After getting routed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII almost seven years ago, the Oakland Raiders walked off the field as the second-best team in the NFL.
Since then, only the historically awful Detroit Lions have lost as many games.
“Coming off the Super Bowl, no one ever thinks you’re not going right back,” said Nnamdi Asomugha, one of the NFL’s elite cornerbacks since the Raiders drafted him in the first round three months after that defeat. “For it to turn out the way it’s turned out, it’s a tough thing to swallow.”
The cover of the team’s media guide, emblazoned with “Team of the Decades” and the “Commitment to Excellence” motto of owner Al Davis, harks back to the glory seasons of one of the league’s most storied franchises. But since that defeat at the hands of Jon Gruden’s Bucs in the Super Bowl, the Raiders have been building a much different kind of legacy.
The losses have piled up - 80 of them in all - against just 28 wins. They have been over .500 only once at any time in the six-plus seasons since Asomugha arrived.
The Raiders (4-8) host the Washington Redskins on Sunday needing to win two of their final four games to finish with their best record since that 2002 Super Bowl season.
“It’s not something where you hang your head and think it’s never going to happen,” Asomugha said. “We’re always one of the more talented teams, so winning is not something that’s miles and miles away. We just need a little momentum kick, and I believe people will see what we can do.”
That little momentum kick might have just happened. The Raiders rallied late to stun AFC North-leading Cincinnati on Nov. 22. On Sunday, they got three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter from Bruce Gradkowski to shock defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh.
“I saw it coming for a couple of weeks,” said coach Tom Cable, who is 8-16 since moving up from offensive line coach in September 2008. “I thought we were getting closer. We just had some guys make some plays. It’s a little bit of everything: played better up front, played better at receiver, played better at quarterback. It’s kind of a collective deal. We’ve made quite a bit of progress, and hopefully we’ll continue to do so as we finish this year out and head to next year.”
The Raiders still rank 31st on offense and 29th on defense. Only Cleveland and Kansas City have comparably low rankings on both sides of the ball.
Asomugha, guard Cooper Carlisle, linebacker Kirk Morrison and the team’s four veteran defensive linemen are the only current regulars who have more than three years of NFL starting experience.
And whether Cable will be back next season is in question. Since Gruden’s exit after the 2001 season, no coach has survived into a third season for Davis, who at 80 is no longer the savvy legend who drafted fellow Hall of Famers Gene Upshaw, Art Shell and Howie Long.
Punter Shane Lechler and Asomugha are the only Pro Bowl players Davis has drafted this decade. Quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the top pick in 2007, has been such a bust that he lost his job last month to journeyman Gradkowski.
Jim Fassel, who led the New York Giants to Super Bowl XXXV after the 2000 season, and Stanford’s Jim Harbaugh, both former Raiders assistants, have been cited as possible successors. And Cable didn’t exactly receive a strong endorsement from his top player.
“Tom has done an adequate job,” Asomugha said. “He came in at midseason and had things stacked up against him, [but] he was able to win a couple of games. Guys are starting to feed into the things that he’s implementing. Guys respect him.”