Raiders owner Mark Davis is in over his head
Back in the spring of 2008, when he was very much in charge of the Oakland Raiders’ singularly peculiar organization, Al Davis presided over a predraft meeting at the team’s Alameda, Calif., training facility. As coaches and personnel officials discussed what to do with the fourth overall pick, which the team would ultimately use to select Arkansas halfback Darren McFadden, the Hall of Fame owner’s son, Mark, casually drifted into the room.
“Mark,” Davis said, stopping the meeting and sounding genuinely interested. “What do you think we should do?”
Caught off guard, the younger Davis mumbled something about needing a wide receiver.
“A [expletive] receiver?” Al Davis snapped, his voice rising. “Get the [expletive] out of here.”
And with that, the heir to one of the NFL’s most storied franchises slinked out of the room and continued with the rest of his day.
I cite this incident not to illustrate that Al Davis had a mean streak and did not suffer fools gladly, even when the fool in question was his only child. Nor is it necessary as a means of proving that Mark Davis doesn’t know much about personnel – he essentially admitted that Tuesday at the news conference announcing the hiring of general manager Reggie McKenzie (a potentially sound move) and the firing of head coach Hue Jackson (an astonishingly dumb one).
No, the reason I share this story – which was related to me by a former member of the Raiders’ coaching staff who witnessed it – is to explain why I think the younger Davis made a coaching change after Jackson’s promising, 8-8 rookie season: To project an image of authority, Mark Davis needs to surround himself with employees who didn’t see him routinely disparaged and condescended to by his legendary father.
“We were all in that room,” the ex-Raiders assistant coach said, referring to the aforementioned draft meeting. “We saw Mark get kicked out like a little [expletive] puppy dog, in front of everyone.”
Another former Raiders coach said that he “saw [Al Davis] tell Mark to ‘shut the [expletive] up’ all the time. It was a regular occurrence. He treated him like his opinion didn’t matter.”
It matters now, and has mattered since Oct. 8, when Al Davis died of congestive heart failure at the age of 82. That Mark Davis would assume his father’s role as nominal owner was part of the succession plan, but this was not a man being groomed as Al 2.0. As numerous Raiders insiders will attest, that ship had sailed – and crashed and burned – a long time ago.
Some owners’ offspring, such as the Patriots’ Jonathan Kraft, the Cincinnati Bengals’ Katie Blackburn and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Art Rooney II, are shrewd, engaged presences entrusted to operate their respective franchises at the highest levels. Others, such as the Indianapolis Colts’ Jimmy Irsay and the 49ers’ Jed York, inherit ownership and obviously outshine their parents.
Mark Davis is Tommy Boy, trying not to face-plant on a table full of beers. And the thought of presiding over a team with a brash, intelligent and charismatic coach who knew how dismissively his father used to treat him had to be a daunting prospect.
So, in my opinion, Davis did what many bosses do when they feel threatened by someone with a superior skill set and an aversion to brown-nosing: He kneecapped Jackson. And I suspect that the owner will encourage McKenzie to clean out as many people on the football side of the building as he can, if only to start fresh with a new crop of employees who don’t have visceral images of his inglorious past.
On a positive note, he didn’t botch his first hire. McKenzie is a Ron Wolf protégé who had a long, highly regarded stint in the Packers’ front office, and on paper he is a good choice. McKenzie claimed at Tuesday’s news conference that he was the one who wanted to get rid of Jackson, and I’m not necessarily questioning that – it’s possible that both the GM and owner wanted the coach gone, or that the latter gave clear and obvious signals to the former during their interview.
Now, about that interview process: I like that the great John Madden, whom I respect as much as I do anyone in football, and other experienced NFL executives (Wolf and former Falcons general manager Ken Herock) were advising Davis. As I said, I don’t believe the outcome was necessarily bad.
However, Davis said during Tuesday’s media session that he had conducted one interview, a six-hour visit with McKenzie, before making his decision. One candidate? Seriously?
If this was merely a case of a new business executive wanting to bring in his own people, then how overmatched is Davis in the big chair? There are so many talented personnel executives with GM potential in this league, it’s not even funny. Some of them aggressively pursued the vacant Raiders job, eager to land an interview and persuade Davis that they were the right choice to run the franchise.
By way of comparison, the 49ers’ York had pretty much settled on internal candidate Trent Baalke as his next general manager last year. However, York still went through the interview process, meeting with several experienced and highly regarded external candidates, if only to do due diligence and prepare himself for his next hire.
And Davis? He had a single meeting with a single candidate and handed him the keys – as well as the all-important choice over who should coach the team.
In my opinion, and that of many other respected NFL executives and coaches to whom I’ve spoken, the new coaching hire is likely to be a downgrade. While Jackson wasn’t perfect, he is an exceptional play-caller who did wonders with the previously pathetic offense he inherited as Tom Cable’s coordinator in 2010 – and who created an upbeat, aggressive atmosphere that brought out the fire in many of his players (including veteran defensive end Richard Seymour, who stuck up for Jackson in my column Tuesday).
Yes, the Raiders made too many mistakes, setting NFL single-season records for penalties and penalty yards, and yes, they came out flat in a couple of important games this year. Jackson’s bold public comments may have gotten him in trouble, and his willingness to fill the short-term power vacuum after Al Davis’ death (and his push to acquire Carson Palmer in a trade with the Bengals) might have chafed owners far more impressive than the one who fired him.
With all of that said, many people see Jackson as a rising star in this profession, and I am one of them. That may not interest you, but this should: Someone who felt even more strongly about Jackson’s potential was Al Davis, who hired him to salvage Cable’s pathetic offense and then enthusiastically entrusted him with the whole operation.
Jackson likes to reference his conversations with the late owner too much for some people’s tastes, but the fact is he was being groomed to be a powerful head coach who understood the Raider Way. In that sense, he was being treated more like an heir than Mark Davis was – think Maximus and Commodus in “Gladiator” – another understandable source of tension and insecurity for the man on the wrong end of that equation.
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For that reason, more than one person familiar with the late owner’s mindset told me Tuesday that, as Mark Davis sat at the podium and discussed Jackson’s dismissal, “Al was rolling over in his grave.”
At one point during the session, Davis answered a question about whether his father had left behind any instructions on running the franchise. Davis explained that he “used to talk to my dad on the phone every night … and talk about football and the organization and things of that nature.”
A few seconds later, the lights went out, and a movie screen eerily descended behind the podium. The only thing missing was an overhead projector – and Al’s ghostly image appearing onscreen, pointing a finger at his son and ordering him to “get the [expletive] out of here.”
Instead, the lights went back on – and the lights officially went out on an era. It’s Tommy Boy’s show now, and he does not suffer intelligent coaches who know his history gladly.
2. Baltimore Ravens: How crazy is it that Michael Oher may have helped save referee Tony Corrente’s life by knocking him on his butt last September – and can we expect the story to be dramatized in an upcoming movie called “The Backside”?
3. San Francisco 49ers: Is any skill-position player with 17 catches or fewer more important to his offense than Delanie Walker – and how huge would it be if he can return from a broken jaw to face the Saints on Saturday?
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6. New York Giants: Will Cal defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi be watching Sunday’s game between old friends Dave Tollefson and Aaron Rodgers, or will he be too busy putting the finishing touches on one of the best recruiting classes in the country?
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