Plunkett on Davis: ‘He unlocked the best in me’
I can remember the mounting, self-imposed pressure to this day and, most importantly, how Al Davis handled it so perfectly.
In 1980, my 10th season in the NFL and my third with the Oakland Raiders, I was at a crossroads. As we got ready for the sixth game that season – Don Coryell’s offensive juggernaut from San Diego was coming to town – I was going to get a chance to start for the first time in more than two years.
For most of my life, starting was a foregone conclusion. But after seven mostly unproductive seasons on struggling teams in New England and San Francisco, I was relegated to backup status with Oakland. For a time, being a backup was OK. It was a chance for me to get my confidence back. But now, I had this chance to prove to fans and the rest of the league that I still could play. I desperately wanted to show everyone that I wasn’t a has-been, a former No. 1 overall pick and Heisman Trophy winner whose athletic highlights seemingly came and went by the time I was 23.
And that was just the personal side. Throw into the mix that the Raiders were 2-3 at the time. I had played a role in that, coming in as a backup the previous week when Dan Pastorini broke his leg. I threw five interceptions as Kansas City won for the first time. I could explain away that performance a little as getting thrown into a bad situation. Those games happen.
[Photos: Al Davis through the years]
This game against San Diego was different. This was my chance to be on stage again, to be the man in charge and to be at the center of what was probably going to be a high-scoring game. That’s when Al came up to me and did everything he could to make the pressure vanish. That’s when Al helped turn my career around.
“It’s not important you play well,” Al said. “It’s important we win. If you go five of 15 and we win, that’s OK.”
I was good that day, going 11 of 14 with one touchdown. More important, the Raiders were great that day, winning 38-24, and from that moment forward. The rest of the story of that season is well-chronicled. We went 9-2 the rest of the season, made the playoffs, won the Super Bowl against Philadelphia. I was Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year. I was the Super Bowl MVP. I proved everything I wanted to and more. Three seasons later, we won the Super Bowl again before I finished the rest of my career as a backup, finally retiring in 1986.
Of all my moments with Al in the more than three decades I have been with and around the Raiders, I remember those three sentences and 21 words most. Al did for me what he had done for so many others. He unlocked the best in me.
That, to me, is the real story of Al Davis, who died Saturday at 82.
Sure, you can get lost in the controversies. That’s easy and, to a large extent, Al liked it. He liked the image he projected of himself and his team. He liked being a maverick. He liked the mystique.
But he always did that with the intent to achieve greatness. While critics will look at the last decade or so as a sign of how much Al had lost, you have to understand how much he had. Al wasn’t just a brilliant football man, both on and off the field. He wasn’t just a great coach and personnel evaluator. He wasn’t simply dedicated to being great for himself. He was all those things. Plus, he was the antagonist who drove his opponents to be great just so they could beat him. While some people dismiss him as sinister, he was the very definition of sand in the oyster.
Without Al, the NFL’s journey to becoming the crown jewel of American sports would have been much longer. Al was more than happy to play the villain. He poked and prodded and cajoled the best out of everyone. He made football more than a great sport; he made it a drama with the Raiders as one of the teams you either loved or loved to hate.
[Related: Al Davis revered, respected, reviled]
For me and many other Raider greats like John Matuszak, Lyle Alzado and Ted Hendricks, he also was able to coax something out of us that didn’t materialize at other places. Sure, a lot of that had to do with talent, but it was more than that. In some cases, he drove us to be champions just by giving us another chance. That was especially true for Matuszak, Alzado and me. Each of us had the talent all along, but for a variety of reasons it didn’t come out completely until we got to the Raiders.
When I got cut by San Francisco after the 1977 season, I was devastated, depressed. It was the low point in a string of years I never expected coming out of Stanford. That offseason, my agent, Wayne Hooper, set up a meeting with Al. Hooper’s office also was in Oakland, so it was easy. There were several teams interested, but I didn’t want to pick up and leave the Bay Area again. More important, when Al came to meet me, all he did was talk about how much he liked me coming out of college, how tough he thought I was and how much he admired what I had done under the circumstances. With Al, you always had to listen for a while when he got going.
I signed to back up Kenny Stabler, and I truly was a backup. My first year, I never played. In 1979, I threw 15 passes. When Stabler and the Raiders got into a contract dispute in 1980, he eventually was traded for Pastorini and I stayed the backup until Pastorini got hurt.
What I learned to appreciate during that time was how dedicated Al was to the team and the players. Al was more than an owner. On most teams, the owner is the owner, you don’t see him very much. Al was at practice all the time, especially the heavy practice days on Wednesday and Thursday. He was always yelling encouragement or teaching. You’d hear him say, “Hold the ball high when you’re dropping back.”
The most important quality is that he treated us like men. At that stage of my career, I wasn’t going to be able to play for someone like Dick Vermeil, who ran everything like a boot camp. Al let men be men. If you were two minutes late for a meeting, he didn’t fine you. If you were habitually late, it got taken care of by the players. There was structure even if it didn’t seem like there was structure. Al picked guys who might have been a little different – OK, some of us were a little nuts – but everyone cared about winning. You might not get every guy’s undivided attention during the week, but come Sunday everybody was ready to play.
Al understood that and he could expect it because the guys saw him all the time. They saw his dedication. He was accountable and the players couldn’t help but feel the same way. I think that may have been part of the problem the last few years. Al just couldn’t physically be out there as much as he got older. I think the current players didn’t get a chance to see what Al really was about, and the accountability was lost. The same was true of personnel. When Al could see the players up close and really understand who they were, he was amazing at picking guys who could help us. Maybe this guy could be a good third-down back. Or this linebacker who got cut by some other team, Al saw that he had a couple of good years left and could help us as a pass rusher.
Al’s vision went beyond the field. He saw the future of pay television and of marketing the team. Whenever the league would do a marketing deal with one company, you always saw Al work with the other company to work a deal. He knew he would have to upgrade the stadium and he knew he never was going to get the cooperation from Oakland. That’s why he moved to Los Angeles. When Los Angeles didn’t follow through on the promises made to him, he had to go back. Really, I think that worked out better. The Raiders really never were an L.A. team. They were a small-town team, a neighborhood team. Oakland fit much better, but Al knew he had to push the business side of the team.
Of course, there were the lawsuits and the controversies. I think some of that took away from his focus on the team, but it wasn’t like he was off doing something else. Again, everything about Al was about being great in football. If you returned that dedication, he loved you and he was loyal. You look around the Raiders, and you see all the old players who work for the team – maybe in scouting or coaching or somewhere else. I used to hear from other players that they couldn’t get jobs with their team. They had to go somewhere else to get started after they were done playing.
That wasn’t how Al ran things. He was all in and if you were all in, there was a bond. It was always about football, always about pushing the right buttons with people, like what he did for me.
Or like the times, he’d call my house late at night during the week of a game. Al would call between 10 and midnight all the time, just to find out what I was thinking about the game, what was on my mind. A couple of times, I’d be out drinking with some friends or whatever, and he’d end up talking to my wife. This was before cell phones, so she’d take a message, but he always would be a little upset that I wasn’t around.
That was Al. All day, every day, he was all about the game and being great.