Oh, how the tides turn

Struggling Raiders can't catch a break

Seventeen weeks of misery ends today for the Oakland Raiders, once-proud champions of the AFC reduced to dreary also-rans this season.

The franchise of pride and poise was removed from the playoff picture long ago, drowned in a sea of a dozen players on injured reserve and intramural sniping between players and coaches that doomed its chances.

“We’ve got to be the dumbest team in America in terms of playing the game,” coach Bill Callahan raged after one galling loss. “I’m highly critical because of the way we give games away — we give ’em away! Period. It’s embarrassing, and I represent that. And I apologize for that.

“If that’s the best we can do, it’s a sad product.”

One of Callahan’s critics was four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson, who called the coach stubborn and said he had lost control of the team.

By season’s end, perhaps worn out by all the losing, Woodson was less combative.

“Injuries are always a big part of it,” he said. “We just didn’t get it done as a team. I won’t just pinpoint one aspect or one thing. We just didn’t get it done. We have nobody else to blame but ourselves for that.”

This is nothing new. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who beat Oakland in the Super Bowl, had their own troubles in a sub-par season. For the fifth straight year, the Super Bowl will match two teams who were not there the year before.

That’s very different from a decade ago when the Buffalo Bills made it four straight times. Bill Polian, now president of the Indianapolis Colts, was general manager of those Bills. He’s not surprised at the troubles of the Raiders and the constant turnover of Super Bowl teams.

“This is a completely different era,” Polian said. “Now, when you go, your team is effectively riddled by defections or near-defections. Players think they’ll get the moon in free agency. Some do. Some don’t. It creates a lack of focus.”

Two Super Bowl MVP cornerbacks are good examples of Polian’s premise.

Playing for Dallas, Larry Brown made two big interceptions against Pittsburgh in the 1996 Super Bowl.

He cashed in with a $12.5 million free agent contract with the Raiders but was released after two disappointing seasons.

Dexter Jackson was the Super Bowl MVP for Tampa Bay last January and then fled to Arizona for $13 million, going from the NFL champions to a team that has won one playoff game in the last 57 years and won’t be adding to that total anytime soon.

Then there is the matter of time.

Super Bowl teams don’t finish their season until well after they return home. By then, they’re playing catch-up.

“Administratively, you’re very far behind,” Polian said. “Teams that are not in the playoffs have a six-week headstart.”

And then there is the matter of loyalty.

“When you go to the Super Bowl, it’s a long emotional journey with a lot of guys you like who performed well,” Polian said. “It’s hard to let them go, to make the hard decisions that second guessers say you ought to make. You love them. It’s human nature to not let them go.”

That’s a recipe for trouble.

Callahan knew the issues Oakland faced going into this season.

“Coming off a Super Bowl appearance and coming into a year where the expectations are extremely high, (you) have the expectation of going back and repeating,” he said. “That was very tough to duplicate for us this year, predicated on the things that have transpired.”