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Column: Raiders a factor whether we like it or not

Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden (20) carries the ball on a 70-yard touchdown run against the New York Jets during the second quarter of an NFL football game in Oakland, Calif. Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011. Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden (20) carries the ball on a 70-yard touchdown run against the New York Jets during the second quarter of an NFL football game in Oakland, Calif. Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
By Eddie Pells
AP National Writer / October 1, 2011

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They lead the league in penalties -- as sure a sign as any that all is well in the NFL after a summer full of trouble.

They lead their division in wins, too -- and love or hate the Silver and Black, it's hard to deny that the name "Oakland Raiders" at the top of the standings is a good thing for a league long known for rewarding copycats and conformists.

The Raiders have never been accused of being either, and for the last nine years, they have paid a heavy price for doing things "The Raiduh Way," as the owner, Al Davis, might say.

"Just Win Baby" and the "Commitment to Excellence" got buried somewhere in the rubble of seven straight double-digit-loss seasons.

The JaMarcus Russell experiment was a typically Raiders-like risk that crashed and burned.

Davis fired one coach (Lane Kiffin) and let his replacement (Tom Cable) go as well in a pair of unseemly episodes that made it seven coaches over 10 years.

But something funny happened while we were all laughing at -- or worse yet, ignoring -- the Raiders.

"Yes, I am getting a feeling I haven't gotten around here in a long time," said Tom Flores, the former coach, who works as a radio analyst for the Raiders and whose opinion is gilded with those two Super Bowl rings he won for the franchise in the 1980s.

Flores doesn't meddle, doesn't spend a lot of time in the inner sanctum. Not that he's welcome there, anyway.

What he observes, however, is what most people can see: That Davis still runs the show.

The 82-year-old owner, using a walker but sharp as ever, according to the ex-coach, remains obsessed with speed on the outside and size in the middle. He is returning to the wise theory that any solid football team has to be built from the inside out and pieced together via the draft.

A look at the record (2-1) along with the roster shows that the owner is hitting more than he misses these days.

Three of his front seven on defense were drafted, one was signed as an undrafted rookie and two more were acquired by trading mid-round picks. His offensive line was built in a similar way. Richard Seymour on defense and Cooper Carlisle on offense were the high-profile free agents brought in to add veteran leadership.

"I prefer not to go after someone else's dream or nightmare and try to rehabilitate them," Flores said. "We used to do that when we were really good. But when you're not, it can backfire and kill you. When we did it, it was one position, you get the guy, surround him with solid play. We got John Matuszak when he had nowhere else to go. We did the same with Lyle Alzado."

Now those were some Raiders.

The memories of other colorful characters and their exploits -- Stabler and the Holy Roller, Bilitnekoff and his Stickum, Allen and his reverse-the-field touchdown run -- are fading a bit more each year, becoming "just stories around the campfire," Flores said. There's been no reason to fear, let alone glorify, the Raiders of late.

Flores was around when Oakland was becoming the "Raiduhs" -- back in the 1960s, when the AFL was capturing America's fancy and the second game of the televised doubleheader more often than not featured Oakland against somebody. It brought the Raiders a good East Coast following; Flores figures they may have been more popular there than they were by the Bay, where the 49ers were the headliners.

"We'd get off the bus in New York City and these fans knew who you were," Flores said. "You'd walk around Oakland and they'd think you were a truck driver or something."

But nobody is mistaking Darren McFadden for a truck driver these days. Considered another potential bust of Davis' because of injuries that limited him in his first two seasons, McFadden is leading the league in rushing three weeks into his fourth.

Last week, he ran for 171 yards in a 34-24 win over the Jets that put the Raiders in a first-place tie with San Diego in the AFC West. Up next are the Patriots in the most meaningful matchup between the teams since the "Tuck Rule Game" back in 2002.

The Raiders go in with confidence -- something in short supply in Oakland for years now. After the punishing win over the Jets, McFadden said Oakland's new coach, Hue Jackson, "always tells us we're building a bully."

That's how they like to be known.

The franchise and its owner have a prewired compulsion for stirring things up, staring decades ago with friction over the AFL-NFL merger, the moves in and out of Los Angeles, the antitrust lawsuits. It's all punctuated by Davis' penchant for picking up misfits and players in need of a second chance. (Most recent example: Terrelle Pryor, the former Ohio State QB, who starts his NFL career by serving a five-game suspension.)

Just a few months ago, when the NFL labor situation was settled, the vote was 31-0 in favor of the deal. The Raiders abstained.

Now if their play on the field can keep captivating (some) people the way their reputation always has, it might be time to crank up the classic NFL Films bit once again.

"The Autumn Wind is a Raider," John Facenda's booming voice tells us. "Pillaging for fun."

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AP National Writer Eddie Pells can be reached at epells(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/epells

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