Al Davis & the Raiders
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.
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.