SAN FRANCISCO -- Midway through an outdoor corridor in the back of an ultra-hip lounge across the Bay on Tuesday night, two powerful pillars of Oakland football converged: Marshawn Lynch, the Seattle Seahawks' star running back, who holds his hometownnear and dear to his heart, and Raiders owner Mark Davis, who may or may not be relocating to Los Angeles next season but nonetheless has the Black Hole abuzz.
After exchanging pleasantries with Lynch -- whose agent, Doug Hendrickson of Relativity Sports, was hosting a star-filled private fundraising event for California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom that featured a live acoustic performance by the band Train -- Davis paused to reflect on one of the 2015 season's more inspiring storylines: After 12 seasons of futility, the Raiders appear to be back on track.
With Oakland boasting a 4-3 record and some exciting young players, including the "AC/DC" combination of rookie receiver Amari Cooper and second-year pro Derek Carr at quarterback, there has been a surge of pent-up excitement from those who worship the Silver and Black. It should be on full display on Nov. 14, when the Raiders next play at O.co Coliseum, against the Minnesota Vikings, whose 5-2 start has been fueled by the strong play of their own sophomore signal-caller, Teddy Bridgewater.
"That should be a great game," Davis said, his voice rising with enthusiasm. "We love our guy [Carr, drafted 36th overall in 2014], and their guy [Bridgewater, selected four spots earlier] is good, too. It will be fun to see two young quarterbacks with so much potential getting after it."
As with his late father, legendary Pro Football Hall of Famer Al Davis, Mark and I have had our share of disagreements over the years, but he'll get no argument from me on that point.
For all of the unpleasant things that have happened in the NFL over the first half of the 2015 season -- from season-ending injuries to valiant veterans like Ravens pass rusher Terrell Suggs and his equally gritty teammate, wideout Steve Smith; to the benching of Colin Kaepernick less than three seasons after the dynamic young quarterback was 5 yards away from leading the 49ers to their sixth Super Bowl title; to the stunning regression of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, something no one (least of all myself) saw coming back in September -- watching promising young passers like Carr and Bridgewater burgeon into potential franchise quarterbacks is chicken soup for the grizzled columnist's soul.
Ah, yes, positivity is nourishing; at least, that's what I keep reminding myself as the nights grow longer and the days grow cold (or what passes for cold in Northern California). On that note, as we head into Week 9, the kinda/sorta midpoint of the 2015 season, here are nine things I love about the current NFL landscape:
1) Tom Brady's (and the Patriots') response to the deflated-ball scandal. After Brady prevailed in federal court a week before the Pats' regular-season opener, securing a ruling that nullified his league-mandated four-game suspension on procedural grounds, the future Hall of Fame quarterback smartly resisted the temptation to gloat. Instead, Brady released a reasonably contrite statement that sought to ramp down the rhetoric -- and he has since exhibited what may be an unprecedented level of focus and proficiency. At 38, Brady is having a stunningly successful campaign; he's the clear MVP frontrunner, and the Patriots are 7-0. Yet, in my eyes, his comportment has been equally impressive. Unlike in 2007, when, in the wake of a sideline-videotaping scandal, the Patriots rolled through an undefeated regular season exuding a blatant We Will Crush You vibe -- remember when Bill Belichick ran up the score on Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs? -- Brady and the Pats are simply concentrating on the task at hand and aren't wallowing in their triumphs. The Pats refrained from firing back at Mike Tomlin after the Steelers coach made comments about headset malfunctions following Pittsburgh's Kickoff Classic defeat in Foxborough. In October, Belichick and his players shrugged off any potential "revenge" overtones before and after their victory over the Colts, the team that instigated the deflated-ball investigation, aka PSI: New England. They seem to be trying to move past the scandal rather than taking out their wrath on the world. I know I've expressed a lot of strong opinions about the behavior of Brady and others implicated during the NFL's investigation over the last 10 months, and I'm not expecting a lot of hugs the next time I visit Gillette Stadium. However, I have immense respect for an organization that is blessed to have one of the best coaches of all time, one of the greatest quarterbacks in history and an owner, Robert Kraft, whose vision and ingenuity transformed a long-pathetic franchise into football's crown jewel.
2) Riverboat Ron. There have been some terrific coaching jobs through the first two months of 2015. Rookies Todd Bowles (Jets) and Dan Quinn (Falcons) have reinvigorated their respective franchises, displaying intelligence and composure on a daily basis. Reigning NFL Coach of the Year Bruce Arians is as awesome as ever, and I heart him in every way. Yet, the leading contender for this year's award, at this point, is the Panthers' Ron Rivera -- and it isn't even close. Carolina, which already lacked offensive weapons, lost top receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a torn ACL in the preseason. Cam Newton has been terrific, and Greg Olsen is a top-notch tight end, but a team trotting out the Panthers' personnel at the other skill positions has no business being in first place in its division, let alone 7-0. And Carolina, which lost top pass rusher Greg Hardy, has managed to harass opposing quarterbacks on a constant basis, largely because of Rivera's brainy philosophies and easily digestible teaching style. About the only thing Rivera hasn't done successfully over the past three seasons is get people to change his nickname to "Calculated-Risk-Taker Ron." Good luck with that, old college mate.
3) Mike Brown's patience. I've said some highly critical things about the Bengals' owner over the years, and plenty of people in Cincinnati have been justifiably frustrated with his leadership. He and Carson Palmer had beef, too. But you know what? Right now, I bow down to Brown for resisting the very understandable urge to blow up the Bengals' operation in the wake of a fourth consecutive playoff flameout last January. Sometimes, against all logic, the best course of action following an abysmal outcome is to do nothing. While most of us would have rashly concluded that, after four straight postseason stinkers, the Marvin Lewis/Andy Dalton Show had little chance of thriving in this lifetime, Brown prudently stayed the course. He correctly surmised that Dalton would make a major jump in his second season with innovative offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, and that the return of injured weapons A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert (each of whom missed the playoff defeat to the Colts last January) would make a massive difference. Now Lewis, in his 13th season, is smoothly guiding a 7-0 team that has displayed an appreciable amount of heart. Meanwhile Jackson, the leading contender for the Assistant Coach of the Year award, is already generating heat as a candidate to get a well-deserved second shot at an NFL head-coaching gig. And Dalton is playing and acting like a true franchise quarterback. Obviously, the Bengals will have to deliver in January (at least once) for this to be a legitimate success story. For now, however, Brown looks like the shrewdest man in the Cincy Jungle, and he might soon be the undisputed king of the Queen City.
4) The Vernon Davis trade. Just before this week's trading deadline, Broncos general manager John Elway made a bold push to acquire the Browns' perennial All-Pro left tackle, Joe Thomas, ultimately electing not to meet Cleveland's steep price. However, Elway had already pulled off a significant deal that should make the 7-0 Broncos even more potent in the second half of the season. I realize that we live in a fantasy-football-driven world, and that Davis, who caught 13 touchdown passes in 2013, put up lousy numbers during his final season-and-a-half with the 49ers. And I don't care, for a variety of reasons: First, I think his productivity will improve once he integrates himself into Gary Kubiak's offense in Denver, which showed major signs of progress in last Sunday night's thrashing of the previously undefeated Packers. Secondly, even if Davis doesn't fill up the stat sheet, his impact on the Broncos' reality will be significant. He's an accomplished and aggressive blocker whose skills at the point of attack will aid the Broncos' run game and free up other receivers for after-catch yardage. Given what Elway gave up to acquire him -- Denver swapped sixth-round picks in 2016 and 2017 for Davis and San Francisco's seventh-rounder next year, which is to say, he gave up nothing -- it's tough not to regard this as a steal. Admittedly, I tend to be a fan of GMs who go for broke, and I'm not always right; in retrospect, many would quarrel with my views on Indy GM Ryan Grigson's offseason approach. As for Elway, well, the same qualities that made me love him as a player are on full display as he quarterbacks the Broncos' football operation. Don't bet against the old gunslinger in this role, either.
5) Todd Gurley. Given the access I enjoyed in the St. Louis Rams' draft room last May, when coach Jeff Fisher took such great pains to conceal his obsession with the former Georgia running back that he placed Gurley's player card in a duplicitously low spot on the team's draft board, I'm not surprised that the rookie is tearing up the league. Still, the resounding suddenness of Gurley's emergence has been a bit jolting, in a joyous kind of way. Still recovering from last year's torn ACL, Gurley sat out the Rams' first two games, then ran for a mere 9 yards in his debut. He proceeded to gain 146, 159, 128 and 133 yards in his next four outings -- and Fisher says Gurley still isn't "100 percent." When Gurley reaches that stage, he won't merely lock up Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, he'll be a frightening cross between Eddie George and Chris Johnson, two elite runners from Fisher's coaching past. Look, Adrian Peterson is still the king, and Lynch is a force of nature. But it's not far-fetched to consider the possibility that, by year's end, Gurley will be a "Top-1" back.
6) Dan the Man. When the Titansfired Ken Whisenhunt earlier this week, they made a decidedly uninspired choice for interim head coach: Mike Mularkey, he of failed stints in Buffalo and Jacksonville. That's pretty typical when it comes to NFL coaching changes during the season -- which is part of the reason why the Dolphins' selection of Dan Campbell to replace Joe Philbin last month was so deliciously awesome. I don't know Campbell, but after reading Jeff Darlington's story on Miami's former tight ends coach, I totally want to know him. And I'd like to see more people emulate Dolphins executive vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum and think outside the box when it comes to considering head-coaching candidates, interim or otherwise.
7) The rise of the cornerback. From rules changes to promotional sensibilities, the NFL is geared toward facilitating and celebrating prolific passing attacks. And yet, against all odds, the single most impressive force of the first half of the 2015 season has been the Broncos' defense, keyed by a pair of terrific cover corners in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris. As proud members of the No Fly Zone, the former college teammates at the University of Kansas are part of an inspired renaissance at the sport's most competitively vulnerable position. Most fans are at least somewhat aware of the league's previously designated luminaries at the position (Darrelle Revis, Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, Joe Haden, Talib), but those paying closer attention would tell you that corners like Harris, the Dolphins' Brent Grimes (one of my personal favorites), the Panthers' Josh Norman, the Rams' Janoris Jenkins, the Falcons' Desmond Trufant and the Bengals' Adam (Pacman) Jones are flat-out balling.
8) Peyton Manning's persistence. For all of the future Hall of Fame quarterback's enviable qualities, he's not known as a gritty everyman who can grind out victories through sheer force of will. During most of his hugely successful career, Manning's been the guy who has full command of his offense and gets it to function like a finely tuned machine -- or, every once in awhile, who gets jolted out of his rhythm and has no answers. That's why I'm so captivated by what the 39-year-old quarterback has done while adjusting to Kubiak's offense. When I watched Manning struggle in the Broncos' season-opening victory over the Ravens, I wondered whether his performance was the understandable product of a tricky transition -- or if he'd simply gone into a steep and irrevocable decline. Four nights later in Kansas City, Manning threw a second-quarter pick-six against the Chiefs, and his career was declared over on Twitter. When he later directed an 80-yard drive in the waning moments of regulation, capped by a game-tying, 19-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders, I won't lie: I stood up and yelled at the TV. Yeah, I'm touched by the grit, and I don't want Manning to be done; I want him and Brady to keep going at it for as long as humanly possible. While the latter was tearing up the league in September and October, the former was hovering near the bottom of the NFL's passer rankings. And yet, the Broncos kept winning, and when Denver faced its biggest test -- against the Packers on the first night of November -- Manning threw for 340 in a 29-10 triumph. I'm not saying he'll do that every week, but it's nice to know that he can do it. And with the roster Elway has assembled, Manning can take solace in the knowledge that he doesn't have to be his old self every single Sunday.
9) The Raiders' revival. Yes, I recognize that it's early. As injured defensive lineman Justin Tuck (who also attended the exceptionally cool Newsom event Tuesday night at Forgery, where Joe Montana's daughter, Elizabeth, displayed grace under pressure as a bartender under siege), a two-time Super Bowl champion during his time with the Giants, wisely cautioned, the Raiders' 4-3 start "doesn't matter. We haven't done anything yet. In this league, you get crowned or killed in the media and by fans, etc., every week." He's right: It's easy to see the Raiders losing their next two games, to the Steelers and Vikings, to fall below .500. Then again, the rest of the way, they'd only face two more teams (Broncos, Packers) who currently have winning records. However you break it down, Oakland has a very legitimate shot at achieving its first winning season since 2002 -- when the Raiders rolled to an AFC title before getting pummeled by the Bucs in Super Bowl XXXVII -- and of ending its long playoff drought. The Raiders' roster is far from perfect, but these guys play hard and seem to possess better discipline and chemistry than in the past few seasons. Credit new coach Jack Del Rio and embattled general manager Reggie McKenzie, who somehow survived despite an 11-37 start to his Oakland tenure and some highly questionable decisions. (He's now 15-40, which has emboldened numerous Raiders fans to step to me -- and crack me up in the process -- via the mellifluous missives of social media. Bless them; we may not agree, but I'm excited that they're excited, so there's that ...) Davis, who stubbornly stuck with McKenzie, deserves praise as well. The Raiders are a long, long way from the glory days they enjoyed under Davis' dad, but they're nearly halfway home on the road to relevance, and that's not a terrible place to be.