, in rules. They have a tighter dress code than the Catholic elementary school I attended. Enforcers who probably are armed with rulers patrol flat screen televisions for evidence of socks too high, logos too big and causes promoted without express written consent.
If the NFL is the classroom, the Raiders were recess. This is why, as bad as they insist on being, they still have a national following. I have two friends who like the NFL but love the Raiders, and neither has a connection with Oakland or California. Every September they allow themselves to believe that the silver and black will be back.
Some people wait for a winning lottery ticket. Some wait for the Raiders to make the playoffs. Not sure who has better odds.
Oaklands last good season was 2002, when it won 11 games and advanced to the Super Bowl, where it lost big to Tampa Bay.
The Raiders have not had a winning record in the 10 seasons since. The Panthers have had three.
In the past 10 seasons Oakland is 49-109. Carolina is 77-81.
In the past four seasons, however, Oakland has been less bad. The Raiders are 25-37, the Panthers 21-41.
Theyre looking for the same thing a victory at Bank of America Stadium and someday the playoffs.
But theres a major difference. Oakland fans wear more interesting clothes.