Few people would disagree that the Oakland Coliseum is not up to today’s standards for an NFL stadium.
It is the last NFL venue that still has a baseball diamond on the field in September and October. The concourses are cramped, the locker rooms are tiny and dingy, and the medical facilities are three flights of stairs up from the field. Las Vegas threw $750 million in public funds at the Raiders to build a shiny new stadium, and no one blames the Raiders for taking it.
It still doesn’t make Sunday’s Raiders-Jaguars game, the final game to be played at the Coliseum, any less emotional. “It’s definitely the end of an era,” Bill Belichick said Friday. “We’ll miss it.”
The NFL is losing one of its most unique environments with the Raiders leaving Oakland and their stadium, now named RingCentral Coliseum, after this season. Opened in 1966, the Coliseum is the third-oldest regular venue in the NFL, behind Lambeau Field and Soldier Field. The Raiders played there from 1966-81 before moving to Los Angeles, and again from 1995-2019 after moving back from LA.
The Raiders will move into a sparkling palace in Vegas next year, replete with luxury suites and plenty of modern amenities for the tourists and hoi polloi. And they will leave behind a distinctive fan base in Oakland — particularly the “Black Hole” in the southern end zone — and one of the few stadiums left that has any character.
“It’s a great setting for football,” said Richie Incognito, a 13-year NFL veteran who is in his first year with the Raiders. “You come out of the locker room and you go down the stairs, it feels like you’re down in the basement, it’s all wet and muddy. Then you pop out and there’s the field and all the fans and all the black. It’s awesome, man. The sun is usually shining and it’s a great atmosphere for football. They pack that place, and it’s like a party.”
Everything about the Oakland Raiders experience is unique in today’s NFL. They have the league’s most blue-collar and diverse fan base. The parking lots can get pretty rowdy, and they were filled with clouds of marijuana smoke, long before it was legalized in California.
“It’s just a different vibe and a different crowd than you see anywhere else, and that’s the part that’s going to be missed,” said Jerry McDonald, Raiders beat writer for the Bay Area News Group since 1995. “A lot of those fans don’t have a ton of money and aren’t the people that would spend the money on seat licenses and stuff. The Raiders are the most affordable ticket in the NFL, and they’re going to lose that.
“And I know [the Raiders] probably don’t care. They’re going to make more money and have better luxury boxes and better revenue streams. But the special part of this place is the fan base, and they really get a bad rap in a lot of ways because of the way they look and dress.”
The “Black Hole,” where fans paint their faces and drape themselves with spikes, chains, and skulls, is one of the most notorious fan sections in the NFL. “Pretty intense fans. It’s like Halloween every Sunday there,” Belichick quipped. “We kind of warmed up down there. Not really where you want to be as a visiting coach. [Had to] tell players not to stand too close to me in case they throw something and miss.”
Incognito remembers playing in Oakland in 2016 when he was with the Bills, and scoring a touchdown in front of the Black Hole. “I went to go celebrate with [LeSean] McCoy, and they were throwing water bottles, beer bottles, they were throwing everything at us,” Incognito said. “Definitely a hostile environment when you come in, but a really cool place. You want to play in places like this in the NFL on the road.”
And it wasn’t just the visiting fans who heard it from the crowd. “Quarterbacks took a lot heat here. No one could ever be Ken Stabler or Jim Plunkett,” McDonald said. “I remember Kerry Collins putting his hands up and urging fans, ‘Go ahead, boo louder.’ ”
Of course, the brash fan behavior isn’t limited to the Black Hole.
“Players used to joke on the bus, there would be over/unders on how many grade school kids would flip off the bus,” said Dr. David Chao, formerly the Chargers’ team doctor for 17 seasons. “And there would be contests of who could spot the youngest kids. And it was pretty routine — you’d have 5-year-olds flipping off the bus.”
Of course, there’s a reason the NFL is moving on from the Coliseum. Players generally hated playing on the baseball diamond, which feels like “sandpaper” when players hit the ground, Incognito said. And the X-ray room was three flights of stairs above the field and two flights above the locker room. In 1998, Chargers offensive lineman Vaughn Parker broke his leg, and getting him up to the X-ray room was not easy.
“You have to go up a ramp to get to ground level, because the field is below ground, and then drive around the outside of the stadium to get the X-ray,” Chao said. “He’s in his uniform, I’m in Charger gear, and we’re in the parking lot during the game, and of course all the fans are still drinking out there. There was no security risk, but it could’ve been.”
Oakland fans didn’t see much good football — just four winning seasons (all playoff appearances) in the last 25 years. And the place is, by today’s standards, a dump.
But the NFL is losing a little piece of its soul by abandoning the Coliseum. “It’s the end of an era of the old stadiums,” Incognito said. “It hasn’t felt like a farewell tour, but I think all of that is really going to come out this Sunday. It’s a hot ticket in town. A lot of people are going, it will be a fun, great atmosphere, and we’re going to give them a win.”
YOU CAN COUNT ON ME
Edelman’s drops don’t tell full story
A receiver has one primary job: catch the football. Sifting through the STATS, LLC database for drop statistics for this year, a few numbers stand out:
■ Julian Edelman leads the NFL in drops this year with eight. Vikings running back Dalvin Cook is second with seven, and Bears running back Tarik Cohen, Bills tight end Dawson Knox, Panthers wide receiver Curtis Samuel, and 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel are next with six.
But it’s not like Edelman is having a bad season, or is dropping the ball more than usual. Edelman’s eight drops have come in 135 targets, which are the second-most in the NFL. Cook, by comparison, has seven drops in just 60 targets. Knox’s six drops have come in just 45 targets.
Edelman, dealing with a shoulder injury for much of this season, also had a league-high eight drops last year, in 108 targets. In 2016, Edelman had five drops in 159 targets. And in 2015, he had eight drops in just 88 targets. Drops are never ideal, but Edelman has more than made up for it with his 90 catches, third-most in the league, and 1,010 yards, eighth-most.
■ On the other end are 28 players in the zero-drop club (minimum 39 targets, or three per game). Among the most impressive are Buccaneers receiver Chris Godwin, who has 113 targets, 81 catches, and 1,212 yards; Falcons receiver Julio Jones, who has 109 targets, 69 catches, and 1,016 yards; and Rams receiver Robert Woods (107 targets) and Jaguars receiver DJ Chark (106 targets). Also in the zero-drop club are James White (83 targets), Mohamed Sanu (71 targets), and Phillip Dorsett (50 targets).
■ And the stats being produced by Saints receiver Michael Thomas this year are nothing short of incredible. He leads the NFL with 147 targets, and his 121 catches are 28 more than anyone else. That means he has caught 82.3 percent of passes thrown his way, by far the highest rate of any wide receiver and an astonishing number considering the high volume of passes thrown his way.
Thomas has dropped just three of his 147 targets, and his 1,424 receiving yards are 212 more than the next receiver (Godwin). Thomas averages 9.3 catches per game and is on pace to finish the season with 149, which would break Marvin Harrison’s record of 143.
Brady, Brees will eclipse Manning
A few Patriots-related notes:
■ Peyton Manning probably won’t be the NFL’s all-time touchdown pass leader (539) for much longer, as Drew Brees (537) and Tom Brady (536) are right on his heels.
Interestingly, Brees pulled back ahead of Brady in the race despite missing five games this season with a thumb injury. Since the start of Week 3, Brees has 15 touchdowns in six games. Brady has 14 touchdown passes in 11 games in the same time span.
■ Meanwhile, Brady doesn’t seem thrilled that his bumps and bruises keep popping up on the Patriots’ injury report. Brady was listed with a toe injury two weeks ago before the game against the Chiefs, and he said with a hint of sarcasm on Dec. 5 on Westwood One Radio, “That might be the first time my toe’s ever been on the injury report. You know us Patriots. We’re pretty diligent about listing everything, so I guess we have to make mention of my toe now, as well.”
In the same interview, he was asked about his right elbow, which has been on the injury report the last few weeks. “Isn’t there some HIPAA violation or something like that, when I start talking about all my injuries?” he quipped.
And last Sunday night after the Chiefs game, he was asked again about the elbow. “It’s fine. It’ll probably be on the injury report, but I’ll be there next Sunday,” he said.
Staying healthy and avoiding injuries is the primary tenet of the TB12 business, and Brady doesn’t seem thrilled that the Patriots keep telling the world about all of his little dings.
■ The Chiefs’ win ended the Patriots’ 21-game home win streak, and they did it with a quarterback who thought he broke his hand, and a pass rusher who lost 12 pounds and went to the hospital because of the flu.
X-rays were negative on Patrick Mahomes’s hand after the game, but the swelling was bad, and he wasn’t able to throw a football again until Wednesday. “Definitely was a little scary after the game when it was a little bit bruised and the swelling and stuff like that,” Mahomes told reporters in Kansas City.
And Frank Clark, who had a sack, two tackles for loss, and dominated left tackle Isaiah Wynn for much of the game, not only felt like “[expletive]” during the game after battling the flu, he still wasn’t better this past week, and had to see a stomach specialist as the Chiefs prepared to face the Broncos.
Salary cap again will be on the rise
A few newsworthy items emerged from the NFL owners’ quarterly meetings in Dallas this past week.
■ The salary cap for 2020 will be between $196.8 million and $201.2 million, up from $188.2 million this year. It will mark the seventh straight year that the salary cap will increase by about $10 million. The Patriots currently have $189 million in cap commitments for next year, but they will likely shave at least $20 million-$30 million of that in player releases and restructures.
■ Roger Goodell said the NFL has “still not completed the investigation” into Antonio Brown. Brown certainly hasn’t helped himself with his monthly Twitter meltdowns. But Brown has met with investigators, and the league could have come out with a decision by now. It makes me question whether Brown is getting blackballed by the owners, who know that Brown is probably going to win $10 million in grievances from the Patriots next spring, and don’t want to see him double-dipping this year.
■ Director of officiating Al Riveron has increased his reversals of pass interference calls of late. From Weeks 1-10, only 10 of 65 reviews (challenges and automatic reviews) were reversed (15.4 percent). From Weeks 11-14, Riveron reversed 10 of 22 PI reviews (45.4 percent).
■ On Friday, two days after the meetings concluded, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said on 105.3 The Fan that “I think that you should expect and will expect an adjustment” of the NFL’s marijuana policy. Most likely it comes in the new CBA, which is set to expire after the 2020 season.
History will be made Sunday night in Pittsburgh when Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, Steelers running back Trey Edmunds, and Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds all take the field. Per the Bills, it will be the first time that three brothers will play in the same game since the 1927 Duluth Eskimos had Joe, Cobb, and Bill Rooney . . . Shortly after the Chiefs’ win over the Patriots last Sunday, Chiefs owner Clark Hunt was pushing hard for his offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy, to get a head-coaching job this offseason. “Eric Bieniemy is a fantastic coach,” Hunt said in the middle of the visitors’ locker room at Gillette Stadium. “I think he’d make an incredible head coach. If it’s not this year, it’s a matter of when, because it’s going to happen. He’s somebody who I think is a great leader of men who will make a great head coach.” . . . With the weather forecast calling for a high of 18 degrees Sunday in Green Bay, the Packers will provide free hot chocolate and hot cider for fans willing to brave the cold for Packers-Bears . . . Eli Manning will get another start on Sunday against Miami, and could really use a win. The loss to the Eagles last week dropped his record under .500 for the first time in his career (116-117). Manning has gone 8-25 as a starter the last three years, and 31-51 over his last six . . . Fun story line in the Cardinals-Browns game on Sunday in Arizona. The game will feature the last two No. 1 draft picks, the last two Heisman Trophy winners, and the last two Oklahoma quarterbacks — Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield . . . Prayers out to two former Patriots dealing with serious medical issues. Nate Solder, the Giants’ nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, made a heartbreaking announcement that his 4-year-old son, Hudson, recently underwent surgery to remove a tumor and is undergoing his third round of chemotherapy. And cornerback Cyrus Jones, now with the Broncos, reportedly had open-heart surgery this past week after being diagnosed with an anomalous coronary artery, a congenital heart defect. Jones is expected to recover in about three months. They are two sobering reminders that football players are real people who face real problems.