Al Davis

Composed after watching the NFL Films America’s Game.

Nothing stirs the emotion quite like the NFL propaganda machine.

Revolving around the lyrics of Sinatra’s “My Way.”

No one has created a legacy that matches the Raiders’ owner.

In appreciation of a true character, a maverick, a living legend. The one, the only Al Davis.

The Autumn Wind is the national anthem forOaklandRaider fans. The poem, written by NFL Films’ Steve Sabol, helped define the Raider mystique. But, for the architect of Raider Nation, another song is more apt. Al Davis embodies the lyrics of “My Way,” the tune made famous by Ole Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra. This week,Davisdid another thing that left NFL fans wondering if theOaklandowner was off his medication; he made Sebastian Janikowski the league’s highest paid kicker with a four year deal worth up to $16 million dollars, with $9 million guaranteed. Now, the Raiders have football’s highest paid special teams unit: he re-signed All Pro punter to a similar deal last off-season.

The decision, no doubt, caused league executives to roll their eyes before pounding their heads into the wall. Once again,Davishas created uproars in front offices fromSan DiegotoBuffalo. The deal, so far outside the normal pay structure for kicking specialists, baffled even Janikowski’s agent. He conceded that it was a “monstrous contract.” Typically, the agent announced the terms of the deal; reporters inquiring about the transaction were ignored byDavis. The team, heretofore, has not published a press report. Actions speak louder than words; with this deal,Davismade a bold declaration—no words were necessary.

To think I did all that

And may I say, not in a shy way,

Oh no, oh no not me, I did it my way.

Al Davis came toOaklandnearly fifty years ago with one goal in mind: to make the Raiders the finest organization in professional sports. For two decades, he did just that. The young coach fromBrooklyninherited a laughing stock franchise that played its games in dilapidated old Frank Youell Field, a temporary home for a lagging franchise. The facility served the team while theOaklandColosseum was under construction.  The poor home field matched perfectly with the sad franchise. Just a few years into the experiment known as the American Football League, the Raiders had become a cellar dweller. In fact, it took a $500,000 loan from Bills owner, Ralph Wilson, to keep the franchise financially afloat.

Al Davis changed the culture overnight. The 33 year old GM and head coach made swift changes; his first order of business was changing the team colors to Silver and Black. He came fromSan Diego, where he learned about the passing game while serving as an assistant coach under West Coast offensive innovator Sid Gilman—who brought such changes as the man in motion into professional football. That first year,DavisbroughtOaklanda winner, leading the team to a 10-4 record. Two years later, the young man found his quarterback, Daryle Lamonica (the Mad Bomber)who brought an AFL championship toOaklandwith a 13-1 record. Led by an explosive offense and a defense known as the 11 Angry Men, the Raiders marched into Super Bowl II, where they suffered a 32-14 defeat to the Lombardi Packers. In 1969,Davishad relinquished head coaching responsibilities and brought in a young John Madden to direct the franchise on the field.

Madden built a perennial winner. The team won consistently throughout the 1970s but always seemed to fall short of their nemesis, thePittsburghSteelers. First, Franco Harris stoleOakland’s thunder with the Immaculate Reception. A few years later, the two teams scared off on an icy field.Oaklandentered the game primed to make its second Super Bowl appearance. A week earlier, at home in sunnyOakland, they knocked out the two time defending Super Bowl championMiamiDolphins in the famous “SeaofHands” game. Driving late, needing a touchdown to win, Kenny Stabler orchestrated a play for the ages. The play developed slowly…the pocket collapsed, forcing Stabler to scramble…the Dolphin front seven descended upon Stabler, who heaved a pass into the end zone as his knee headed toward the turf. Amazingly, a Raider came down with the ball amidst aSeaofHandsto deliver the victory forOakland. After knocking out the champs, the Raiders turned their attention to a bitter rival. By this time, no love was lost between the franchises. Both Davis and coach John Madden felt the league had jobbed them with the Immaculate Reception. Now, they returned toPittsburghintending to kick ass. After all, revenge is a dish best served cold.

Throughout the week, frigid weather descended onPittsburgh. The Steelers covered the field, hoping to make playing conditions as ideal as possible. On game day, the field was a mess. Overnight, a mysterious tear in the field tarp allowed parts of the field to freeze—the very parts whereOaklandreceivers normally lined up to go deep. The field conditions forced the offense to narrow the field, thus giving the Steel Curtain an upper hand in their quest to keep the Raider offense at bay.Daviswas furious and viewed this as a clear effort to deny his pass happy Raider bunch their competitive advantage.  The game turned ugly quickly. Early in the game,Oaklandsafety George Atkinson clothes-lined receiver Lynn Swann, knocking thePittsburghreceiver out of the game…this hit, coupled with another hit on Swann early the next season led Steeler coach Chuck Noll to label the Raiders a “criminal element.” Like many disputes involving the Raiders, this accusation ended up in court.  Despite their tough play, the Raiders were no match for the Steelers that freezing Sunday inPittsburgh. Terry Bradshaw and the Steel Curtain led the franchise to Super Bowl X, where a recovered Lynn Swann made a series of highlight reel catches helping the team secure its second straight championship and greatly elevating Swann’s Hall of Fame credentials.

But enough about that Steelers crap. Back to the Raiders.

John Madden led his team to the promised land a year later and finally got the monkey off his back. The franchise pummeled theMinnesotaVikings in Super Bowl XI. That afternoon, the team put their heavy coach on their backs as Madden road into the late Rose Bowl sunset. Al Davis finally had his championship.

Two years later, Madden retired to pursue a career in television broadcasting. Davis replaced him with Tom Flores, in doing so, giving the first Hispanic head coaching responsibilities in NFL history.Floresdidn’t disappoint. He led a great rebuilding effort—after the wear and tear of age and injuries left many of Super Bowl XI heroes no longer able to wear the Silver and Black.

No one expected much of the 1980 Raiders. This was clearly a rebuilding year as the team transitioned away from the players who made it a special franchise in the 1970s.  It turned into memorable, marked by a new cast of characters that perfectly fit the Raider franchise. While George Allen of the Washington Redskins was famous for his unwillingness to play rookies, Al Davis perfected the art of finding outcasts— older players who had struck out with other teams—and bringing them into Oakland. In the Bay Area with a second chance, they blossomed and fulfilled their talent. 1980’s reclamation project was Jim Plunkett, a former no. 1 draft pick whose career had come on hard times. He began losing his way back inNew England, where that sad franchise never surrounded him with elite talent. His career odyssey led him toSan Francisco, where his fortunes continued to flounder. Now, Plunkett feared his time in professional football was over; that is, until he received a call from Al Davis.

Plunkett sat the bench forOaklandduring the first few games. Then, fate intervened. An injury at quarterback forced Plunkett into action. There he helped mold a winner. Through a series of ups and downs, Plunkett led his team to a wild card birth. Once in the playoffs, the franchise caught lighting in a bottle.

Red Right 88. The term still causes ClevelandBrown fans to tremble. In the 1980 Divisional Playoff game, Oaklandtraveled to frigid Clevelandto take on a team affectionately known as the Kardiac Kids. The game took place in brutal conditions, with winds whipping off of Lake Eriemaking conditions nearly unbearable…the wind chill at gametime was -36. Oaklandplayed solidly and grabbed a late fourth quarter lead. Then, predictably, the Kardiac Kids made a late drive. Needing only a field goal to win the game, Clevelanddecided to take one last chance at the end zone on 3rd down at theOakland 13. Before the play, quarterback Brian Sipe took a timeout to confer with coach Sam Rutigliano. The last thing Rutigliano said before sending his field general out on the field, was that if the play wasn’t there, “throw it (the ball) intoLake Erie.”

Sipe headed out on the field. He called the play and found an open tight end Ozzie Newsome in the back of the end zone. He released. Then, nature took over. The ball hit the wind and stayed in the air forever. Mike Davis jumped in front of the ball. Mike Davis, the man who couldn’t catch the ball with loads of Stick Em, the gooey substance made famous by Oakland Hall of Fame receiver Fred Bilitnikoff, on his hands. This time he did…and with it, the fate of two franchises changed. . The Browns never made it to the promised land—they remain one of two original franchises to never make a Super Bowl appearance (along with the woeful Lions). Instead, they suffered a series of gut wrenching defeats, most notably The Drive, in AFC Championship appearances.Oaklandheaded to the Super Bowl where it handedly defeated thePhiladelphiaEagles in Super Bowl XV. Owner Al Davis declared the championship, the first ever secured by a wild card team, “the finest hour in the history of theOaklandRaiders.” Three years later, the Raiders led by Marcus Allen’s famous Run with the Night, thrashed theWashingtonRedskins to capture their third title in less than a decade

I planned each charted course, each careful way along the byway

And more, much more than this, I did it my way.

Those championships and that sustained greatness led Al Davis into the Hall of Fame. But more important, in some ways, was his role as a racial pioneer. He made Tom Flores his head coach and the Mexican-American became a two time Super Bowl winning head coach, and a legitimate Hall of Fame coaching candidate. After all, if Marv Levy, Bud Grant and other coaches litterCantonwithout a single Lombardi Trophy, how can a two time winner not warrant serious consideration? After the Flores era ended,Davisbrought in his old left tackle Art Shell to lead the men in silver and black. This made Shell the second African-American head coach in professional football history—the first in the Super Bowl era. Shell took over the reigns in 1990 and held the job until 1994; twelve years later, he took over again for a short stint as head coach.

Davisdid more than give minorities head coaching opportunities. He brought in a series of young, unknown coaches and gave them head coaching responsibilities. Some panned out, others didn’t. John Madden ended up in Canton; others such as Lane Kiffin, Bill Callahan, Tom Cable didn’t work out so well. None created the controversy of Jon Gruden, who rebuilt the Raiders in the late 1990s and made them a legitimate Super Bowl threat. Then he and Davis had a falling out and Gruden wanted to catch the first plane out of town.Davisgranted his wish and allowed his head coach to replace Tony Dungy inTampaBay. But, he forced the Glazer brothers, theTampaowners, to pay a small fortune for Gruden’s services.OaklandcollectedTampa’s first round picks in 2002 and 2003 while bagging second round picks in 2002 and 2004. The Glazers also forked over $8 million to get their man;Davismade out for himself quite nicely. TheDavismagic struck yet again; he’d managed to find yet another diamond in the rough by ridding himself of the Gruden headache and getting rich in draft picks and cash in the process.

For what is a man, what has he got?

If not himself, then he has naught

To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels

The record shows, I took the blows, and did it my way!

The Raiders never go along to get along. They have remained the NFL’s bad boys for over forty years. Players like Ben Davidson, George Atkinson, and Lyle Aizado embodied this take-no-prisoners mentality. Their play on the field always seemed to toe the line of acceptable football behavior. The franchise takes its direction from the owner, who all too often, makes his men think life is a constant struggle between the Raiders and the NFL. This conflict dates back to 1966 whenDavistook a leave of absence from the Raiders to take over as AFL Commissioner. The AFL and NFL were at war, battling for the hearts of professional football fans acrossAmerica. The AFL was the little brother, full of piss and vinegar. It was the yapping dog that the NFL couldn’t quite shut up. Like all great fights, the two sides had a distinct identity and different styles. The NFL was the Packer Sweep… three yards and a pile of dust. The AFL threw the football around. It took its shape from the likes of Sid Gilman and Al Davis…filling the game with the vertical passing attack.

The AFL owners, derided by the NFL throughout the 1960s, wanted to fight and needed a warrior to lead them. Emboldened by a new television contract from NBC, the junior league finally achieved financial parity with the NFL. Now, they needed a general who could lead them. For six years, Joe Faust, a retired war hero, had led the new league. In 1966, he stepped down and the AFL owners, once called the foolish club for challenging the supremacy of the NFL, choseDavisto lead them.  This change occurred at a critical time in professional football history. For two years, a bidding war for the services of college talent had skyrocketed the costs of running a franchise. Meanwhile, a gentlemen’s agreements forbid either league from signing free-agents from the other. This allowed both sides to keep some financial sanity. However, each year brought more bidding wars and higher costs for graduating collegians. The AFL prevailed in two of the most striking examples: conflicts for Otis Taylor and Joe Namath.Taylor, a bruising tight end who possessed soft hands came out of Prairie View A&M. Both the NFL’sDallasCowboys and the AFL’sKansas CityChiefs wantedTaylorbadly. The Cowboys felt they had their man and wanted to keep him locked down until the young tight end signed a contract. The Chiefs found out the Cowboys hadTaylorsequestered at a hotel inRichardson,Texas. Chief personnel made a mad dash to the hotel and snuckTaylorout a window- getting him to sign a contract before the Cowboys could grab his attention again. Joe Namath, meanwhile, became the darling of bothNew Yorkfranchises. The stud quarterback who had led Bear Bryant’sAlabamateams had a big arm and a bright future. The Jets and Giants began a bidding war and exchanged heated words at each other in theNew Yorkpapers. Sonny Werblin, the Jets owner, made an offer that simply flabbergasted both Namath and the Mara’s, owners of the NY Giants. He signed theAlabamaquarterback for a then record $400,000. This proved to be a huge coup for both the Jets and the AFL. Namath became a 4,000 yard passer and led the Jets to victory in Super Bowl III.

With salaries skyrocketing, the NFL was in a pinch. The NBC television made the long-term viability of the AFL a reality. Now, under Al Davis’s leadership, the AFL wanted to crush the senior league. Wellington Mara, the Giants owner, gaveDavisthe ammunition he needed to do just that. Mara needed to make a splash. Joe Namath seemed to cover the front pages of all theNew Yorkpapers. This proved to be a daily reminder of Mara’s failure to sign the quarterback. He was desperate. Desperation causes men to act foolishly. Buffalo Bills kicker Pete Gogolak reached free agency in 1966 and wanted a raise. Gogolak revolutionized place kicking and made the kicking game a viable offensive weapon. Heretofore, kickers kicked the ball straight on. Moreover, many kickers such as George Blanda, played other positions. Gogolak’s style and success rate made coaches re-evaluate the kicking game. But, whileBuffaloappreciated their kicker’s performance, they refused to accede to his demands. Mara stepped in and signed the specialist; this action brought the bidding war between the leagues to a whole new level.

At league meetings shortly thereafter, both sides realized the enormity of the decision.BaltimoreColts owner Carrol Rosenbloom told Mara: “Gee, Mara if you needed a kicker, I’d have given you one.” Meanwhile,Davistold Bills owner Ralph Wilson: “We just got our merger. Just watch what happens now.”Davisthen made a critical partnership. He met withHoustonOilers owner Bud Adams to discuss the AFL’s new plans to thwart the NFL. TheHoustonoilman wanted a winner—it had been four years since his team had captured the 1962 AFL Championship.Adamswent for the jugular. He signed theChicagoBears All Pro tight end Mike Ditka to a $250,000 and then went after John Brody, the NFL’s leading passer.Adamsgot his man-signing Brody for a $1,000,000.

Davis, meanwhile, had his sights on players from theLos AngelesRams. This had a duel purpose. Pete Rozelle, the NFL commissioner, got his start in professional football as an advertising man for the Rams. His good friend, John Dan Reeves owned the team.Daviscounted on Reeves pressuring Rozelle; the AFL commissioner believed that the onslaught directed at Rams talent would forced Reeves to beg Rozelle to sue for peace.

Peace occurred, but it did so behind the back of Al Davis. Secretly, AFL founding owner Lamar Hunt and Cowboys presidentTexSchramm had begun merger discussions atDallas’s Love Field airport. Shortly thereafter, they met with Pete Rozelle and final papers were drawn up. The last person notified was Al Davis. Hunt wantedDavisto stay on as Rozelle’s assistant commissioner.Davisplayed second fiddle to no one. He went back toOaklandwhere he built his franchise into the perennial contender it became.

Rozelle and Davis had a contentious relationship over the next fifteen years. Theirs was like the cold war; many believed it would blow up any minute. During the 1970s when NFL owners wanted to renew Rozelle’s contract and extend his term as commissioner, the only dissenting vote came fromOakland. Then, in 1980, the cold war blew up.Daviswas unhappy with his stadium deal at the Colisseum. He wanted out and intended to move south toLos Angeles(where incidentally, he would play in the LA Colosseum). Moreover, he intended to move the team without consulting the NFL and getting the thumb’s up from his fellow owners. Ultimately, the two sides ended up in court. These battles lasted several years; ultimately,Davisprevailed. But, his was a Pyrrhic victory. Years spent in a court room distractedDavisfrom his chief mission: winning football games. After capturing the 1983 Super Bowl, the Raiders went in a rut for the next decade. They still fielded a consistent winner, but they never won another conference championship.

I’ve lived a life that’s full

I traveled each and ev’ry highway

And more, much more than this, I did it my way.

By the mid 1990s, the Raiders were in a rut. They never made a lasting imprint inLos Angelesand returned toOaklandin 1995. A series of coaches came and went. Finally,Davisfound the right one in John Gruden. Gruden helped construct anOaklandrenaissance by infusing new talent into the team. He surrounded legendary Raider receiver Tim Brown with Jerry Rice. He found an old gem in quarterback Rich Gannon. The team drafted Sebastian Janikowski, solidifying the kicking game. Cornerback Charles Woodson led a lock down secondary. By 2001, the Raiders were back.

That year, they marched into the AFC Divisional Playoff in snowyNew England. They seemed poised to win. After all, the Patriots were led by back up quarterback Tom Brady. The game was a field position duel throughout. Played through a driving snow storm, neither side moved the ball easily. Up 13-10 late, the Raiders seemed to have victory in their grasp.

Tom Brady dropped back to pass in the final moments of the 4th quarter. Charles Woodson came off the corner blitz and drilled Brady from the blind side. Brady fumbled and the Raiders recovered. They just needed to run out the clock now. It was all over. As theOakland offense trotted onto the field to seal the victory, an official blew the whistle. Now, the officials wanted to take a second look at the fumble. The referee then spent what seemed like an eternity under the replay booth. Then, he uttered three famous words—and sent football fans around the world to the rule book. The Tuck Rule became a fixture in the lexicon of football fans. It also jobbed the Raiders. While technically correct, Brady did pump his arm, it appears to the fan that he had no intention of throwing the ball. But, the Patriots got a second chance. Brady led his team down the field and into field goal position. There, Adam Vinatieri made an improbable kick through the snow to send the game to overtime. Then, in extra time, Vinatieri made another clutch field goal to seal the Patriot victory. Once again, the Raiders game up short in a game of high drama and controversy.

Oaklandspent an off-season of turmoil following the tumultuous defeat. It was during these contentious months thatDavis“traded” away head coach Jon Gruden toTampaBay. He replaced Gruden with Bill Callahan. After a difficult off-season, the Raiders entered 2002 with one goal in mind: get to the Super Bowl. Anything else constituted failure. This time, they achieved their goal and manhandled their AFC competition. They cruised to the Super Bowl, collecting their fourth Lamar Hunt Trophy as AFC Champions. There, they faced off with theTampaBayBuccaneers. The week turned into a Media Circus as reporters tried to create tension and a war of words between Davis and Gruden. Many expected the Raiders to trounce their old head coach. Instead, Gruden led his new unit to a dominating win over his old team.

Yes, it was my way

In many ways, that Super Bowl inSan Diegowas the last game the Raiders played in that actually mattered. Over the last seven years, they have become an NFL laughing stock. The Chargers have replaced them as the dominant AFC West power. But, worse than that, the Raiders have become an afterthought. Opposing teams now circle them on the schedule as a team they expect to beat. Moreover, a series of draft busts mixed with bizarre player transactions have led many to question the sanity of Al Davis. These busts began with, but are not certainly limited to, Robert Gallery (LT), JaMarcus Russell (the colossal bust at QB—whom Al Davis memorably said “can flat out play— late in 2008 when it had become long apparent that the kid was no player) and running back Darren McFadden. Through it all, Al Davis has made no excuses for his actions or the way he conducts business. To hear him speak, the Raiders are just around the corner from football prominence.

Still, day after day,Davismarches on as if he is still in the midst of the glory days. He still spits out his trademark slogans “commitment to excellence” and “just win, baby” when discussing his team. After nearly a decade of losing, one has to wonder, ifDavishas lost his mind. Moreover, the bizarre exits of Coach Lane Kiffin (in which Davis declared the young man was a “flat out liar”) coupled with his inability to bench troubled quarterback Jamarcus Russell leads outsiders to wonder just what is going on in Al’s head. When coach Tom Cable expressed his wishes, publicly stating that the team was more confident in backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, theOaklandowner sent a sharp rebuke back at the coach. It was the ultimate, Don’t Question ME, I’m in charge moment. Davis, meanwhile, continues his unusual practice of paying top dollar for specialists like punter Shane Lechler and kicker Sebastian Janikowski. This week’s announcement of Janikowski’s extension only conforms that it remains business as usual inOakland. As always, Al plans to do it his way.

 

 

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