October 08, 2011
Al Davis makes Darth Vader look like a wimp. — Hunter S. Thompson
On Saturday morning, it was reported that Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis died. The team's official website was the first with the news, and the Raiders will issue an official statement later Saturday.
"Al Davis's passion for football and his influence on the game were extraordinary," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in his own statment. "He defined the Raiders and contributed to pro football at every level. The respect he commanded was evident in the way that people listened carefully every time he spoke. He is a true legend of the game whose impact and legacy will forever be part of the NFL."
At his best and at his worst, Al Davis was arrogance personified. At his best, he was in your face at all times with his old-school Brooklyn pompadour, his ever-present shades, and a reputation for his beloved Oakland Raiders that he spent decades building. Later in his life, Davis was not as successful with that mystique (both personally and with his Raiders), but no amount of personal or professional oddity could erase what Davis meant to the game of football.
First of all, and unlike most team owners, Davis was actually a coach and a scout — and a very good one. The Syracuse graduate learned his trade as an assistant with the Baltimore Colts, at the Citadel and USC, and then with Sid Gillman's Los Angeles Chargers starting in 1960. Gillman, the father of the modern passing game, had a great and permanent influence on Davis' offensive concepts, especially when it came to spreading the field with multiple deep routes.
Davis took over a Raiders team in 1963 that had been 1-13 the previous year and turned it into a 10-4 contender. Over the next 20 years, the Raiders under Davis would become one of the most successful franchises in all of professional sports — winning three Super Bowls between 1976 and 1983, making a Hall of Fame coach out of the great John Madden, and becoming the ultimate way station for the NFL's otherwise unwanted. Davis won with renegades and choirboys, and he had one of the widest bases of talent recognition of any executive in any sport when he was on top of his game. From 1969 through 1978 — the Madden Era — the Raiders never had a losing season, though they became known as the team that couldn't win the big one as they kept falling short to the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers … some of the greatest teams of all time.
Finally, Davis' Raiders won it all in Super Bowl XI in January of 1977. Four years and seven years later, they would win it all again, and there was little doubt that Davis was at the head of it all. He had scouts, but the Raiders didn't subscribe to the NFL's scouting services. He found former fullback Mark Van Eeghen in a gymnasium, and brought several other players off the scrap heap to give their careers new life. As the late defensive lineman John Matuszak once wrote, "When most of the NFL thought I was nothing but a pain in the ass, Al Davis didn't care. He gave me the chance I needed. He helped save my career." And despite his reputation to the contrary, Davis was very generous to those he believed gave it all for the Raider cause.
Davis was a trailblazer in some of the best ways; he played a Latino quarterback (Tom Flores) in his first year as coach, and hired Flores to coach his Raiders almost two decades later. He made Art Shell the first black head coach of the NFL's modern era, and Raiders current CEO Amy Trask became the first female executive in any NFL front office.
Perhaps Davis' most important contribution to the NFL was his role as the irritant that forced the merger between the American Football League and National Football League. In the mid-1960s, the two leagues were beating each others' brains in with competing television deals and ever-rising player costs. There was an impasse which Davis solved very simply when he became the AFL's Commissioner in 1966 — he went after all the NFL's brightest stars with lucrative contract offers to skip leagues, and the NFL was forced to sue for peace.
When Pete Rozelle was named the commissioner of both leagues post-merger, Davis went back to Oakland and ran his team at a higher level. He got the Raiders to Super Bowl II, but didn't stand a chance against the Green Bay Packers of Vince Lombardi. But he would build many of the best teams of the era with the belief that the aerial attack was best, that great cornerbacks were a necessity, and that anything you could do to win the game before the kickoff happened was just fine.
Later in his life, perception and reality were not as kind to Davis. He moved the Raiders to Los Angeles in 1982 and back again in 1995, engaged in a number of public feuds and lawsuits with Rozelle, and started to lose his fastball from a personnel perspective. The Raiders got back to playoff prominence and the Super Bowl in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but after he traded Gruden's rights to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a number of draft picks, he cycled through six coaches in the next 10 years. He also was the key cog in a disastrous series of drafts, leading with the 2007 first overall pick of LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell(notes), who may be the worst bust in league history. Firing Lane Kiffin via overhead projector; the ridiculous feud with Marcus Allen; the capricious nature by which he ran the team in the last few years of his life … these are undeniable parts of Davis' legacy and should not be ignored.
However, on the occasion of Davis' passing, it's better to remember the man who was born on July 4, 1929. The man who turned intimidation into a science. The man who always did it his own way, and liked it even better if his way rubbed you the wrong way. The man who always had the best interest of his team at heart, even when the results proved otherwise.
The innovator. The intimidator. The master tactician. Love him or hate him, there will never be another Al Davis.
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