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February 17, 2018

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Analysis: For Oakland Raiders, there’s always next year — until there isn’t

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Ben Margot / Associated Press

Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) fumbles the ball into the end zone in front of Dallas Cowboys strong safety Jeff Heath (38) during the second half of an NFL football game in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017. The play was ruled a touchback, and the Cowboys got possession. The Cowboys won, 20-17.

OAKLAND — No. 4’s five fingers fumbled the ball 6 inches short of victory.

And after losing by three to the Cowboys on Sunday night, there are no two ways about it: this is one weird year for the Raiders.

Was it really just three months ago that Marshawn Lynch danced the fourth quarter away on the sidelines while the Raiders blew out the Jets, while Super Bowl hype swirled around the Coliseum like those late-night seagulls?

Since then, Raiders fans lived through the Lynch ejection and double untimed-down finish against the Chiefs, as well as the chain-snatch fight between Michael Crabtree and Aqib Tailb versus Denver. And those head-shakers preceded a fate previously known only to Steve Harvey and Warren Beatty — defeat by index card.

Pity the 55,000 who watched Derek Carr reach out to save a season gone sideways, only to have the ball bound through the end zone and effectively end 2017 with two games left. Precious few of those fans left before the end either, as Oakland’s fans continued to soak in every moment they can before the moving trucks break their hearts a second time.

The Silver-and-Black faithful created a hellacious environment despite a year of rejection and an influx of Cowboys fans. Give them immense credit for sticking it out throughout 12 consecutive months of heartache, starting on Christmas Eve 2016 when Carr’s broken leg submarined the best Raiders season since the Super Bowl loss in 2002.

This bizarro Raiders season started in earnest in March, when NFL owners approved Oakland’s move to Las Vegas in 2020. Team executives now spend half the season in The Town, the other half at Town Square. It’s a team with two identities, on and off the field.

Playing in California while building in Nevada, the Raiders alternated between outstanding and terrible football, often within the same game. Never mediocre -- excellent or awful.

All by itself, that makes 2017 flatly confusing for a franchise stocked with talent. Yet that just adds one more layer to peel back from a Raiders onion that makes fans cry for so many reasons.

Within the past week, the Raiders answered major questions about their future plans in Las Vegas while creating major questions about what kind of team will play here. Finishing the joint-use agreement and community benefits plan after months of negotiations constitutes a clear win, but this year’s Raiders again lost a game Sunday that last year’s cardiac kids seemingly would have won.

The holidays started after Black Friday for the Raiders, who first unwrapped Paxton Lynch and Geno Smith. It’s a Festivus miracle!

In hindsight, though, barely holding on by a touchdown in both wins likely foreshadowed. Kansas City played without Marcus Peters and Dallas arrived without Ezekiel Elliott — taking the most talented player on each team out of the path — and still Oakland rejected both gifts.

So despite the commitment of a new stadium tilting 2017 toward the win column for the franchise, Year 1 of the Oakland/Las Vegas experiment will finish no better than break-even on the overall ledger given the unfulfilled expectations on the field.

And Oakland fans head into another long winter, this one especially cold because a championship was supposed to salve the wounds of the move to Las Vegas. There’s always next year — until there isn’t.

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