If we're playing word association, and I tell you to close your eyes and envision what the words "Oakland Raiders" mean, chances are your answer today would be much different than in 2002.
Back then: Renegades, tough, maybe even evil. Winners.
Now: Sad-sacks, clumsy, a parody of their former selves. Losers.
The latter description explains why the Raiders are now on their sixth head coach since making it to Super Bowl XXXVII. And it also explains why the exuberant Hue Jackson sees the recognition of a need to return to the former description as vital to making sure that number -- six -- doesn't become seven anytime soon.
So Jackson, in this strange period of NFL limbo, is doing everything he can to embrace all the Raiders once were in an effort to make them all those things again.
"The Raiders are not about losing," Jackson told me after I mentioned how last season's 8-8 finish broke a seven-year streak with at least 11 losses. "I know what you said about the seven years, and this, that and the other, but that's not who we are. We've fallen short, there's no question. But those days are behind us. The old Raiders are back. We're going to win, and we expect to win."
But Jackson also realizes this: The Raiders can't continue to operate in a reality in which 8-8 is considered a breakthrough. And that's the reality this once proud franchise has been living for the better part of a decade.
So you don't even need to ask why Jackson has stocked his coaching staff with guys like Greg Biekert (linebackers), Steve Wisniewski (assistant offensive line) and Rod Woodson (secondary) to go with the already-present and legendary Willie Brown. Biekert and Wisniewski spent a combined 22 seasons in silver and black, while Woodson finished his Hall-of-Fame career in those colors, playing for the 2002 AFC champions.
Biekert was promoted to his current spot, while Wisniewski and Woodson were Jackson hires.
"As the head coach, I want them to understand there are so many great men that have played here -- I have three on my staff now," Jackson said. "There have been so many great men that have played there and coached there way before me, that have won a lot of games for Coach (Al) Davis, for the city of Oakland and for the Raiders.
"And I think our players have to understand that. And I think our coaches need to understand that. We're representing something that's special, and we need to take that responsibility on and get it done."
Despite the strides made last year, it won't be easy. The Raiders stand to lose Nnamdi Asomugha, Zach Miller, Michael Bush, Michael Huff and Robert Gallery in free agency, and have star rusher Kamerion Wimbley franchised. The issue at quarterback -- Jackson says he's happy with Jason Campbell as his starter, but that Bruce Gradkowski figures to push for time -- is less-than-settled for now, too.
But with the additions to the staff -- headlined by the return of defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan, who led the Super Bowl defense of 2002 -- Jackson's feeling is that his coaches will be flexible enough to build their systems around the players' talents. As he puts it, "the knack of this thing being a leader or a coach is you lead to serve. You serve by finding out what your people do well, and you let them do that."
Jackson believes it's just as important that the players who do remain got a glimpse last year of what real, tangible success looks and feels like. The Raiders ripped off three straight wins going into their bye, stayed in playoff contention until Christmas, and thrashed the division champion Chiefs in their finale. And when you've been through what this club has since 2002, all that means plenty. And that's why, when I asked if the players had their eyes opened last fall, Jackson couldn't answer quickly enough.
"Yeah, to winning. I mean, yeah, that they can win, and that they can play good, and that they play consistent," Jackson responded, almost coming out of his chair. "And we didn't do it good enough (last year). But yeah, I think guys' eyes are open -- wide open. Now we need to keep them open."
Another part of the challenge, outside of all those free agents, will be establishing all this without actual access to players thanks to the ongoing lockout. Jackson's retort is that his offensive system will remain the same, he retained John Fassel as special teams coach to maintain continuity there, and his own familiarity with new defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan (they worked together in Cincinnati) will allow him to ease any transition with the players in that department.
But the new head coach also acknowledges that losing offseason time isn't without detriment. His feeling is that the problem now is the team not seeing him as head coach, which will be a little different than what he has been as offensive coordinator. So in that sense, he waits to execute the plan.
"I'm gonna let my personality show through this football team, and this football team is going to let their personality show through me," Jackson explained. "We're gonna be a fiery, get-after-you, come-get-you football team. That's what we're going to do. That's what the Raiders are."
And even last year, with the marked improvement, Oakland still had ground to cover in that area.
Maybe some of the things the Raiders used to do are archaic and wouldn't work anymore. But the kind of swagger Jackson is talking about instilling still does. And it's part of the franchise's storied history that is, unlike the last eight years of ineptitude, worth embracing.