When Oakland Raiders coach Hue Jackson gathered his players Saturday morning in Houston, where the team plays the Texans on Sunday, to break the news of team owner and pro football legend Al Davis' death, he did so with a heavy heart – and a single-minded purpose that would have made his late boss proud.
"It was difficult, but the message was simple," Jackson said in a telephone interview shortly after Saturday's team meeting adjourned. "I told them he had passed, and I told them I knew how he felt about them and the coaching staff – because he has told me so many times. He loved 'em. Outside of his immediate family, nothing meant more to him than the guys in that locker room.
"I told them to be at their best and play their best, that if he was here he would say, 'Let's do what we're supposed to do: Play like Raiders. And win.' "
Davis, who died Saturday at the age of 82, did a lot of winning during nearly five decades as the franchise's pre-eminent force, amassing a record of success that included five Super Bowl appearances and three championships between the 1967 and 2002 seasons. Beginning with Oakland's Super Bowl XXXVII defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January of 2003, however, the franchise fell on hard times, failing to record a winning season in the eight years that followed. Last year's 8-8 team ended a run of seven consecutive campaigns with 11 or more defeats, a stretch of futility unprecedented in the NFL.
As Davis' health declined and his presence around the team's training facility became scarce, there was a sense in NFL circles that the old master had lost his touch. Yet quietly, and perhaps fittingly, Davis made some organizational moves over the final two years of his life that left the Raiders on much more solid footing.
This Oakland team, which is 2-2 heading into Sunday's game against the Texans, once again seems poised to compete at the sport's highest level, with a style and personality to Davis' liking.
[ Photo gallery: Al Davis through the years ]
Davis certainly believed this was the case, because he enunciated it to his head coach on numerous occasions after Jackson got the job last January.
"We always had conversations about his team, what he's seen, how he's seeing it, what we're trying to become," Jackson said. "We just kept working at it and working at it – this was his life.
"We're getting closer, and I know he felt that we were getting closer. He was starting to see the fruits of his labor. He was seeing the young men he trusted playing the way he knew they could play."
Two weeks ago, when Davis watched the Raiders upset the New York Jets at the O.co Coliseum, he saw a team that resembled many of the successful silver-and-black squads of previous eras. Among the similarities: a big, physical offensive line opening holes for an elite halfback with breakaway speed; a previously discarded drop-back passer with a big arm in the process of resurrecting his career (Davis has compared current starter Jason Campbell(notes) to Jim Plunkett, who led the Raiders to a pair of Super Bowl victories in the '80s); swift, athletic receivers who stretch the field; a nasty, relentless defensive line capable of getting after the opposing quarterback; an elite punter (and placekicker, for that matter) who provides a decided field-position advantage.
[ Related: Jim Plunkett discusses Al Davis' greatest gift ]
While the linebackers and secondary remain a work in progress, and there are still potentially enough other flaws to keep this team from ending its postseason drought, these Raiders appear capable of matching up with any opponent.
It's likely that in addition to sharing his coach's enthusiasm, Davis was excited about the leadership Jackson had provided. For the first time since he traded Jon Gruden to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002, Davis seemed to have a head coach in place who is comfortable in his role, in lockstep with the owner's vision and adept at the art of play-calling.
[ Related: Hue Jackson says Raiders will win AFC West ]
After bringing in Jackson as coach Tom Cable's offensive coordinator before the 2010 season, Davis watched the Raiders more than double their point total from the '09 season. He got rid of Cable after the campaign and promoted Jackson, citing behavior that had embarrassed the organization among his reasons for making the switch. Cable had been accused by former defensive assistant Randy Hanson of breaking his jaw during a training-camp confrontation, and he also was the subject of multiple domestic-violence allegations, one of which he admitted was true.
Given that Davis had a record of progressive hiring practices that included the naming of Amy Trask as the NFL's first female CEO, a position she still holds, he was understandably uncomfortable with the allegations against Cable.
And that wasn't even the messiest of Davis' coaching changes of the past few years – the infamous news conference at which he used an overhead projector to underscore his enmity for Lane Kiffin a month into the 2008 season included the owner labeling his just-dismissed coach as "a professional liar."
[ Video: Lane Kiffin on Al Davis' passing ]
Yet Davis, while limited physically in recent years – he had lower-body issues that caused him to use a walker and restricted his mobility – remained whip-smart and sharp, according to several people who worked under him.
"Mentally, he never lost it," said one former member of the team's personnel department. "He knew which players were Raiders, which coaches were good and which ones needed work. The problem was [after 2002] when he had a hard time getting around because of his health and couldn't be out at practice and see what was going on. It was like a light-switch flipped, and that's why they started losing.
"People always said he was too involved. I think the problems started when he became less involved. Before, there was no slacking off at practices – from players and coaches – because they knew the boss was there. Now he had to rely on secondhand information. And some of the people giving it to him weren't being upfront with him; they were protecting their own interests."
[ Related: Combative AL Davis made mark on game ]
It became fashionable to lampoon Davis (and yes, I know I'm shining a spotlight in my own eyes to some extent here) for making personnel decisions that were seemingly ill-advised and out-of-touch, such as the seven-year, $50.5-million contract extension he gave to relatively anonymous defensive tackle Tommy Kelly(notes) following the 2007 season; the drafting of speedy wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey(notes) with the seventh overall draft pick in 2009; and that September's trading of a first-round draft pick for Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour(notes), who was nearing 30 and had a history of knee problems.
Two of those three moves (Kelly and Seymour) have proven to be shrewd. Davis has also acquired a slew of talented gems in recent years, from the obvious (McFadden, the fourth overall pick in 2008) to the obscure (starting left tackle Jared Veldheer(notes) was a third-round pick in 2010, underrated defensive end Matt Shaughnessy(notes) was a third-round pick in '09 and swift wideouts Jacoby Ford(notes) and Denarius Moore(notes) were fourth- and fifth-round selections, respectively, in the past two drafts).
"It became easy for people to lay the blame on him," the former front-office employee said of Davis. "That was the outside perception. But it turns out he still knew what he was doing, and now there's a coaching staff in place that can get the most out of that talent."
And Davis, after rocky relationships with so many of his coaches in recent years – including Gruden, who pushed to leave Oakland after the owner failed to offer him a lucrative contract extension following an AFC championship game appearance in his third season (2000) – likely appreciated the sincere regard that Jackson expressed toward him both publicly and privately.
[ Related: Steve Bisciotti sought insight from Al Davis ]
In July I had a long conversation with Jackson in which he talked about the perception that working for Davis presented its share of challenges. When he first expressed interest in coming to Oakland to a third party familiar with the Raiders' 2007 coaching search that ended with Kiffin's hiring, Jackson was asked, "Why would you want to do that?"
Said Jackson: "I answered, 'Why would I not want to do that? Al Davis is one of the smartest football minds in history. I don't care what's gone on there recently – I want to work for Al Davis."
When Jackson came to Oakland in 2010 as Cable's offensive coordinator, there was talk that Davis had assured him he'd soon be promoted to head coach. "Al never promised me anything," Jackson insisted in July. "He said, 'Young man, I'm going to give you every opportunity to be the best coach you can be. Go do it.' There was no backdoor deal or secret handshake."
Once Jackson became the head coach, he welcomed Davis' input and embraced his goals and philosophies.
"I believe this about our owner – he has a commitment to excellence, and that means a commitment to winning," Jackson said prior to training camp. "He wants what I want, what the organization wants, what this city wants: A championship. That's it. He is about winning. Cut all the middle crap out. I detest losing, so why would I be disappointed if he detests losing?
"We owe this city something. We owe our organization something. And more than anything, we owe Al Davis. That man deserves to have confetti fall on him again and understand and realize his dreams of winning again. What he's done for this game is spectacular."
[ Related: 'Mean' Joe Greene's admiration for Al Davis ]
Whereas some prior Oakland coaches, including Mike Shanahan and Kiffin, had actively attempted to shut out Davis and assert their autonomy, Jackson quarreled with that philosophy.
"That's the wrong way to deal with anybody, in my opinion," he said. "Obviously, he's the owner. He has the final say, and I respect that. But that doesn't mean I have to be agreeable. When he's right, he's right. When he's wrong, he's wrong. Now, there haven't been many times when he's wrong.
"He researches everything, and he's very smart. He'll throw a question at you, and knowing 'Coach' a little bit now, he probably knows the answer before he even asks. Because, let's face it, he's been doing this a long time."
Later in the interview, Jackson returned to the subject, once again citing Davis' intelligence as a positive.
"My conversations with him, I love 'em," Jackson said. "This guy is as sharp as anybody I've ever met. This guy has a memory that stretches decades. Trust me, you're not getting over on this man. You're not going to outsmart him or outmaneuver him.
"People ask, 'What's it like to work for Al Davis?' Are you kidding me? It's one of the greatest opportunities of my life. I'm learning from an icon."
The icon is no longer with us, but Jackson believes his boss left behind a team capable of creating that confetti shower of which he dreams. As we spoke on Saturday, the coach pledged to pay tribute to Davis' legacy by radiating the single-minded focus that shaped the franchise and spawned a legend.
[ Video: Raiders want to 'Just Win, Baby' in Houston ]
"There's not another Al Davis in this world – he's the only one, and the only one that will ever be," Jackson said. "Absolutely, there's no question we will try to do him proud.
"I'm going to do everything I can to honor him this year and beyond. And the biggest thing I can do to honor him is to win, pure and simple."
- Al Davis
- Hue Jackson