A little more than five years ago, Raiders owner Mark Davis and I met for lunch. Yes, it was at P.F. Chang’s in Walnut Creek. During the free-flowing, wide-ranging conversation, Davis outlined where he wanted his team to be football-wise in the coming years.
At the time, Davis had just fired head coach Hue Jackson and hired general manager Reggie McKenzie in his first year as the Raiders owner. His father had passed away the previous year and left the team to Mark, who was learning on the fly about the nuances of running an NFL team.
Also, the 49ers were red hot under the guidance of coach Jim Harbaugh, who Al Davis had attempted to hire before Harbaugh was hired by the Raiders cross-bay rivals, and the Dennis Allen-led Raiders were putting the finishing touches on a 4-12 campaign.
Mark Davis wanted to break down his roster, something his father loved doing on a daily basis. So, I opened with a proclamation that I thought might make Davis angry.
“Mark, I don’t think there’s a player on the Raiders defense that can start for the 49ers,” I said.
“Why stop there?” Davis replied, without hesitating. “We don’t have anyone that could start for the 49ers, including the kicker and punter.”
At that point, we went over the starting lineups, just to make sure. Darn if we both weren’t correct.
As the conversation continued, I asked Mark what his vision was, how long he expected it to take for the Raiders to be at the point he wanted.
Again, he had an answer at the ready.
“I want to be one of the teams playing in the Super Bowl when it is played at Levi’s Stadium,” Davis said. “Wouldn’t that be something?”
In retrospect, the Raiders came close to meeting that timeline. The game was played Feb. 7, 2016, and the Raiders were considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender later that calendar year until quarterback Derek Carr suffered a broken leg on Christmas Eve.
The Raiders lost the regular-season finale, which cost them the AFC West title and a first-round bye. Not that it mattered with Carr sidelined. Their season ended with a lopsided loss to the Houston Texans in a wildcard game.
As a result of the way last season played out, the Raiders became the sexy pick as the team to unseat the New England Patriots this season as the AFC’s top team. In fact, there was a widespread belief that the Raiders would have beaten the Patriots in the playoffs last season if Carr had remained healthy.
That’s for another discussion. Instead of being an injury to Carr away from challenging the Patriots for AFC supremacy, Davis surmised that the Raiders were a head coach away from a Super Bowl.
In Jon Gruden, Davis now has the coach he has always wanted in charge of his team. He never warmed to Allen, whom McKenzie hired. Tony Sparano was a stopgap as the interim coach after Allen was fired early in his third season. Jack Del Rio got the Raiders back on track, but he became an afterthought once Gruden agreed to come out of retirement after nine years away from the sideline.
Davis’ work is done on the football side. He has full confidence in Gruden and now can turn his focus toward the team’s pending move to Las Vegas. You can bet Davis would like nothing better than to finally win the Super Bowl he envisioned winning two years ago in his team’s first season in Las Vegas.
The Raiders haven’t played in Levi’s Stadium since it opened. That will change next season, as the Raiders head south for a game against the 49ers.
Davis no doubt will be breaking down his team’s roster, counting the number of players who could start for the 49ers. Suffice, it will be more than it was five years ago and the Raiders are much closer to a Super Bowl than they were at that time.