I am a Las Vegas Raiders fan. I will love the Raiders always and forever, and not only because I live in Nevada. I love the Raiders because they are the most human — which is to say the most relatably broken — team in the NFL right now. They are no strangers to blowing big leads. They’ve made a lot of mistakes, including hiring Jon Gruden. But this season, they did their best to overcome all the misfortune that befell their team, to move on and get better, and somehow it worked out. As an alcoholic who is a little over five years sober, I feel that vibe. I have fucked up many times. I have faced adversity directly because of bad decisions I made. If this season turned out okay for the Raiders, maybe things can turn out okay for me, and for you too.
Last Sunday, in one of the most dramatic football games in recent memory, the Raiders beat the Los Angeles Chargers 35-32 in overtime, sending them to the postseason for the first time since 2016. The whole thing unfolded in totally chaotic fashion — a fittingly chaotic end to a chaotic regular season for the team with by far the most chaotic energy in the NFL. It was the Raiders’ fourth overtime win this season, for Christ’s sake. The game even looked like it might end in a rare tie, which would have been truly incredible, since both teams would have qualified for the playoffs in that scenario. But with two seconds left, the Raiders’ star kicker Daniel Carlson made a 47-yard field goal, clinching the win and securing the team a better seed in the playoff than a tie would have granted them. The team ended up with a 10-7 record, which obscured their topsy-turvy path: They began 3-0, fell to 6-7, and ended on a four-game winning streak.
If you’re a regular consumer of sports media, you probably know that the word “adversity” is often used to describe the type of season the Raiders endured. Star tight end Darren Waller, one of the best in the NFL, missed five games due to a knee injury. Richie Incognito, the team’s best offensive lineman (and likely the worst person still on their roster), didn’t play all season due to various injuries. And running back Kenyan Drake suffered a season-ending injury during the Raiders’ loss to the Washington Football Team on December 5.
Much of the team’s adversity was of the self-inflicted variety. But for anyone who has struggled with addiction, making the decision to get sober means taking responsibility for the worst parts of yourself while understanding that they don’t define who you are — and believing that after you make some changes (and go to a lot of therapy), you can evolve into someone who is better, who you actually like, who is more fundamentally you. Which is kind of what the Raiders did this year.
To be clear, members of the Raiders organization did some truly heinous stuff — far too heinous for the average fuckup to find relatable. In October, longtime head coach Jon Gruden was ousted after racist, misogynistic, and homophobic emails he wrote a decade ago became public. The team cut Damon Arnette, one of their 2020 first-round picks, after a video he recorded in which he brandished a gun and made death threats became public. Rookie cornerback Nate Hobbs was charged with a DUI. He remains on the team. Most horrifically, wide receiver Henry Ruggs III, another one of their 2020 first-round picks, crashed into a RAV4 while driving drunk and going over 150 mph, killing the other driver and her dog. (He was immediately cut from the team and faces criminal charges.)
Rooting for a sports team often involves acknowledging the egregious behavior of individuals while focusing on the better angels of an organization. And the way the remaining Raiders and their coaching staff were able to stick together, start afresh, and have their best season in years in spite of everything has been oddly inspirational.
There were plenty of individual bright spots amid the darkness. Defensive end Maxx Crosby had a fantastic year, making it to the all-star game for the first time. Crosby himself is no stranger to adversity (there’s that word again). “I was in rehab almost, like, two years ago, and now I’m in the Pro Bowl,” he said in December. “It’s just a blessing, man. I show up and I try to be the best teammate … I’m crying like a baby because I just know I’ve worked so hard and it’s starting to pay off.”
Both Crosby and Darren Waller have been outspoken about their issues with substance abuse and their paths to getting sober. ESPN described Crosby as the “the spiritual leader of a reimagined and much-improved” Raiders’ defense. “What [Crosby’s] teaching people to do is look beyond the numbers,” interim head coach Rich Bisaccia said. “Look at the relentless effort that the guy plays with every game and look at the relentless effort that he puts into practice.” Crosby and Waller’s openness about their sobriety and commitment to helping other people both inside and outside of the Raiders organization, per Bisaccia, has been integral to keeping the team afloat.
The Raiders also serve as a good reminder that a win is a win, no matter how unconvincing. (Six of their victories this season were decided by two to four points.) “I think it’s funny how we’re winning games,” quarterback Derek Carr said after the team’s surprise win against the Colts on January 2. “We’re turning the ball over. Sometimes we don’t get a first down … All this adversity, and yet we still find a way to win.” (Adversity alert!)
The team has a very low chance of making it to the Super Bowl (ESPN says it’s about 2 percent), and oddsmakers predict the Bengals will defeat them on Saturday in the first round of the playoffs. I’m hoping for the best — after all, the NFL has been full of surprises this season, and the Chargers were supposed to win Sunday’s game, etc. But I also know that it’s best to take things a day at a time, and that simply by making it to the playoffs, the Raiders have already exceeded expectations.
During Sunday’s postgame press conference, Carr expressed a healthy attitude about the team’s postseason hopes. “If you said you thought we were going to do this, I’m gonna kick you. No one thought that,” he said, noting that their work has only just begun. “[But] the worldly things you can accomplish don’t fulfill your heart. I’ve been waiting eight years to make the playoffs … and I made it and it didn’t fulfill me … It didn’t do anything for my heart that gave me hope or anything like that. It was a cool accomplishment.”
A cool accomplishment. No matter how many times you’ve messed up before, that’s an achievable goal for everyone. Go Raiders.