OAKLAND – When Tyvon Branch picked up a loose ball and sprinted toward the end zone for the clinching score, seven years of frustration for the Oakland Raiders against the San Diego Chargers came to an end.
Having snapped their 13-game losing streak against the AFC West rivals, the Raiders face an even taller task: reversing a run of seven straight losing seasons.
Ever since taking over the head coaching job from Lane Kiffin early in the 2008 season, coach Tom Cable has talked about the need to change the mentality around a team that had grown too used to losing during a record-setting run of ineptitude.
The Raiders (2-3) are showing signs of accomplishing that with a lack of off-field turmoil and improved play on the field as evidenced by the win over the Chargers. But even the ever-optimistic Cable said he believes the team has much more to do to reach its goal of returning to the playoffs.
“We still have too many things to work on to just jump up and down and think everything is great,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do. But that’s a good problem because you want to always keep getting better and better and we have plenty to work on.”
Among the problems to be fixed is an offensive line that has struggled in pass protection, leading to injuries to the top two quarterbacks already this season.
The young wide receivers led by second-year players Darrius Heyward-Bey and Louis Murphy are still far too inconsistent with drops and long periods of time when they seem unable to get open.
The defense is coming off one of its worst two-game stretches in years, allowing 249 yards on the ground in a loss to Houston two weeks ago and 415 in the air last week to San Diego. The 947 yards allowed are the most in a two-game span in six years.
But the Raiders scored nine points off a pair of blocked punts, got a late go-ahead touchdown from Michael Bush and won the game when Branch returned Philip Rivers’ fumble just when it looked like the Chargers were in position for the winning score.
Now they head into their showdown against the winless San Francisco 49ers as the more stable Bay Area franchise for a change.
“Confidence comes from winning games,” Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said. “You can have a little bit more of that after beating the Chargers. I think it will help us a lot in this game.”
Asomugha is one of a handful of players who has been around for the entirety of a run during which the Raiders became the first team in NFL history to lose at least 11 games in seven straight seasons. He was a rookie when that streak started so he never has experienced the success that was much more commonplace during owner Al Davis’ first four decades with the franchise.
The only players left from a run of three straight division titles are kicker Sebastian Janikowski and punter Shane Lechler. After going 33-15 from 2000-02, playing in two AFC title games and reaching the Super Bowl following the 2002 season, the Raiders have a record of 31-86 since the start of the 2003 season.
“It’s just a whole different time right now,” Lechler said. “At that point in time in 2001, 2002, we were at where we’re trying to get to that right now, where, no matter what, every Sunday, we went out expecting to win. It was kind of a given then. That’s what we’re trying to get to now.”
A win at San Francisco would be a big step, considering Oakland hasn’t won back-to-back games since the end of 2008.
There have been early season victories in recent years that were supposed to portend better times ahead, like one last October against Philadelphia, that instead were followed with debacles.
“We just lived on that high and then didn’t come out the next week and play to the intensity that we’re supposed to,” Murphy said of the team’s lack of back-to-back wins.
The Raiders believe they have settled that problem now, even though they followed up the win in the home opener against St. Louis with a 24-23 loss at Arizona when Janikowski missed a 32-yard field goal on the final play.
After getting down big to Houston the following week, the Raiders rallied and were in position to tie the game late before Bruce Gradkowski threw an interception. Then last week, Oakland lost Gradkowski to a shoulder injury and then had former starter Jason Campbell rally the team to a victory.
Those two games showed that instead of wallowing after mistakes, the Raiders are responding.
“The accountability has gotten where it needs to be now,” Cable said. “It’s not a matter of how we did this or what we called. It’s on all of us and we recognize that. We take responsibility for it now.
That’s really, really huge for us, because it’s the first time in the four years I’ve been here where guys man up and say, ‘Hey, that’s on me.’ So that’s a good thing. The next step is you can’t let it happen.”
The Raiders’ fans are still skeptical if the lackluster attendance at the Coliseum is any indication. Oakland has had 10 straight home games blacked out since last year’s season opener and drew only 32,218 two weeks ago against Houston—the smallest non-replacement player crowd for the Raiders since 1967 and the smallest in the league in six seasons.
With a run-down stadium they are hoping to renovate, a long stretch of losing and a struggling economy that has hit parts of the Bay Area hard, attendance is a problem in Oakland.
“I was down there with fans and there’s no shortage for passion here, that’s for sure,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said at halftime of the Chargers game. “We just need to get more fans and get more fans in the stadium. That’s something we’re being challenged with throughout the country but clearly it’s an issue here.”
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