Fisticuffs, insubordination not new for Raiders
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NAPA, Calif. – The 80-year-old legend sat silently in a motorized cart, watching his most-dreaded football nightmare play out in all its twisted splendor. There were Al Davis’ Oakland Raiders on Wednesday morning, hosting the third of four joint training camp practices with the San Francisco 49ers, getting physically and verbally abused by their cross-Bay rivals and meekly submitting to the butt-whipping.
“I love it when they can’t compete!” 49ers cornerback Nate Clements(notes) screamed after intercepting Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell(notes) in a lopsided red-zone drill, setting off a barrage of condescending cackles from the visitors in red and gold.
As his obviously intimidated offense continued to struggle, and the 49ers celebrated each interception with cocksure elation, Davis couldn’t have been thrilled by his team’s passivity. Yet in one sense, the Raiders’ lack of fight could have been construed as a promising sign. After learning earlier this week that the NFL will investigate an Aug. 5 incident in which defensive assistant Randy Hanson was hospitalized with a fractured jaw – reportedly sustained during an altercation with head coach Tom Cable, who has denied his involvement – Davis has once again been confronted with a culture steeped in incidents involving internal turmoil.
(On Wednesday night a source close to Hanson told Yahoo! Sports that the coach is back in a hospital because of swelling in his jaw. The source insisted Cable “is definitely” responsible for the injury and that “I was told Tom had to be pulled off of him two times.”)
Violent confrontations between employees is nothing new for a franchise that has compiled the NFL’s worst overall record (24-72) during the past six seasons. Interviews with numerous current and former players, coaches and front-office employees reveal a consistent pattern of physically charged clashes, most of which went unreported. In addition, the principals rarely incurred overt discipline, creating the impression that lawlessness is a way of life in Raiderland.
“It’s never a dull moment,” says USC receivers coach John Morton, who worked for the Raiders in various capacities from 1997-2004. “It’s hard to be a Raider – it’s not for everybody. If you’re a player or coach, you’ve got to have thick skin. And every time you hear something about the Raiders, it’s something that’s kind of crazy.”
Added another former Raiders assistant who recently worked for the team: “The environment sucks there. Everybody just wants their side to do well so Al doesn’t call them out. Trust me, after what just happened with Cable, this staff already knows they’re fired.”
Given that Davis, among NFL owners, has unrivaled involvement in the day-to-day operation of his franchise, there’s no question that he bears a great deal of responsibility for the contentious environment.
“I just think that’s Al’s way,” says Packers cornerback Charles Woodson(notes), who spent his first eight NFL seasons (1998-2005) in Oakland. “There are forces pulling you every which way, and it just seems like people are never on the same page.”
Or, as one Raiders veteran said earlier this week in response to the Cable incident, “Just another day at the office around here. You know how that goes. It’s always something.”
Among the incidents recalled by that player and some of his former teammates and coaches was a practice-field confrontation at the team’s Alameda, Calif., training headquarters late in 2004 between Morton, then the team’s tight ends coach, and tight end Teyo Johnson(notes). It occurred three days before the final regular-season game after Johnson, an underachieving ’03 second-round NFL draft pick, ran the wrong route in practice.
Several witnesses say that, after Morton loudly upbraided Johnson for his mistake, the player angrily got in the coach’s face and shoved him in the chest. The two men screamed at one another in close proximity before they were separated by players and coaches.
“No, he didn’t push me,” Morton insists. “He got up in my face and chest-bumped me or something. He just snapped and started going off – you know, a player being macho. You’ve got to know your limitations.”
The confrontation brought an end to practice, and as Johnson walked off the field, one former player remembers Davis’ odd reaction: “He was standing in the north end zone and as Teyo walked by Al said, ‘Teyo – you can’t win ‘em all.’ ”
According to the same player Johnson was not disciplined by Davis or then-coach Norv Turner. Johnson remained on the roster until the following summer, when he was released at the end of the preseason. Morton was not retained after the ’04 season.
“They fired the coach and kept the player,” the former player said. “That’s what they do in Oakland.”
In October of 2005 another incident occurred, this time with the coach as the aggressor. According to several people who witnessed the incident, Martin Bayless, then Oakland’s defensive backs coach, got physical with then-rookie cornerback Stanford Routt(notes) in the Oakland Coliseum locker room following the Raiders’ 38-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills.
Witnesses say Bayless was enraged that Routt, who is still with the team, had refused to enter the game as part of the field-goal rush unit, forcing a veteran to race onto the field in his place. Bayless, who did not return messages seeking comment, chewed out Routt at the player’s locker shortly after the game, and things quickly escalated.
“[Bayless] jacked him up into his locker and shoved him down,” recalls one witness who played for the ’05 Raiders.
These as-yet-unreported incidents came in the wake of a high-profile 2003 assault by linebacker Bill Romanowski on teammate Marcus Williams. Punched by Romanowski following a practice-field dispute, Williams sustained a serious eye injury that effectively ended his career. He later filed a civil suit against his Romanowski and was ultimately awarded $340,000 in damages.
“That [punch] got the publicity, but I saw so many things like that,” says one former Raiders player who is now with another team. “I saw a player push a coach and get his game check taken away. Other players would cuss out coaches and get away with it. One coach made a smartass comment and a player pushed him almost to the ground. I saw a coach take a swing at a player. Coaches were verbally going after other coaches. And guys were getting drunk in meetings or coming to practice still drunk from the night before. They’d throw up before we went out on the field, or you could smell the liquor on their breath.”
Some of the franchise’s dysfunction was revealed last Sept. 30 when Davis, in a televised news conference that lasted more than 90 minutes, announced that he had fired second-year coach Lane Kiffin and was promoting Cable, then the offensive line coach, as the interim replacement. Davis said he was firing Kiffin “for cause” – meaning he intended to withhold the balance of the coach’s contract – and part of his case included Kiffin’s treatment of Hanson, the team’s second-year assistant defensive backs coach.
After Hanson reportedly made a derogatory remark in a coach’s meeting following the team’s 41-14 defeat to the Denver Broncos in the ’08 season opener, Kiffin suspended him for five days without Davis’ knowledge.
Following the season, Davis retained Cable as head coach but purged defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and the rest of the team’s defensive assistants – except for Hanson, who remained on the staff with a new title.
According to several sources, Hanson was seen as a Davis favorite and confidante, and thus was resented by numerous players and coaches, particularly Cable.
“Randy Hanson thought he was the smartest guy in the world,” one former Raiders player says. “In our first game [in ’07], we went up against [offensive coordinator] Mike Martz and the Lions, and he went around bragging that he had ‘cracked the code.’ That game [a 36-21 Detroit victory] was a joke – we were out there guessing and getting our asses kicked. In the fourth quarter Martz didn’t call a single play that Randy Hanson had ever seen. Yeah, he sure ‘cracked that code.’ ”
Hanson, several former and current players say, was suspected by his peers of feeding information to Davis.
“The guy’s considered a snitch,” says one player who was with the team in 2007. “Al would come to practice every Thursday and see what we had installed, so if Rob [Ryan] or Lane wanted to put something in the game plan without him knowing, they’d have to put it in for the Friday practice or the [Saturday] walk-through. But [Davis] would find out and get mad, and they thought Hanson was the guy telling him. We didn’t trust him, either.”
It’s unclear whether Cable’s potential mistrust of Hanson precipitated the Aug. 5 incident that landed the assistant in the hospital, but several sources familiar with the two men believe this was the case. On Monday, AOL FanHouse reported that Cable had hit Hanson and that the assistant “never saw it coming.” A police report taken at Queen of the Valley Hospital in Napa on Aug. 6 identified neither Hanson nor the attacker.
Hanson was not at practice on Monday when the FanHouse report surfaced and has not been spotted in at the Raiders’ facilities since (as of Wednesday evening). At the start of their Monday afternoon practice a group of Raiders made light of the incident, chanting “Cable, Bumaye” – a reference to the “Ali, Bumaye” chant in Zaire during the 1974 “Rumble In The Jungle” heavyweight fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. (The chant translates to “Cable Kill Him!)
On Monday Cable declined to discuss the reported incident, calling it an internal matter. He reversed course in a conversation that evening with ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth, his former teammate at the University of Idaho, claiming “nothing happened” – words he repeated to a large gathering of reporters after the first joint practice with the 49ers on Tuesday morning.
Hanson, according to one friend, is deliberately sitting back on the advice of his lawyers while Cable and other Raiders officials make potentially damning statements. It is believed by some in the organization that Davis will compensate Hanson for his trouble and attempt to remedy the situation by shifting him to the personnel department.
On Wednesday, as Romanowski looked on as a credentialed camp visitor, the Raiders’ offensive unit appeared shell-shocked in its competition with the fired-up 49ers, who grew louder with each interception or pass-breakup. Afterward, Cable blamed himself for the struggles, telling reporters he’d instructed Russell to “cut it loose” near the end zone, which led to unnecessary risks.
However, Cable questioned his players’ passive reaction to the beat-down, adding, “Those kinds of things happen to you in a game, so you’ve got to be able to handle those adversity moments and just get back on the horse and go again. I didn’t think we did a very good job of that, but I may have put them in a negative situation, too.”
If Cable is found by the league to be culpable in the Hanson incident, he may have put his players in a negative situation that could set a tenuous tone for the ’09 season and put his job in jeopardy.
Then again, as his owner could certainly attest, you can’t win ‘em all.
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