Al Davis is dead.
I look at those words and wonder, as a life-long Raider fan, if they’re really true. I keep thinking he’s in some specialized life-sustaining machine that he’s had built for his inevitable demise—like something Mr. Burns from The Simpsons would have built. And I wouldn’t put it past him, after all Davis and Mr. Burns were not all that dissimilar.
After many painful and frustrating years as a fan, I find myself at a crossroads with his death. On one hand, I feel badly for his family. On the other as a fan, I’m reluctantly rejoicing as Al destroyed the team and mystique that surrounded it that he had once so proudly built. For almost the last 10 years, the Raiders have been the “Ishtar” of professional football, as rudderless as the Titanic and as about as feared as a 6-week old yellow Labrador puppy.
All Sunday I thought about Al, but it was Bob Costas’ comments during Sunday Night Football that really summed things up into a nice little package that I could accept.
Costas noted that Al was an American original, a pioneer in football, starting with founding the AFL in 1960. He hired the first Hispanic (Tom Flores) and black (Art Shell) head coaches in the NFL. He reclaimed players from football’s scrap heap, like Ted Hendricks, Lyle Alzado, Jim Plunkett, Rich Gannon and others, and turned them into stars, MVPs and Hall of Famers. He built the “vertical offense” with wide receivers like Cliff Branch and Rocket Ishmael.
Costas pulled no punches in noting that Davis was known for his vindictive and petty nature, yet never provided examples outside of Marcus Allen. But I can. His grievances with players (Marcus Allen), coaches (John Madden, Lane Kiffin and Jon Gruden) and, most notably, Hall of Fame commissioner Pete Rozelle, were maddening. Costas called out Davis’ penchant for suing people—sometimes justifiably, sometimes not—yet he never called Davis for strong-arming the City of Oakland, not once, not twice, but a full three times by my count.
Costas’ fair and balanced comments were in stark contrast to the glowing and sympathetic comments left by fellow Raider fans on Facebook. Did they not know the Al I knew? I guess not. Or they’re just kinder than I can manage to be. I left thinking that Al was nothing less than a contemptible, scheming, bitter, stubborn greedy and petty lout, utterly lacking in humility and self-awareness—particularly during the last couple of decades of his life. And that’s not even mentioning how badly the conceptual way in which the game of football is played had passed him by.
Perhaps I’m still angry at how Davis ripped the Raiders out of Oakland and headed for the supposed Benjamin Franklin lined streets of Los Angeles. As a 15-year old kid at the time, that move crushed me. It crushed my dad, too. Our love of the Raiders was a great bond. And while that bond would never come undone, we shared a common heartache when they left. My heartache deepened more with the passing of my dad in 1984, and my love of the Raiders, and of football at large, weakened greatly. I felt betrayed by Al.
Shockingly, the Raiders moved back to Oakland in 1994. I was elated. I had a new found love of football and of the Raiders. Yet I remained cautious. I waited for the other shoe to drop, for Al to move them somewhere—Reno, Portland, Louisville, who the hell knows—anywhere he could make more of a profit. (I don’t fault Davis for wanting to make a profit; but for him an 8-10% profit margin, average for most successful businesses, was never enough.) But he didn’t; the Raiders stayed. And they even succeeded in the late 90s and early 2000s in spite of his meddling and complaining and hatred of the West Coast offense. Then Davis ripped it all apart with his pettiness and firing of Jon Gruden and The Raiders remained the butt of the NFL until his death.
Will the Raiders grass be greener now that he’s gone? I think so. Or, I’d like to anyway. Be careful what you wish for, right? Of course. The team is already better and has been getting better than last 2-3 years—again, in spite of Davis’ terrible meddling. I don’t see any more Darius Heyward-Bey or JaMarus Russell draft picks; a carousel of coaches; crazy-ass press conferences. Hell, they might even find a decent QB some day. Yup, with Davis’ death and inability to meddle, there’s now hope for the Raiders franchise to return to prominence.
Costas ended by calling Davis “a rebel, a renegade, a Raider”. I think that’s a true statement. Al was all of those things. I just don’t think they are very admirable or good things.
RIP, Al—try not to sue anybody wherever you are. I don’t think you’ll like the response.