Saturday, March 01, 2008

Al Davis & the Raiders

“One unsubstantiated story is meaningless, but put them all together and it’s true!” – Stephen Colbert

I’m not buying into the Davis/Kiffin story as it’s been told in the media. There has been absolutely nothing to provide substance, and the story is only advanced by the winks and nods of approving dittoheads caught up in the Jim Rome mentality of the modern sports media. If you can’t be so offensive as to convince someone to physically assault you, what you have to say doesn’t matter. But this is a commentary on Al Davis, not the media.


First, let’s get my biases out of the way so you’ll understand my philosophical location. I’ve been a staunch Raider fan since the late 1960s. When I moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s, the Raiders followed me there. When I returned to the Bay Area in the early 1990s, the Raiders followed me home. I’ve often said that no team owner has shown so much devotion to one fan.

In those forty years I’ve come to understand a few things. It is not that Al Davis exists because of the Raiders, the Raiders exist because of Al Davis. I’ve come to understand, also, that I have more great football memories that any one football fan is entitled to. Al Davis is the man most responsible for those memories, and that buys more loyalty from me than a 19-61 run can take away. As far as I’m concerned, Al Davis has earned the right to do anything with his team that he wants. It is his, more than it belongs to the Raider Nation. He has done me the honor of renting, or lending the team to me on lazy autumn Sundays for forty years. I am obligated to return it when I’m finished with it.

It is not enough to say that the Raiders exist because of Al Davis. They are intertwined. It is impossible to imagine one without the other. And yet, that must eventually be so. Either that or the Raiders must fold shop when Davis is gone. I have watched Al Davis long enough to know that he believes that as long as the Raiders exist, Davis will be immortal.

That said…

Some seem to believe that Davis would destroy his team for his own aggrandizement. That is not possible. The only aggrandizement for Davis is the success of the Raiders. He wants the legacy to continue for all time. Currently he is attempting to restore his team again by the force of his will, as he once willed his wife to survive a stroke. Once that was possible, and even if it still is, soon enough it will no longer be so.

Over forty years of lazy media coverage, the opinion seems to be firmly entrenched that Al Davis controls all things associated with the Raiders. That used to be so, and to a certain extent it still is, but not in the way many think. Al Davis likes to surround himself with excellent football minds. He doesn’t want “yes” men. He wants people to disagree with him and to present alternative view points. That presents Davis with options, and from those options he makes his decisions. The notion that Davis does not listen to his coaches on draft day and during free agency is absurd. If the coach fails to provide input to Davis, in Davis’ mind the coach is not doing his job. Davis will sometimes go in his own direction if he feels that arguments to the contrary have been lacking. The fact is, Davis relies on his coaches now more than ever.

The notion that there is only one boss at Raiders HQ is absolutely true. Davis built the franchise according to his youthful vision of what a professional football dynasty should be. Davis created a franchise where he is the central brain trust, and he delegates to others as he would to his arms and legs. The delegates have no specified duties. Rather they do whatever Davis tells them needs to be done, or they suggest ideas to Davis who will delegate if the idea is approved. In the earlier days Davis was regularly on the practice field, coaching players and offering them career advice. He would sit in the owner’s box and send instructions to his head coach on the field. He negotiated contracts according to his own philosophies of duties and obligations to labor. He placed himself at the center of NFL committees. He was constantly moving around the country, scouting players and teams.

Through all of this time, the team has never suffered because of that level of Davis’ involvement. Rather, it has suffered for the lack of it.

It has been said that the Raiders will win if they model themselves after the successful plan of the Patriots. Not true. The Patriots did not invent a decade of success for an NFL franchise. It has been done before, and by teams who operated far differently. Teams find such levels of success through a combination of hard work, good luck, and coalescing circumstances. You don’t win the Super Bowl in the off and preseason, you merely build the foundation that allows you to reach out and take it if it presents itself. The combinations of coalescing circumstances, that get a team to the final victory circle, are as different, as varied, and as changing as the moon.

The most successful years for the Raiders were the years between 1975 and 1985. In that time, with two different starting quarterbacks, and two different head coaches, they won three Super Bowls for two different cities. What team of any decade can match that? This was also a time where the team benefited by Davis’ “constant interference.” One needs to examine Raider history a bit.

From the late 60s to the early 80s, Al Davis was a force of nature. All day he was in his office, on the practice field, in a meeting room, scouting, writing contracts… All night he was on the phone or watching film. It is not a coincidence that it was over this period that the dynasty was built. Al Davis structured a franchise that required the 24/7 involvement of its Managing General Partner, both in football operations and in the business office. For about 15 years Al Davis satisfied those requirements completely and unequivocally. He kept things internal to draw off of the experience that he gave people. He promoted internally to preserve “the Raider way.” Both John Madden and Tom Flores cut their teeth under Davis. They not only operated effectively in his system, they thrived.

Father time is not a forgiving patriarch. The NFL has become vastly more complicated, as has business in general. Don’t tell me that these complexities have passed Al Davis by. They haven’t. But they do require more time.

After the Raiders moved to Los Angeles, Davis, by necessity, began to spend a good deal of his time in court. After successfully suing the NFL, Davis had to deal with the fact that the LA Coliseum Commission fully breached their contract with him. Because of that breach, Davis spent much additional time looking for a final home for the franchise. Davis attempted to get his own stadium built in Los Angeles (more time), which was shut down by the NFL. He negotiated a move to Oakland (more time), and then immediately sued the NFL for breaking up his stadium deal. He was simultaneously sued by the City of Oakland on the ridiculous premise that Davis intended to turn around and move right back.

On top of this are the basic issues that none of us can escape over time. My father who is 89 became ill last year. Making sure that all his needs were met was a full time job in itself. Davis had his wife nearly die from a stroke which requires years of rehabilitation for a survivor. Davis is 79, and at 54 I know I don’t move from one thing to the next nearly as fast as when I was in my forties. If Davis can’t manage all of these things, in addition to the structured requirements of his franchise, it is not because he’s too old or because the game has passed him by. It is simply because there are not enough hours in a day to complete his daily tasks. As a result, he’s removed himself from the practice field and other areas where he feels he can reasonably delegate.

Since the delegates don’t have clearly defined roles in this structure, and since Davis has been absent more than in the past, team executives are sometimes forced by necessity or ambition to define their own roles. This leads to political gamesmanship, power struggles, and lost direction. This leads to the Lombardi/Shell fiasco of last season.


When Davis began to get distracted in the early 1980s, Tom Flores was the head coach and long time Raider insider. Still, Flores suffered in his final years with Davis’ lack of involvement. The Raiders seemed stagnant. It was at this point that Davis’ hires began to lose direction, define their own roles, and slow team development with in-fighting and politics. Davis addressed the issue by hiring Mike Shanahan, but with Davis spending less time with the team, Shanahan began recreating the Raiders in the image of the 49ers. The old insiders objected and didn’t trust Shanahan, creating a situation where Davis eventually had to step in. So he fired Shanahan and promoted Shell.

Shell was a good caretaker, and a leader the team respected, but he was not known as a football strategist. As Shell made new coaching hires, and with the influx of players from other teams, there was more in-fighting and more self definition. Mike White, simultaneous with the team’s return to Oakland, politicked Shell out in a coup.

After two seasons and a record of 15-17 for White, Davis turned to the players’ favorite, Joe Bugel. Bugel was in over his head, attempting to determine how Davis would coach the team, rather than look to his own philosophies. And from the end of Flores to the beginning of Gruden, the Raiders were beset by internal squabbles and power grabs. Fortunately with Gruden came Bruce Allen. Allen was well known and trusted inside the Raider organization because of his long standing ties between football families. When Allen defined his own role, nobody objected. The friendship that developed between Gruden and Allen served them and the team very well.

Let there be no mistake. Gruden left on his own volition. He was presented with being able to be a head coach in his home town instead of 3,000 miles from his friends and family. He was offered added authority, the ability to hire his own family members, and a big raise. Davis may have been able to match the money, but he wasn’t ready to offer more power and he couldn’t offer a greater proximity to family and friends. Any of us in Gruden’s situation would have gone the same way, and Al was well aware that he couldn’t keep Gruden here without offering at least more power and money than Tampa Bay, who heaped power and wealth on Gruden as though he were the second coming. Davis, then, got what he could for his team. Unfortunately, Allen, who had developed a stronger relationship with Gruden than with Davis, followed his friend to Tamp Bay. He had been the only man since the late 1980s that could create structure where none was given.

Enter both personalities of Bill Callahan. Enter the friendly passivity of Norv Turner. Enter the forgotten Shell. Enter 2007. Davis’ plate was fuller by the day, leaving no guiding hand in place. Each coach determined his own needs simply by gauging Davis’ reaction to their suggestion. Each coach was looking to find structure that only Al could provide. There was no focus on long term team needs, only focus on whatever the coach needed at the moment.

The New England Patriots find more success from their players because they have a single offensive system in place that works. The Patriots fill their roster with players capable of simply being plugged into their system. This works for about a decade or more, until there are too few available players to fill the roles required, then a team must rebuild again, both its system and personnel. This was also true for the Raiders when they were doing the same thing.

What has been sorely lacking with the Oakland Raiders over the last seven years is the consistency of making moves with a long term plan and a guiding hand that is ever present. The first priority in changing that is finding stability at the position of head coach. Priority number two, which must immediately follow the first, is finding someone to replace Bruce Allen and it must be someone that Davis trusts implicitly. It must be someone who can make structure where none exists.

From this point forward, every move that Al Davis makes, regarding the Raiders, must be in furtherance of a plan, with Davis’ stamp but without Davis’ physical presence, that keeps this team in Super Bowl contention for the decades to come. Otherwise the Raiders, after Al Davis’ passing, will resemble something of the demise of the Hindenburg.

Over the years, part of what has made the Raiders so entertaining to me is the personal side of their story. In spite of the losing, I’m still entertained. I have faith in Al Davis to figure out how he will exit this life, just as he figured out how to live it.

The story of Al Davis and the Raiders must end in triumph or tragedy. There is no middle ground. And for Al Davis, that is how it should be. To those who have become Raider fans in fairly recent history, and who only know Davis by what the media reports, the final chapter in this legend should be the most exciting chapter of all. Those who are demanding changes will get more than they asked for over the next five years. The stakes have become incredibly high, but going “all in” on a hand of Texas Hold ‘em has never reduced the interest in the game.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Why Daunte?

In 1973 the Raiders got off to a shaky start. The Raiders were becoming perennial playoff participants in part because of Daryle Lamonica's deep ball prowess. But in 1973 the Raiders seemed to have hit a road block. Lamonica had no problem moving the team between the 20 yard lines, but once in the red zone they were repeatedly settling for Blanda kicks. Ultimately the problem was resolved by replacing Lamonica with Kenny Stabler. To the fore, Stabler brought his talent as a skilled play caller on late drives and uncanny accuracy in the 10 to 20 yard range. It was the mid range accuracy that brought the Raiders out of their early season doldrums in 1973.

I bring this up because of the current similarity in the debate between Josh McCown and Daunte Culpepper. While many would be inclined to compare McCown with Stabler and Culpepper with Lamonica, it is, in fact, the other way around. It is the mid range accuracy which is key. Inside the red zone the deep ball is no longer an issue. Defenses don't have to worry about it, and offensive receivers can only hope to get so much distance between themselves and defenders. For that reason the defense can focus more on the run, and that is what makes working inside the red zone its own special problem.

Josh McCown is an excellent game manager with superior athleticism. McCown is going to run any offensive play that's sent him with near perfection, and that is why he's received Kiffin's preference. But the Raiders are not currently very effective inside the red zone, particularly against the Browns where they had to settle for three Janokowski field goals.

When defenses confront McCown in the red zone, they know that McCown is going to run any play well and call the correct audible if need be. McCown, however, is not that accurate. It's not that he has poor accuracy, it's just very average. Defenses know that they have to keep reasonably close to receivers, but they can play those receivers loose enough to focus on the run. McCown is a smart player, so he will not throw a pass to a receiver who is closely blanketed. McCown, lacking other options, will throw that ball away.

Daunte Culpepper, on the other hand, is extremely accurate both intermediate and deep. He has a live arm, and can rifle passes into receivers. Culpepper has been known to continuously fire passes into receivers who are being blanketed by throwing so that the receiver is always between the ball and the defender, thereby making it so only the intended receiver has a chance to catch the ball. If the defender tries to go over the top or through the intended receiver, it will generally result in a pass interference call, putting the ball at the 1 yard line with first down and goal to go.

That's the relevant difference. When opposing teams are confronted with McCown in the red zone, they know they have to watch the play and stay with it, but they can afford to play their backfield loose, and focus on the run. Confronted with Daunte Culpepper, they have to blanket the receivers while leaving enough at the line of scrimmage to stop the run. That last is a very difficult proposition with Jordan currently playing so well.

And this is why we need to stay with Daunte now that he's broken the ice.

Friday, August 17, 2007

A "Dear JaMarcus" letter...

Dear Mr. Russell:

So I issued my best welcome (see previous post) and you throw it back in my face. Thirty plus million dollars in guaranteed money along with a six year, sixty million dollar contract - more money given to any other rookie in NFL history - is beneath you.

In fairness, I'm not certain that last sentence is entirely justifiable. My position remains that you hired agents to get the job done and you must follow their advice, even though that advice seems to be piss poor. They've already cost you money, Mr. Russell. A lot of money! Showing off your live arm at Raider camp would have earned you promotional endorsements worth millions. Not now, Mr. Russell. Now you're actually going to have to earn those dollars with performance before some corporation is willing to put your face on their cereal box.

The fact is that Al Davis has a reputation for paying players what they are worth. Even when he's up against cap constraints he has found ways to allocate the money to players who've earned it. He does have a reputation for low balling contracts, but not player contracts. If he underpays, he underpays his coaches. At least that's his reputation. Once coaches have proven themselves, he rewards them with their subsequent contract (usually choosing not to negotiate again until the contract has, or nearly has expired). I think I can safely bet everything I have that, no matter what, Davis would be willing to make you the highest paid player in football history without ever having set your foot on an NFL playing field. And yet, for your agents (and apparently you) that is not enough.

So now, Mr. Russell you wait. We (the Raider Nation) don't wait. We carefully watch the improvement of Andrew Walter, the mobility of Josh McCown, and the reemergence of Dante Culpepper. You begin to fade, in our minds, into an irritable memory.

You (and I say "you" because your agents do represent "you") seem to feel that you have earned far more than the purely insane amount of money you've been offered. Really? How, exactly, did you earn it? By proving that you could play two years of college ball? Well, there are others who have played great for four years of college and flopped in the pros. You have yet to prove to anybody that won't happen to you, but your agents seem to feel (you by extension) that whether or not you flop, you've still earned the money, even if you just show up at the facility to sign autographs. In other words, your mere presence on our practice fields should earn you that money.

At this point I'm pretty confident that Davis has decided he's offered enough for the privilege of your company, and is willing to let you sit out the season. I know that many of my fellow Raider fans will disagree, but for my part, we're in a better position than we imagined. We don't need you. Stay home and squander what you could have made without the desire to be unaccountable. Somebody will pay you millions next year, but not as many millions, and that collar you'll feel around your neck will be attached to a very short leash. I believe that Mr. Davis drew his line in the sand when he said he thought that Dante Culpepper was a lot like Jim Plunkett. He just might be right. And if he is, expect to be playing for a different team next year and for a lot less money.

As it turns out our second round pick might have been really worth a top pick. Miller signed, showed up in camp, and appears to be the best tight end that the Raiders have had since the 1980s. With time to throw, Andrew Walter is looking more like the quarterback the Raiders drafted than the stranger who played last year while being buried under an ineffective offensive line. McCown is showing leadership and mobility, Culpepper is showing both mobility and a powerful arm. Our offensive line has improved, our running game… Yes, we'll lose our first ever #1 overall pick. Big deal. The NFL busts at that position are legion. We'll save the obscene amount of money you're demanding, and Mr. Davis has never had a problem with acquiring extra draft picks when we've needed them. We're going to be better this year with or with you. You had a great opportunity which you seem to have squandered.

So you seem to be reduced to a couple of choices. Sit out the season in Alabama and contemplate your navel and things that might have been, or fire your agents, wait the required amount of time, hire a new agent and tell him/her to get the deal done. At this point, five days isn't going to make a hell of a lot difference. The moment where five days would have made a difference is already past.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

An open letter to JaMarcus Russell

Dear Mr. Russell:

As a voluntary minicamp is opening for the Raiders this weekend, I thought perhaps someone might set you up on-line while you're in town, and maybe you'd have occasion to see this. I hope that you do. No doubt other members of the Raider family will add their thoughts to the comments below.

Welcome to Oakland, the birth place of the Raider Nation. When you have a few days off, take a look around and experience the beauty, the magic, and the excitement that is the San Francisco Bay area. Nearby the Raiders' headquarters is a place that many refer to as McAfee Coliseum. We, of the Raider Nation, refer to it as Mecca, the Black Hole, or the HOT (coined by the great announcer, Bill King, as Al Davis' House of Thrills).

While working at the Raider facility you will encounter legends of the game who played before you were born. You will meet Jim Otto, Jim Plunkett, Fred Biletnicoff, Jack Tatum, Kenny Stabler, George Atkinson, Tom Flores, and more, too numerous to name. Honor them, and give them your respect. On their shoulders, everything around you has been built. Someday soon, when you put on the Silver and Black and walk out onto the turf of the House of Thrills, they will become your second family. They will be your new grandfathers, fathers, and uncles. You will have been given the honor only given to a happy few, the opportunity to become one of them.

I hope you will take the time to learn about the rich history of the Oakland Raiders. And, in the mean time, we have rested much weight upon your shoulders. We would not have done so without being firm in the belief that such weight is rightly placed. I would like to tell you a story of legends past, and if you remember it, you will do well.

The House of Thrills was the sight of a game many consider to be the most exciting football game in the history of the NFL. It was a playoff game in 1974. John Madden was our head coach, and Kenny Stabler was our quarterback. In 1973, the Miami Dolphins had posted the NFL's only undefeated season. In 1974, the Dolphins were attempting to appear in their 4th straight Super Bowl and to win their 3rd straight.

With the HOT filled to the rafters with Raider fanatics waving black socks, the game began with a 93 yard kick off return by the Dolphins, and the two teams battled each other for the changing lead the entire game. Finally, with time down to just over 2 minutes in the 4th quarter, the Dolphins powered over the Raider goal line for a 5 point lead. It looked like Miami was on its way to another Super Bowl, and the Raiders were on their way home.

Stabler and company took over deep in their own territory, but Stabler was the master (some say the inventor) of the two minute drill. And Stabler proceeded to pick the Dolphin defense apart. Stabler worked through his receivers, going left and right, working his way past mid field, with time falling below one minute. Stabler called a time out and came to the sideline to talk to John Madden. Madden hadn't signaled for Stabler to call the time out, and when Stabler arrived on the sideline Madden waited to hear what he had to say. When he got to the sideline, Stabler looked up to the stands surrounding the field and surveyed the Raider Nation. Then he looked at Madden and said, "they're getting their money's worth today, aren't they, Coach." Then he turned and went back to the huddle.

Finally, with only a handful of seconds on the clock, and on 4th down with the Raiders near the Dolphin 5 yard line, Stabler dropped back to take one last shot at the end zone. With nobody open, he decided to run for it. A defensive player on the ground reached up and caught him by one ankle. On his way down, Stabler looked to the end zone and threw like throwing the shot put into a "sea of hands." Standing on the goal line, and surrounded by Dolphins, HB Clarence Davis' hands prevailed as he fell backward into the end zone with the winning touchdown.

"Great victory," you're thinking, "but what's the point of the story?"

The point is this. In a playoff atmosphere, with the entire season and the history of the franchise on the line, nobody more clearly understood the "bottom line" as clearly as Ken Stabler. "They're getting their money's worth today, aren't they Coach." A football game is not an earth shattering event. Nobody will live or die based on the outcome of a Raider game. Football is, after all, entertainment. That said, football is not unimportant.

The Raider Nation, just like fans of any other team, go to a game to forget all of those things that ARE life and death to them. They seek to blanket the stress of their lives, momentarily, behind a symbolic struggle. They seek to find from the game an example of tenacity as an example for themselves. The game teaches them to never give up until their time has run out, until their last second has run off the clock.

Such is the example that you must set for your teammates and the Raider Nation. Such is the Raider way, the Raider tradition. No matter how poorly we seem to be managing things, no matter the odds against us, no matter our fears, we WILL prevail and only the death of time will defeat us. If you set this example, we will love you for it, and we will never forget you. Wherever you go, whatever you do, you will always be a member of our international family. You will walk among legends.

Now, get your contracts signed, and let's have some fun.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Will To Win

Each Super Bowl quarterback for the Raiders had his own special quality.

Lamonica had a rifle for an arm. Powerful and accurate. He earned the name, "The Mad Bomber." Opposing defenses weren't safe no matter where the Raiders began a drive on the field. If the Raiders were down by a touchdown or less, and the Raiders had the ball at midfield with only a couple of ticks on the clock, one always expected that Lamonica was about to make the game winning play by throwing a strike into the end zone.

Stabler, who earned the name "Snake" from his scrambling high school years, was a crafty leader and a born winner. He was deadly accurate on short to intermediate passes, often completing over 70% of his throws. While not accurate deep, he still had the mental acuity to throw the deep ball in such a way as to position the ball so that the receiver was always between the ball and the defender. Ultimately, with Stabler, the game always hinged on his will to win. Even on his worst days, he would intelligently probe the defense for the key to success.

Plunkett, known affectionately as "Plunk," was a supreme field leader. He was soft spoken with a deep ball arm. He had surprising escapability. But the most amazing thing about Plunkett was his ability to know, at all times, where every player was on the field. No Raider quarterback was better at finding the open man and hitting him in stride.

Gannon was the consummate perfectionist. He insisted that receivers run their routs to perfection, and was always aware of the percentage play. Lacking a deep ball arm he was the perfect quarterback for the Gruden philosophy that "three things can happen when you throw the ball deep, and two of them are bad." The best description of Gannon is "demanding leader."

Of this quartet, I used to waiver between Stabler and Plunkett as my favorites. Plunkett, because he was the classic underdog. So many times he had been counted out and left for dead, only to come back and win two Super Bowls. Stabler, for his ability to find a way to win. I loved them both, but I think Stabler stands slightly above.

I remember a Monday night game in New Orleans. The Raiders were down by four touchdowns late in the 2nd quarter. Stabler dropped back to pass and was brutally swarmed over and sacked. He got up slowly, and the camera focused on his face. "Dandy Don" Meredith, in the MNF booth said something along the lines of, "Oh, oh. I've seen that look in Stabler's eyes before. He's going to make some trouble for the Saints before this game is over." Stabler led the team back to a 35-28 victory. At the time, it was the biggest comeback victory in MNF history.

In San Diego, needing a touchdown to win with only time and downs for one more play and Stabler half way to the ground on a sack, Stabler fumbled the ball forward. His teammates directed the fumble to the end zone where it was covered by Dave Casper. (The Holy Roller Play) In Oakland during the '73 playoffs against the world champion Miami Dolphins - The Sea of Hands play! In Oakland, against the NE Patriots in 1976, same situation again, but this time Stabler ran on shaky knees and dove head first into the end zone.

"Down two touchdowns or up two touchdowns, he's the same quarterback.... he is convinced that his next play will be his best play. Soaking up a record-setting day or suffering through a forgettable day, he still wants the ball at the end.

"I've always believed that you measure a quarterback on his bad days, not his good days. When you're not having your best day, how do you respond? Can you stay into it and manage the game? ...if something went wrong or if he messed something up...he would usually get another chance. If he got that ball at the end of the game, he was going to beat your tail -- and he knew it."

The above would be an excellent comment in regards to Stabler, if it were, in fact, about him. But it is about someone else who was not, and is not a Raider. At least not yet. The quote is from Jimbo Fisher, the former offensive coordinator from LSU. He is talking, of course, about JaMarcus Russell.

From all I have seen on film clips and television, from all that I've heard from his coaches, his teammates, and his fans, JaMarcus Russell is Ken Stabler with Lamonica's arm and the blossoming bud of Plunkett leadership. He has successfully undertaken every instruction from every coach he's had. He listens and he learns, so Gannon's perfectionism may well be on the horizon.

Al Davis... Lane Kiffin... Do you want more Super Bowls? We need to draft this quarterback.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Time will tell...

So Jerry Porter is switching his number and attitude to Tim Brown's. When Porter came to the Raiders as a receiver with great potential, Tim Brown took Porter under his wing and taught Porter how to control his receiving patterns and his attitude. Make no mistake, the attitude fell apart in 2006. It is not the prerogative of a receiver to dictate to the owner, the head coach, or the receivers coach what offense will be run. In February of 2006, those who make such decisions decided on a plan. It was Jerry Porter's job to carry out his part of that plan to the best of his ability. There is little question in my mind that had Porter done his job, and Moss his, the Raiders would have had about four more wins under their belts.

Still, we are likely better off for the way things have turned out. With those four more wins, we'd still have Art Shell and a very long road in front of us. While I have great respect for Shell as a player and a coach, his greatest weakness is his lack of anticipation for how players, not familiar with him, will perceive him. If Shell had started the 2006 season earlier, and made more of an effort to sell himself and his philosophy to his players, there might have been far less communication breakdowns in Raider ranks. If Kiffin does nothing else, he has proved this a little more every day since his hiring. Claims that the prevailing problem was Al Davis' cluelessness should be completely shattered. Davis spoke directly to this exact issue the day of Kiffin's introductory press conference.

According to Tim Brown, Porter's mentor and confidant, Kiffin has told Brown that the Kiffin offense is based primarily on Jon Gruden's offense. Again shattering perceptions on how Al Davis felt about Jon Gruden and about what we think Davis prefers to see in a Raider offense. I assure you that the one primary quality of an offense for Al Davis must be that it is a winning offense. "Just win, baby!" Do whatever it takes. Still, Kiffin appears to have added his own wrinkles. Gruden felt that on every long pass, three things can happen and two of them are bad. Kiffin loves to throw in the deep shot in order to spread the defense and to keep them off balance. Because of this, Kiffin requires deep ball receivers - guys with the speed to get past the corners, the height to out jump them, the hands to pull the ball in, and the muscle to hang on to it. Outside of Doug Gabriel, Porter and Moss are really the only receivers with such credentials.

It speaks well of Lane Kiffin that (at least evident from Porter's brief statement in a press release) Porter promises a new start, and a new attitude. Porter claims to look forward to putting the past behind. Significantly, Porter has chosen Tim Brown's number for his own. Porter indicates (and Brown backs it up) that Porter's intent is to emulate Brown in team leadership and work ethic. Is Porter capable of such a conversion? Time will tell.

As for Moss? Tim Brown seems to feel that Moss' lack of production in 2006 was more a matter of ability than attitude. Brown is of the opinion, based on information he gets from players who still play against Moss, that Moss has lost a step - that his skills are declining rapidly. On this, I disagree with Brown. It would be one thing were it evident that Moss was trying but failing. What I noticed was his distinct lack of effort. He didn't fight for the ball (one of his career trademarks), and frequently didn't stretch out to make catches. Frequently he stood by while balls were being picked off by the defender right in front of him. My opinion of Moss is that once it became evident that the Raiders were not going to be competitive, Moss took the rest of the season off.

Between Moss and Porter, I prefer Porter's circumstances to Moss'. Porter was mainly not on the field, but Moss was a starter with a team (a "brotherhood of men," as Mr. Sapp once put it) relying on his efforts. While Porter may have disrespected the Raider's coach and their fans, Moss disrespected the coaches, the fans, and his teammates. He hung his team members out to dry with his lack of effort. As a player, I would be reluctant to have Moss come back on the field. As a fan, I would be reluctant to pay for a ticket to watch him. As a coach, I would be reluctant to depend on Moss to carry out my design. But according to an ESPN radio interview with Kiffin, Moss is also now on board and looks forward to starting a new season. Earlier, at the Senior Bowl, we heard that Kiffin had approached Moss and had been rebuffed. Has the situation changed? Were the rumors from the Senior Bowl ever true? Or is Kiffin simply trying to boost Moss' trade value? Judging by the words I've heard come out of Kiffin's mouth, that his players will be on board and that they will "play happy," I have to lean in the direction that Kiffin has been able to sell Moss on the new program. Are Moss' low 2006 numbers a sign of a poor attitude, or a sign of declining skills. Time will tell.

If neither Porter or Moss are now "trade bate," our draft structure appears to have evolved. If we keep Moss, we no longer have the use of him to increase draft choices or to use him to move up the ladder in any particular round. This makes the successful use of our #1 pick somewhat more critical. Trade the first pick? Pull the trigger on Jamarcus Russell, a run stuffer on the defensive line, a running back, an O-line stud? My choice would still be to pull the trigger on JRus, but I'm less certain now that the Raiders will do that. Whatever the Raiders decide to do, we can expect to see them make a number of inquiries about veteran quarterbacks. Which quarterbacks they inquire about will likely signal what they have in mind for the #1 pick. Whether they decide to draft JRus or not, I believe they will retain the #1 pick, and not trade down. But if the Raiders make serious inquiries as to the availability of David Carr, I believe that Russell will not play for the Raiders. If the Raiders make inquiries about Huard in KC, I believe that will be because they are looking for the temporary stop gap while they groom a franchise quarterback.

Andrew Walter? I don't believe that the Raiders will go into the season with him as their only choice as a starter since Tui is all but gone and Brooks has been released. I feel the Raiders only have one of two choices. Either bring in an experienced young veteran for a long term solution and give Walter the chance to compete, or to bring in JRus and an older experienced quarterback to help groom Russell the way that Tim Brown groomed Jerry Porter. Either way, I believe that Walter will be given a chance to compete, but only one chance. This coming training camp will be the most important training camp of AWal's career. And time will tell.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

It's Alive?

After the 2005 season, after three seasons of being a bottom dweller in the AFC West, Al Davis attempted to reach back to the rise of a Bay Area dynasty. Believing that the brand of football Davis brought with him to Oakland in the 1960s was still viable in today's NFL, in fact still used by some, Davis rehired the last Raider coach to make it work. In the late 1980s, Davis failed in his attempt to modernize the Raider philosophy with the hiring of Mike Shanahan. He replaced him with a Raider legend, a HOF left tackle and offensive line coach.

Art Shell had been a fixture in the Raider organization for the better part of two decades. The quiet man was well known by the players and front office alike. The players understood every nuance of an Art Shell expression. They understood "the look" which forced the instant recollection of every instruction Art Shell had ever given a player, and the look was all that Art Shell needed. He and his players were one. They would always endeavor not to disappoint him, nor he, them. So Al reached backward to that former place, hoping to regain what had been lost in time.

Many of us, riders on the bus of Raider glory in years gone by, cheered with the hope that nostalgia brings. We, along with Al, failed to consider the organizational restructuring required to foundation such a commitment. While we understood that Art Shell had been out of coaching for many years, and expected a certain amount of rust, we failed to understand that "the look" was no longer possible. A quiet man, a man who motivates and teaches with an economy of words and energy, is a difficult man to get to know. When Shell was named coach in the 80s, his players knew every detail of Shell. When he returned in 2005, the strangers who occupied the Raider locker room knew only that Shell was in the Hall as a player and had been a reasonably successful coach in a time before any of them had been old enough to sit up and watch a football game. "The look" meant nothing to them, and Shell, it appears, failed to offer them more.

The Raiders of 2006 were a team with potential, and potential offers more questions than answers. Art Shell is a leader by example, charged with building the potential of a team which had never laid witness to the example. To a degree, Art Shell understood his limitations in communication. He surrounded himself with coaches who knew him, and knew what he wanted. They were, like Shell, former players and coaches from a different time, also unfamiliar to the players and, more importantly, also unfamiliar WITH the players. Ultimately, the team collapsed in a 2-14 orgy of miscommunication.

Somewhere in this confusion, it appears that Al Davis found a moment of clarity. It wasn't the vertical offense which created the most feared team of the 60s, 70s and early 80s. An effective offense isn't the cause of a wide open, gambling style. The style of a team is created by its personality. A team's personality is created by its leader. Al understood, and I now understand, that the Raiders of that earlier era were not born out of the Gilman offense, but from the mind, the tenacity, the arrogance of Al Davis. In order for that earlier team to return, it would require a brash, 30 something, Al Davis to recreate it. A moment of remarkable clarity seems to have shown Al that if he can no longer tinker like Lombardi to reclaim a team lost in time, perhaps he can tinker like Frankenstein and make a monster. The replacement for that team, born in an earlier era, can be born anew from the mind, the tenacity, the arrogance of the 30 something Davis Monster.

Davis had begun his rise on the semi-pro-like coaching staff of USC. There he studied the rising talent of college athletes throughout the country. After leaving USC, he worked and studied under Sid Gilman, innovating the most advanced vertical offense of his day. When he came to the Raiders, he utilized both. He taught the team his offense and, becoming Commissioner of the AFL, signed the best college talent in the country to insure the survival of a league. In Al Davis' moment of clarity, he understood that this would be the blue print for the return of Raider glory.

After firing Art Shell, Davis began looking for the monster's new brain, again reaching back to the past, but in an entirely new way. He searched the breeding grounds where he had been born, looking to find what had been born again. It was only natural that he would begin at USC. He started first with what he knew.

Davis began talking to the young, former Raider quarterbacks coach who had returned to USC to build championship contenders. After speaking to Sarkisian several times, testing his knowledge, his desire, his ambition, one suspects Al eventually put the big question to the young coach. "I came to a team in a similar condition to the Raiders right now. I built a team that appeared in a Super Bowl in every decade but the 90s. I built one of the most feared teams in all of professional sports. I built a team with the best record of every professional sports franchise, not just football. I was not much older than you are now. Can you do the same?" And it is, perhaps, at this point, where Sarkisian balked.

Davis had asked another question that Sarkisian did answer. "Who would you choose as an offensive coordinator?" Sarkisian identified Kiffin, also at USC, who shared a similar background with Sarkisian and Davis. Apparently there was a spark, a recognition, if you will, when Davis and Kiffin met. Their minds, their tenacity, their ambitions embraced. The Davis Monster's brain had been found, and Davis has allowed it to select it's own body, arms and legs, and in April it will acquire its heart.

Come summer, the body parts of this monster will be stitched together. We eagerly await September. Perhaps some stormy autumn night, as lightning strikes the HOT, we will collectively shout, "It's alive! It's alive!"