For years, I’ve been saying to people that the Raiders won’t be great again until Al Davis is dead. Even though that sounds like it was wish for the man’s death, it most certainly wasn’t. But given his mental (and physical) deterioration over the last seven or eight years, it was pretty much impossible as a Raiders fan to not hope for some kind of big change within the organization – and we all knew that Al Davis would never step down from his position as an obsessively involved owner of the team with no qualms about meddling in the day-to-day operations. Despite all of the jokes we made about Al never dying because he was already dead, and how much virgin blood it was going to take for him to survive yet another season, it turns out that Al Davis was indeed very mortal, and now he’s gone.
It’s easy to forget how incredibly important Al Davis and his Raiders have been to the game of football as we know it. The organization has played in Superbowls in every decade except for the 90’s, hired the league’s first black head coach, and has been involved in three of the most controversial plays in NFL History (The Holy Roller, The Immaculate Reception, and the Tuck Rule Game). But the most important way in which Al Davis changed the games was in his antitrust lawsuit against the NFL.
In 1982, the Raiders wanted to move from Oakland to Los Angeles in order to make more money. It was pretty much that simple. The NFL stood in their way, based on the prospect of opening an expansion franchise in the city. Al Davis took the NFL to court, won his case along with a hefty settlement, and moved the franchise to Los Angeles. This decision opened the door for dissatisfied owner to hold teams hostage, making it possible to demand outrageous concessions from the local governments of their home cities under the threat of moving the team elsewhere. When I was young, I was pretty thrilled that the Raiders had prevailed in their suit; now that I’m an adult I can see the damage it has done to professional sports as a whole.
Not that Al Davis was particularly interested in money – for him it was simply a means to an end. And that end, of course, was winning. For someone that had led his franchise to one of the best win percentages over several decades, the last few years must have been incredibly difficult. Unorthodox draft choices he made that used to pan out (Ray Guy, for example, the only punter ever selected in the first round, and Sebastian Janikowski, only the third first-round placekicker) have looked laughable in recent years (Jamarcus Russell and Darius Heyward-Bey). His preferred methods of winning (long bombs and dirty defensive play) no longer worked and he seemed unable to adjust to the innovations of the game. His reliance on statistics from the NFL combine – particularly 40-yard-dash times – has become a running joke. Al Davis could be inexplicably loyal to certain players (like Napoleon Kauffman) and unaccountably vicious to others (Marcus Allen and Ken Stabler). And he took great delight in using questionable tactics – and even more delight in making his opponents think he was using questionable tactics – to win.
Will the Raiders improve in the wake of his death? I think they absolutely will. Will Al Davis be missed? Not by too many, probably. But he certainly changed the game, and the Raiders really won’t be the same franchise without him.