In August, one NFL owner was asked to discuss Al Davis' place in NFL history. The owner, who asked to remain anonymous, looked at the ground uncomfortably before answering.
"Obviously, Al is important, nobody would ever say that's not the case, but … ," the owner answered and paused for almost 10 seconds before finishing. "Sometimes you just wondered if he really had to do it the way he did."
Davis, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and one of the icons of the modern game, died Saturday morning at 82. He was considered a driving force in turning the NFL into the nation's most popular game, as well as turning the Raiders into a three-time Super Bowl champion. He did that with an uncompromising and bold sense of competition that often pushed the boundaries of what some people thought was acceptable.
[Related: Raiders owner Al Davis dies at 82]
In the 1970s, for instance, Davis funded a lawsuit filed by former Raiders safety George Atkinson against Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll for defamation. Noll had accused the Raiders of having a "criminal element" after Atkinson hit Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann with a blindside forearm to the back of the head. Although Atkinson eventually lost the suit, the trial heightened the already bitter rivalry between Steelers and the Raiders, and caused huge rifts throughout the league between Davis and other owners.
Those rifts continued when Davis went to court time and again, such as when he moved the Raiders to Los Angeles in 1982. Davis even had rifts with his own people, such as when he fired former coaches such as Mike Shanahan and Lane Kiffin or warred with running back Marcus Allen. In a sense, Davis' life story is long-running joust.
"You can't overstate how great Al Davis has been for the NFL," Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said earlier this year. Jones, who was very close to Davis, then smiled wryly and said, "But he was different."
The cause of Davis' death wasn't immediately released but it is believed that he had a long battle with skin cancer which severely hindered him physically over the past six years. During a business meeting within the past year, Davis had a brief seizure. Mentally, however, Davis remained incredibly sharp, even if he was sometimes perceived as paranoid.
[Related: 'Mean' Joe Greene's remembrances of Davis]
"When you would see him, it was really quite scary," another owner said with complete sincerity. "I remember walking into his suite when we played the last time. My wife had her arm around mine and when she saw Al, I could feel her grip tighten. It was fear and it was sad. But when you talked to him, he was still clear, quick-witted and incredibly focused."
Longtime Oakland executive Amy Trask once told a group of NFL executives: "When you see Al, it's heartbreaking. But when you talk to him over the phone, it's the same Al I've always known."
Many believed that Davis' physical constraints had a direct relationship to the downturn of the team in recent years. After making the Super Bowl in the 2002 season (when they lost to Tampa Bay), the Raiders went on a horrendous run of seven consecutive seasons with at least 11 losses. That streak ended last season when the Raiders finished 8-8.
Prior to that downturn, Davis, who first served as a coach when he broke into the NFL, had a huge impact on the on-field operations of the team. He not only handpicked the personnel, he had a strong say in who played at a given time, particularly on defense. On Sept. 30, as New England was preparing to play at Oakland last Sunday, Patriots coach Bill Belichick fondly remembered being interviewed by Davis in the late 1990s before Davis hired Jon Gruden.
"We had a good couple days of conversation," Belichick said. "I told him when I got out there, it really seemed like a waste of time because I felt pretty certain that he wouldn't hire a defensive coach because he hasn't since Eddie Erdelatz in . It's a parade of offensive coaches out there. He's really a defensive coordinator and has been. You know, it was good because we talked a lot about football and he's very, very knowledgeable about the game, personnel, schemes, adjustments and so forth. He was asking a lot of questions about what we did defensively. You kind of don't want to give too much information there because you know, he's running the defense. He wasn't really too interested in talking about offensive football.
"He's a great mind. It was unlike any other interview I've ever had with an owner because he was so … in depth really about football, about X's and O's and strategy and use of personnel and acquisition of – all the things really that a coach would talk about, that's really what he talked about. That made it pretty unique. But he hired a good coach, Gruden. Which is again, in all honesty, the way that I expected it to go because that's been all the Oakland coaches from Art Shell to Mike White, Joe Bugel, Shanahan, you know right down the line, Lane Kiffin, they're all offensive coaches."
Davis' style helped create a player-driven atmosphere that both insiders and outsiders said walked the narrow line between driven and chaotic. In the glory days of the Raiders, players like Ken Stabler, Ted Hendricks and Lyle Alzado were the face of the team. Later, as the team fell apart, it was the likes of JaMarcus Russell(notes) and Jerry Porter(notes).
"When Al was around the team only saw who was focused and into it, but he drove those guys to be behind him because he was so devoted to them," former Raiders quarterback Jim Plunkett said. "Guys wanted to play hard for Al … but I think some of that was lost when he couldn't physically be around as much."
[Photos: Al Davis through the years]
Former Oakland defensive end Trace Armstrong once said, "Al loves the players, no question. But some guys didn't always get it and when the older guys left, there was nobody around to run the asylum."
Davis' death Saturday morning creates a mountain of questions throughout the NFL and perhaps paves the way for the league to return to Los Angeles, where Davis once saw the future and then had to abandon it.
IN the immediate, Davis' wife, Carol, and son, Mark, are expected to assume control of the team. However, numerous sources around the NFL believe that neither will want to keep control of the team in the long run and are expected to sell relatively soon.
"Al tried to float the idea that Mark would run the team, but most people look at that as Al's dream, not a reality," an owner said earlier this year. "I don't see any way Mark holds onto the team. He's just going to cash out."
NFL owners are scheduled to meet Tuesday in Houston. The Raiders were on the way to that city Saturday to play the Texans.
- Al Davis