Last season ended for the Raiders on a frigid winter day in Buffalo, N.Y., a chill wind blowing in off Lake Erie, their hopes of a Super Bowl berth blown away in the second round of the playoffs in a 29-23 loss to the Bills.
This season begins thousands of miles away with an exhibition game against the Denver Broncos on a hot, humid summer day in Barcelona, a warm breeze blowing in from the Mediterranean Sea.
The question is, how far have the Raiders really come?
Not in miles, but in talent.
They were tantalizingly close to advancing further last season but lacked an effective running game and overall depth.
The Raiders have made a lot of changes in the off-season, so many that they look good enough on paper to be tabbed the favorites in the AFC West by many.
But the favorites in July are not always the winners in January. The real test begins today when the Raiders and Broncos kick off at 7 p.m. local time (10 a.m. PDT) at Montjuic Olympic Stadium.
This is the first of five preseason games for each team. So in the interest of saving some wear and tear on the older bodies and getting a good look at some of the younger ones, this game will not be anything near the two ferocious battles these clubs staged last January at the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs, no matter how much they say they hate each other.
Still, three questions, all crucial to the eventual fate of the ’94 Raiders, must be answered before the regular season.
Has their running game improved?
Do they have an effective middle linebacker?
Can their new defensive line work smoothly and effectively as a unit?
Although the Raiders will be without Greg Robinson, last year’s leading rusher, until at least midseason because of the lingering effects of knee surgery, they appear to have more than enough legs to carry them.
Two holdovers from last season, Ty Montgomery (tailback) and Napoleon McCallum (fullback), will join quarterback Jeff Hostetler tonight in the starting backfield.
Pushing Montgomery and McCallum will be two off-season acquisitions--running back Harvey Williams from the Kansas City Chiefs and fullback Tom Rathman from the San Francisco 49ers.
Also expected to play are rookie running back Calvin Jones from Nebraska and fullback Derrick Gainer, obtained in an off-season trade with the Dallas Cowboys.
Last year’s middle linebacker, Joe Kelly, was cut, largely because of salary-cap considerations.
In his place are second-year man Greg Biekert, who didn’t get any quality time at the position last season, and Rob Fredrickson, the team’s No. 1 draft choice, who is not only trying to jump from college to the pros, but from an outside linebacker spot into the middle.
Most teams that lost half their starting defensive line would be in trouble.
Not the Raiders.
The retirement of Howie Long and the release of Greg Townsend have opened up starting spots for Anthony Smith, who had a team-leading 12 1/2 sacks last season and 36 over the last three years, and Scott Davis, who unexpectedly ended a two-year retirement this summer.
Add the returning inside men--Chester McGlockton and Nolan Harrison--and the Raiders look as strong as ever if this foursome meshes as expected.
Other new faces to look for are Kevin Gogan, the new right guard obtained as a free agent from the Dallas Cowboys; Albert Lewis, the veteran defensive back obtained as a free agent from Kansas City, and veterans Jerry Ball (defensive line) and Jamie Williams (tight end).
The Raiders and Denver met three times last season with the Raiders winning all three, including a first-round playoff game.
That and the off-season battle for free-agent receiver Tim Brown, who wound up staying in silver and black, has left a lot of hostility between the teams.
But don’t expect to see much of that bad blood tonight. This time of the year, teams are more concerned with their own players than those of the opposing side.
“The regular season is the test,” Raider Coach Art Shell said. “This is just a quiz.”
Still, it would make the Raiders happy if they could start with all the right answers.