Some jeered but many more lamented. Even more surprising, some of the lamentation came from fans of other teams, fans who had previously ridiculed the man.
The reaction to Al Davis’ death has revealed what had been ultimately wrong with much of the attacks on the old man all along. The barrage itself was nothing new; the Raiders were THE team to dislike since time immemorial (ahem… since Davis brought unity to the game of pro football, that is) and in recent years, a mockery for their record setting ineptitude was more than just trendy; it was even sensible. What was far more unfortunate, honestly, was that the negativity had infiltrated Raider Nation itself (perpetual failure will do that to even the most ardently loyal fan) and poisoned the franchise from within. This “poison” was often misappropriated as coming from Al Davis himself. This made him an even better target for the mockery.
And that was pretty much what the man wanted.
Al Davis was undoubtedly the greatest villain the game of football ever had. And it wasn’t because Al Davis was a hack or a fail. It was because of the very fact that he was a badass, knew it and insisted on reminding everyone of it both on and off the field. Al Davis was the brazen Davy Crockett trailblazer with a brilliant football disposition that was so irrevocably self-confident, the old bastard was damned near comical in his twilight.
I’m actually sad that he is gone. I feel as if I’ve lost a looney, senile grandpa that had been a real badass back in the day. As weird as he had been in recent years, there was no way to really hate the man. And I cannot imagine the world without Al Davis running the Raiders. Why?
That’s because Al Davis was a great owner. You’re probably thinking I’m nuts. Not just a great football man (which he most certainly was) but a great owner. What many fans of other teams tend to miss when they launch their offensives on Raider nation (to no avail, of course… like waves of orc maggots upon the rock that is Minas Tirith) is that for all of Al Davis’ failures as a General Manager in recent years, he still makes their respective team owners look really, really bad in a lot of other ways.
For one, Al Davis was fiercely loyal. He didn’t just own and run the Raiders; he LOVED the Raiders. Everything the man ever did was because he wanted the Raiders to be, without any equal, the very best of the best. The only other owner I can safely say that about is Jerry Jones and no wonder both are considered completely nuts. And this wasn’t some phony rich asshole preoccupied with his books to make sure all the bottom lines were met; Davis surrounded himself with people who were committed to winning and who would be committed to the Raiders and helping them win. I’m not sure if there’s a single franchise in any sport that has made an actual legacy of reclamation projects… that the franchise would come to be known as the place where discarded dogs go to bear their fangs and show what they’re made of. Davis placed his faith in people that were given up on and what that does for someone cannot be measured if they also have legitimate GAME to go with it.
Better yet, he kept them around him, offered them jobs after their playing days were over and showed the same loyalty to them that he did to the Raider seal. While other owners were cutting their stars loose when they started aging because the “game is a business,” Davis realized that the business aspect of the game was just as important OFF the field and revolutionized competitive media and marketing negotiation building a massive, global fanbase for what was and remains a small-market team. The criticism he receives for having moved to LA and back to Oakland is usually put forth by those who don’t actually know a thing about the situation. He knew he was being stonewalled by the City of Oakland for a new stadium (look at the dilapidated Coliseum and how gunshy the A’s are about relocation… what a contrast in ownership, huh?) and kept to his guns when he threatened he’d leave. He did. Los Angeles lied to him and so he moved back to where the team belonged. No controversy here, folks. He simply stayed true to his principles.
Al Davis was also a brilliant football mind. His interviews were football examinations. Bill Belichick, considered by most to be the best coach of the last decade, was blown away by Davis’ unrivaled attention to the X’s and O’s in his interview for the job eventually taken by Jon Gruden. Davis challenged Belichick’s knowledge of the game and while he was ultimately impressed, he went with someone he was even more impressed with. In the capacity of a GM, he was at a time one of the most innovating personnel evaluators. Strangely enough, that very strength would eventually become his greatest weakness in his older age as the league changed and his stubborn allegiance to the game he knew did not evolve with him.
Thirdly, Al Davis enjoyed every second of the Raider hate. It drove him. It pleased him. It’s what he wanted. He antagonized every opponent, every rival, every challenger to the point it was outright confrontational. He wasn’t out for friends; he was in the market for rings. Maybe that’s what the throng of Raider haters don’t get at all; you are being trolled by the ultimate Troll (he even, in his later years, resembled one lol). Davis helped shape a competitive league by being the menace that everyone loves to hate. He was loyal to HIS guys… he didn’t care about you or your guys. Why would he? Sure it’s worked for a super nice guy like Robert Kraft who is successfully comfortable on the total opposite end of the spectrum… but that’s all the more reason for Al Davis to exist.
Ultimately, where Davis failed the Raiders was specifically as a GM. What Davis should have done a long, long time ago was find it within himself to delegate those duties to someone younger, with a more contemporary feel for the modern game. That would have probably avoided half of the personnel mistakes of the past decade (chiefly Jamarcus Russell) and helped end the downtick of the rebuilding cycle sooner. Instead, he stuck with his guns (a good attribute turned rogue) and prolonged the worst stretch of Raider history into the worst in NFL history.
Do not be fooled by this failure, though. The Raiders, still under the imperial gaze of the man we called Coach Davis, have begun to come out of that hibernation with a wealth of young talent accumulated over the past few years that makes most other franchises blush.
The issue moving forward will be the quality of the ownership. The new ownership will have two major objectives to accomplish in order to make this thing happen. Firstly, ownership will have to be passionate and committed. This will not work with an investment-driven mindset. Owner must be a Raider fan for the Raider pulse and character to remain in tact. Secondly, new ownership must be ready and support hiring a GM and nurturing that position. Otherwise, the Raiders would be even worse off than before as at least Al Davis was an owner willing to spend whatever it took.
I just hope that whoever moves to own the Raiders will at least have the dedication to the game, the love for the Silver n Black, the commitment to excellence and the unwavering tenacity to make sure everybody else in the league continues to hate the Raiders. Without that, the Raiders will become just another team like the rest of the goody good guys and we just can’t have that.