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KRYK: Raiders start over (again), this time at the Death Star in Vegas

Time-honoured tradition of punching fans in the gut

There’s an entrenched Raiders tradition — an inglorious one, but no less franchise-defining than all those that made cruel so cool back in the ’70s and ’80s.

And you remember those …

Unabashed, relentless rebellion. A bold offensive attack featuring strong-armed passers and speedster receivers. Rowdy fans in faux armor. Sportdom’s first nifty black uniforms. And a bravado that late owner Al Davis drenched the franchise in with his signature motto: “Just win, baby.”

The Raiders’ other time-honoured tradition? Punching their fans in the gut.

Because three times now in their history, just when the locals fell deep in love with them, the Raiders skipped town.

Happened in 1982 when the Oakland Raiders became the Los Angeles Raiders.

Happened in 1995 when the Los Angeles Raiders became the Oakland Raiders again.

And it happened this off-season. After three years of NFL-blessed planning, the Oakland Raiders are now the Las Vegas Raiders.

Their new home stadium? The Death Star. That’s what it’s being nicknamed. What better moniker for the NFL’s traditional Sith disturbers, right?

On Monday night, in front of exactly zero fans (because of the pandemic), the Las Vegas Raiders make their Nevada debut — playing for the first time at newly finished Allegiant Stadium, against the New Orleans Saints (8:15 p.m. EDT, TSN via ESPN).

Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said he isn’t even a Star Wars fan. But he likes the nickname the stadium has picked up prior to kickoff of Game 1. “Death Star,” of course, refers to the super-tech, moon-sized, moon-shaped space stations in the Star Wars movie canon, always armed with the ability to destroy a planet.

“I think it’s a cool name for our stadium,” Gruden told theLas Vegas Review-Journal. “I don’t give a damn about Star Wars. That’s what we’re calling our stadium, and I don’t care what anybody else thinks. It’s a cool stadium, it’s a great name and we just have to play (well) when we’re in there.”

Added Raiders tight end Darren Waller: “Looking at the stadium, it does kind of remind me of something where Darth Vader is going to come out of a door, or something like that.”

Davis probably was the closest thing to Darth Vader the NFL has ever had. With his slicked-back, black hair and take-no-crap Brooklyn attitude, Davis relished making work-day life miserable for league leaders. Pete Rozelle, the NFL’s commissioner from 1960-89, clashed almost constantly with Davis once the two of them helped orchestrate the NFL’s merger with the AFL, completed in 1970.

Now in Las Vegas.

The Raiders have had almost no success to speak of — at least none to brag about — since that 2002 Super Bowl season. Testament to that: They’ve played in only one playoff game over the past 17 seasons, a loss in January 2017.

It’s almost as if the franchise became crippled somehow by dealing Gruden away in 2002, as the almost constant success the franchise had enjoyed to that point evaporated. With it went the Raiders’ mystique and, eventually, most of the swagger.

Can Gruden, as a ‘chosen one’ of sorts (yes, anotherStar Wars reference), finally restore balance once and for all to the Raiders universe? By just winning, baby?

We’ll see. They’re not there yet. Maybe in a year or two.

Bigger picture, will the Raiders be a success in Vegas? There’s certainly ample excitement now in the desert.

But remember. After 40-plus years of Star Wars movies, we have come to learn that whenever a Death Star blows up, another, better one might already be in the works.

Note to self: Check back with the Raiders-in-Vegas experiment in 15-20 years.

JoKryk@postmedia.com

@JohnKryk

Davis, as an evil emperor, probably would have loved the Death Star nickname for Allegiant Stadium. He died in 2011 at age 82. His son, Mark, now is principal owner of the Raiders. He’s about as scary and rebellious as Caillou.

For most of last decade, son-of-Al kept trying to resurrect the club’s past glories — of John Madden, Kenny Stabler, Art Shell, Jack Tatum in the ’70s … of Tom Flores, Jim Plunkett, Marcus Allen, Howie Long in the ’80s — but to no avail.

This is Year 3 of Return of the Jedi. Er, Gruden.

In a way, the Raiders could not have a more apropos head coach in place for this transition than Gruden — a career vagabond who now will have coached for or against this vagabond franchise in three of its four incarnations.

Indeed, Gruden began his NFL coaching career in the early 1990s as an assistant in San Francisco and Green Bay, and in 1993 his Packers faced the Los Angeles Raiders.

After a turn as offensive coordinator in Philadelphia, from 1998-2001 Gruden had his first stint as an NFL head coach with the Oakland-based Raiders. Shockingly, Davis then traded him (yes, you can trade a head coach) to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

For Gruden, it was a stinging rebuke and betrayal, only made digestible by the fact in Year 1 he led the Bucs to their one and only Super Bowl championship by blowing out, yes, Al Davis’ Raiders.

The Bucs fired Gruden following the 2008 season. After nearly a decade in ESPN’s Monday Night Football booth as lead analyst, Gruden in 2018 returned to NFL head coaching. In Oakland.

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