Few stories around the NFL have gotten more feel-good traction this year than the revival of the Oakland Raiders, who have clinched their first winning record since 2002 and have a legitimate shot at earning homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
But there's an unfortunate undercurrent to the team's success.
Just as the Raiders have firmly re-established themselves as the San Francisco Bay Area's best NFL team for the first time in nearly four decades, there remains the possibility they will not be a Bay Area team much longer.
Anyone who happened to tune in last Sunday to the primary late-afternoon national telecast, Oakland's stirring come-from-ahead then come-from-behind victory over Carolina, a game that featured the drama over quarterback Derek Carr's injured pinkie in front of screaming, adoring fans, might be shocked to learn of the city's tenuous hold on its team.
The Raiders' hold on the city is beyond question. The reverse? Not so much.
If Green Bay is Ground Zero for a theory that an adoring public is enough to support an NFL franchise in this economic era, then Oakland is Ground Zero-1A. Both have magnificent histories.
The Packers, of course, are grandfathered in, a product of a long-ago era that allowed the franchise to flourish without worry about the whims of a rich owner. The Raiders don't have the rich owner but that's the only really significant difference.
Unfortunately, it's really, really significant today.
Let's get right to the point here. The Raiders belong in Oakland. They should stay there. And it's incumbent on Roger Goodell, the commissioner who made such a fetish about nonsense like the air pressure in a football, to make a bigger deal of this, and keep the team where it belongs.
And, while we're at it, to keep the Chargers in San Diego, too.
Yeah, Oakland does not have the bountiful corporate support of some other cities, or the casino cash of Las Vegas, but it surely has the emotions of a region and a legion of loyal fans. How many times have we heard the NFL poo-bahs tell us how important the fans were?
It's unfortunate that Goodell already is late to the party, although at least two influential family/owners -- the Rooneys in Pittsburgh and the Maras in New York -- will do all they can to nudge him and the league to keep the Raiders in the Bay Area. This deal should have been sealed when the San Francisco 49ers built their new home, Levi's Stadium, in Santa Clara, which was created with the idea it might someday house two teams.
Here's a little bit of geography for those who think moving to Santa Clara would take the Raiders too far away from their home.
Levi's Stadium is 48.8 miles from San Francisco City Hall.
Levi's Stadium is 39.3 miles from Oakland City Hall.
The NFL's California conundrum is now more than three decades old, since the Raiders first fled from Oakland to Los Angeles for the 1982 season, only to return in 1995. It is an issue that three commissioners have been unable to solve. It began in the reign of the late Pete Rozelle, dogged Paul Tagliabue until the day he retired -- and still does. California's voters on the Hall of Fame committee well may determine the fate of Tagliabue's candidacy for the Hall as a contributor when the selections are made in February, and they will weigh his failings in California.
Both Raiders owner Mark Davis and his late father, Al, who moved the team to Los Angeles in the '80s and back to Oakland in the '90s, have made real efforts to remain in Oakland. The simple fact is that corporate money is not there and city money is not there and there's still the matter of a huge civic debt for the 1995 renovation of the Oakland Coliseum when the team returned from LA.
At one time, the very thought of putting a franchise in Las Vegas would have scared off most NFL owners, but legal gambling is now so widespread throughout the country it's not the off-putting issue it once was.
What should concern the owners, however, is that Las Vegas is a transient city where the big money comes from the high rollers who fill the casinos, and that getting into bed with a casino operator like Sheldon Adelson, which Mark Davis is doing at the moment, is stupid. Yeah, the casinos can draw in football fans as an occasional diversion but do you think they really want them spending Sunday afternoons in a stadium or at the tables?
Let's face it. Las Vegas' interest is in filling the casinos, not the stadium. You can't support an NFL franchise with transients, and the local population is mostly lower-paid hotel workers and retirees, neither of which is a group with the deep pockets the league loves.
It would be idiotic for the NFL, just when the Raiders are again becoming a pertinent franchise, to allow them to flee.
So, what's the solution?
Glad you asked.
The NFL prints more money than anybody except the US treasury. If the league is serious about stability and the good of its teams and the fans, it ought to pony up enough to keep the Raiders in the Bay Area and broker a deal to have them share that Santa Clara stadium, imperfect as it is. It would be nuts to build another billion-dollar stadium in the Bay Area.
Goodell's decade-long reign as commissioner has been beset by missteps and notable largely for its greed. It's time -- past time, really -- for the league to eschew the short-term cash grab and do what's right for the long term.
--Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.