We call it Raider week, because that’s technically true, and this one means more than any Chiefs-Raiders game in perhaps 25 years.
But it can no longer be Raider Week, or RAIDER WEEK, or, if we can make a rated-PG hint about how the old players used to think of it, (Expletive) The (Expletive-ing) Raiders Week.
There was a time when Chiefs-Raiders was as close to a blood feud as professional sports allowed. They fought. They screamed. They punched. Al Davis, the Raiders’ legendary founder and longtime owner, ripped more phones out of more walls watching his teams play the Chiefs than anyone else.
There are college students who can’t remember the Raiders ever being good before now, but there was a time this was the NFL’s most intense rivalry.
“Hate is an interesting word,” said Chiefs Hall of Famer Willie Lanier, who’s seen more than most. “In sport and business and life, to be good, you must have someone you deem to be better than you. Your greatness, if that’s what you’re reaching for, has to be supported by an opponent that’s worthy of your best. That’s who the Raiders were for me.”
Lanier, the former linebacker, is cerebral, and those words are beautiful. But he knows there are times this rivalry has spilled beyond that stately border.
He played on the team that lost the division because Raiders end Ben Davidson speared Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson, which Otis Taylor took as an invitation to fight. The Chiefs took so many penalties that day that they could not win the game.
Another time, the Chiefs won at Los Angeles because Steve DeBerg fooled the Raiders into four offsides penalties on the final series. Yes, you could often count on the Raiders beating themselves with penalties. That was always coach Marty Schottenheimer’s plan, anyway.
The Raiders made themselves easy to hate, largely by design. Davis operated like an outlaw, his team’s logo the skull and crossbones. This has always been more than a facade. Earlier this year, the Raiders broke the NFL’s all-time record with 23 penalties in a game. And they won.
This is who the Raiders are. It probably will not surprise you to hear the Raiders are the NFL’s all-time most-penalized team. They’ve taken 5,806 penalties in the Super Bowl era. But the margin is even more astounding. That’s exactly 600 penalties more than the next-highest franchise (the Titans), and to put that in perspective, the Jets have 603 fewer penalties than the Titans and are the NFL’s 20th most-penalized team of all-time.
Jack Tatum, the safety known as The Assassin, played all but one of his professional seasons for the Raiders, because of course he did.
So, yes. Lots of people have hated the Raiders over the years, but perhaps none more than the Chiefs. And it’s possible the Raiders have never hated another franchise as much as they’ve hated the Chiefs.
Some of this is owing to the respective franchises’ DNA. Al Davis’ Raiders cursed and spit and hit until a second or two after the echo of the whistle. Lamar Hunt’s Chiefs wore sport coats to games, like they were headed to church, and always thought of themselves as gentlemen. Analogies to actual military combat are used far too much in sports, particularly football, but you could say this was something like a culture war at times.
“It was part of our brand to avoid penalties and those mistakes,” Lanier said. “That was a big part of what we did.”
The rivalry was strongest in the 1960s, and early 1970s. The two franchises had a head start in their mutual hate from the AFL days, and if you talk to a Chiefs player from those teams long enough, he will probably bring up the game in January 1970.
That was the AFC Championship. The Raiders had beaten the Chiefs twice already that season and showed up to the Oakland Coliseum with their luggage packed for Super Bowl IV.
But the Chiefs scored the final 17 points of a brutal game — the teams combined for 440 yards of offense and eight turnovers — and stuck around long enough to watch the Raiders players take their suitcases back home.
Like all good things, the rivalry faded. It had to. Between 1972 and 1985, the Raiders made the playoffs 11 times and won three Super Bowls. The Chiefs never made the playoffs during that period and went through five head coaches. One-sided rivalries don’t work.
For the players who could remember, that was hard to take. Lanier used to plead with his teammates to understand what Raiders games meant.
But back then, the fans remembered. Fans always remember. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the Chiefs had some rotten teams and there were days that only 12,000 or so showed up at Arrowhead. But when the Raiders were in town, the place would be full, or close to it.
Maybe it took an old AFL player to bring back the Chiefs-Raiders rivalry. Football coaches are bred to treat every game the same, but Schottenheimer never believed in that. The Raiders were different to him, and he made sure the Raiders were different to everyone who worked and cheered for the Chiefs.
“Raider Week” meant football as combat. Wives learned to leave their husbands be. Friends learned to wait a week to call. Dave Redding, the old Kansas City strength coach, used to wear a Raiders hat that week to make sure the players were properly angry.
“All Marty had to say was, ‘It’s Raider week,’” said Bob Moore, then the Chiefs’ public relations director. “Everybody got that. Everybody understood the message.”
There is some of that this week. The Raiders are 10-2, tied for the best record in the AFC. The Chiefs are 9-3, and with a win would take a season sweep of the Raiders and assume first place in the AFC West. It is a standalone game, in prime-time, and it’s no exaggeration to say this is the biggest game of either team’s season so far. The winner has a clear advantage toward a first-round bye and home playoff game. The loser will be working through wild-card scenarios.
Arrowhead would be shaking even if the opponent was the Chargers or Bengals or Dolphins. It will be shaking a little more because the Raiders will be here, because fans always remember.
Modern sports entertainment probably does not allow for players to have the same feelings as those that surrounded these games in the ’60s and ’70s and ’90s.
Raiders coach Jack Del Rio ticked off many within the Chiefs’ organization by using the word “gimmick” after the Chiefs won in Oakland earlier this year, but for the most part, there is respect among these teams’ players and executives.
Cornerback Sean Smith is in his first season with the Raiders but maintains strong friendships with his former Chiefs teammates, particularly the defensive backs. Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie and Chiefs GM John Dorsey worked together in Green Bay, and remain close.
This game will go a long way toward defining both team’s seasons, but afterward, the players will hug and trade jerseys. It probably can’t ever be like it was in the days of Lanier and Tatum and Al Davis, at least not among the players.
“When I’m done coaching I’ll tell you why I hate them so much,” Schottenheimer used to say about the Raiders.
He never did explain it in detail, and if we’re being honest, he never had to. Fans remember, though. They’ll feel it again Thursday night.