Al Davis/Reggie McKenzie; Raymond Chester; Aubrey Huff/Brandon Belt/Brett Pill; Freddy Sanchez
by Glenn Dickey
May 02, 2012

2MAY


THE RAIDERS are coming back to the community. Every day it seems I get an e-mail about players working with youngsters, either in schools or clubs, and the organization has also started a program where 10 per cent of the money from season ticket renewals goes to Oakland public schools, which need the money badly.

In a way, this is a return to their roots for the Raiders. When I was covering the Raiders, 1967-71, they were very close to Oakland fans and others in the East Bay. For all the talk about their “outlaw” approach, there were many solid citizens on the Raiders then. You wouldn’t call Willie Brown or Fred Biletnikoff outlaws, nor Gene Upshaw and Art Shell, nor Ben Davidson and Tom Keating. There were more like them on the team at the time, but the image of a team much different than others in the very conformist pro football of the time was irresistible for the media.

One of the ways the players stayed close to the community was going to charity events. Few of the event organizers paid the players. I remember one time when Bob Bestor, then the public relations director for the Raiders, told me, “The next time a paying gig comes in I’m going to give it to Ben Davidson because he’s doing all these free things.”

The fans didn’t abuse this relationship. Players could have dinner at local restaurants – the old Fisherman’s Grotto, now gone, in Jack London Square was a particular favorite - without being constantly disturbed by autograph-seekers. That wouldn’t happen with any team anywhere in the country today.

That close relationship with the fans was aborted when Al Davis decided to move his team to Los Angeles, making phony claims about his decision. One was that he couldn’t get luxury boxes in Oakland. In fact, there was a plan on the table for them but the Coliseum authorities wanted a 15-year contract, so the cost could be amortized. Davis would only agree to five years, which was a deal killer. (The boxes eventually were built for the Oakland A’s when the Haas family bought the team.) In Los Angeles, BTW, Davis accepted a spoken promise that he’d get those boxes – but he never did. Davis also claimed the Raiders couldn’t compete financially because of their small stadium, ignoring the fact that they had the fifth highest revenues in the league.

What Davis really wanted was personal recognition. When I was on the beat, he had told me he thought the only cities that counted were New York and Los Angeles; he had been an assistant coach for USC earlier. He couldn’t get to New York but when an opening came in L.A., he seized it.

That didn’t work out quite as he expected. The Raiders won a Super Bowl early in their Los Angeles years but the big hero was Marcus Allen, who had also been USC’s star, winning the Heisman Trophy. Allen was eventually ordered to the bench by Davis but fortunately for him, he later escaped via free agency to Kansas City, where he resumed his Hall of Fame career.

When I was in Los Angeles in 1990, researching my book on the Raiders, “Just Win, Baby,” I found out how far down the esteem ladder the Raiders were. The first sign was that the taxi driver had no idea where the Raiders facility was; I had to give him directions. More telling was the media treatment. The Raiders were battling the Chiefs for the AFC West title, which they eventually won, and they had a big game in Kansas City. The Rams were going nowhere, but in the Monday L.A. Times, the Rams game story was on page one of the sports section, the Raiders-Chiefs on page 5. The Raiders were probably no better than fifth in the affections of L.A. area fans, behind USC, the Lakers, the Dodgers and the Rams, probably in that order.

And, instead of the noisy but well-behaved crowds at the Oakland Coliseum, the Raiders had a crowd so violent that players had to be escorted to their cars by policemen after games.

Some of that has translated to the fan base in Oakland, although I’ve talked to many well behaved fans in the parking lot, before and after games. They’re not the ones being shown on TV, though.

None of this ever mattered to Davis. He never cared about the fans, only the football. And, he got increasingly erratic in his approach there.

Jon Gruden changed things temporarily because he would shout Davis down in profanity-laced sessions. He was able to get rid of many of the Davis favorites, who were underachievers. The most significant change was getting rid of quarterback Jeff George, who was a talented passer but was thoroughly hated by his teammates, for Rich Gannon, whose form may have been terrible but who was a great leader and made plays. With Gannon at quarterback, the Raiders got into the postseason and eventually to the Super Bowl, after the 2002 season.

By that time, though, Gruden was gone, coaching Tampa Bay, which buried the Raiders in the Super Bowl. Bill Callahan was the coach, but it made little difference who was the coach because any time a coach tried to discipline players, they knew they could run to Davis.

It was a totally dysfunctional system, as Davis became ever more frantic about winning a championship again before he died, which was a self-defeating proposition. Two .500 seasons were the best the Raiders could manage, and they set an NFL record for most consecutive seasons with double-digit losses.

I was lucky enough to have seen Davis shortly after the start of his Raiders career when he was really at the top of his game, and he was brilliant. But for about the last 25 years of his life, he seemed determined to chip away at his legacy.

New general manager Reggie McKenzie certainly understands that. He paid defererence to the Raiders tradition when he was hired, but every action he’s taken since then shows that he thoroughly disliked Davis’s operation. He’s a former Raiders player but his belief systems obviously come from the Packers, for whom he worked so many years. That’s good news.

He’s gotten rid of players who were given much too generous contracts by Davis, and he even fired the team’s scouting director, a Davis favorite, this week. He hired Dennis Allen as coach and gave him a four-year contract, so neither of them had to pretend that there was a quick fix available here. And, both McKenzie and Allen made a point of saying they’d be evaluating potential draft picks on their football ability, not how fast they ran or how many weights they lifted at the Combine. That couldn’t have been a more obvious rejection of Davis’s approach.

When the Raiders have made a move for as veteran player, it’s been a good one, like the acquisition yesterday of quarterback Matt Leinart to back up Carson Palmer. This had been expected since Greg Knapp was named offensive coordinator – another good move by the way. Leinart has had an inconsistent career because of his attitude, but the setbacks he has endured seem to have forced maturity on him. Otherwise, their top backup was Terrelle Pryor, a great athletes but a real question mark as a pro quarterback.

All of this is good news for long-suffering Raiders fans who can expect to see steady progress instead of flashy moves and meaningless predictions, like Hue Jackson’s before last season. Since Davis left the cupboard bare of good players, and with no draft picks before the third round, progress will be slow this years and next, but I would expect the Raiders to be back in contending position by the third year of McKenzie’s stay – and to stay there for a long time.

TRENT BAALKE’S working of the draft, piling up extra draft picks and also finding lower round picks who can be “coached up”, is reminiscent of the way the New England Patriots have worked in recent years. There is no higher praise.

Frankly, I was skeptical when Baalke was promoted to general manager, because 49er president Jed York hadn’t really looked at any other candidates. But, he’s been a great choice, a very hard worker who seems to have a very good grasp of what his team needs and how to get it.

Last week’s draft was another example. I had looked at a number of mock drafts to check on likely picks for the 49ers because I had offered to write on it for the Examiner. Because the paper has such a small staff, I usually have my column in before noon, but I promised the sports editor I’d have my column to him by 45 minutes after the 49ers made their pick. Sitting there, I expected to see them go for either Stanford tight end Coby Fleener, Midwestern State’s Amini Silatolu, who could be shifted from tackle to guard, or one of two Wisconsin offensive linemen; the Badgers have produced several NFL offensive linemen.

When A. J. Jenkins name was flashed on the screen, I was flabbergasted. But when they showed what he had done, I realized it was a good choice. When I learned more about him in the next couple of days, I was even more impressed. He seems to be intelligent and focused, along with his physical skills. And, as one who hates the dressing-down culture, I was pleased to see him show up in a suit for his meeting with the media on Friday morning.

And BTW, I lied about getting my column in by 45 minutes after the pick. It took only 30 minutes.

WEST COAST OFFENSE: Can we please retire this phrase? It’s been a misleading one from the start because Bill Walsh actually started to run it when he was offensive coordinator (though there was no such title at the time) for the Cincinnati Bengals. The last I looked, Cincinnati was not on the west coast. The designation actually came from Bill Parcells. After his New York Giants had buried the 49ers in a playoff game, he said, “So much for the West Cost offense.”

Since then, it’s been a way lazy writers can refer to any team which has a mobile quarterback, but in the late ‘90s, I asked Walsh if there were any team actually running his offense. He thought for some time and said, “Maybe Seattle.” Mike Holmgren, who had been an assistant for Walsh with the 49ers, was coaching the Seahawkss.

Now, there are none, but you can expect writers to keep referring to the “West coast offense.” We’ll see it locally with the Raiders.

STEROIDS: When I was on a recent “Chronicle Live” show, one of the others on the show was Raymond Chester, who was drafted by the Raiders while I was still covering them and, though he was later traded to Baltimore, still lives in Oakland and identifies with the Raiders.

We were talking in the “green room” about NFL injuries, and Chester said to me, “You know what the biggest danger is for a player? That a fat guy will fall on him.” Raymond is convinced that the really big players in the NFL are just fat.

Which only proves he hasn’t been in an NFL locker room in some time.

I have, and I’ve noticed a big difference. The 300-pound offensive linemen the Dallas Cowboys had in the early ‘90s were fat. So were offensive linemen on other teams until recently. The 49ers had one of those a few years back, Jason Jennings, whose stomach overlapped his belt considerably.

But, those types have been replaced by well-muscled players who are solid muscle. That’s true of players coming into the league, too. Have you seen the pictures of Robert Griffin? Ohmigawd.

We all know the difference: Players, even in college now, are getting a lot of chemical help. This is a disturbing trend and the NFL and players association are going to have to come to an agreement to curtail this or injuries will get even worse. The current NFL drug policy is doing nothing substantial to stop drug use.

GIANTS: I sympathize with Aubrey Huff and his anxiety problems – my guess is the fact that his wife filed for divorce in January is the biggest contributing factor – but the fact is that the Giants are stronger without him because manager Bruce Bochy can’t use Huff to block the progress of younger players, specifically Brandon Belt and Brad Pill. Belt has the brighter future because he’s 4 ½ years younger. The age at which a player becomes an established major leaguer is a huge predicting factor for his career success, though that information seems to have eluded the Giants’ decision-makers.

That said, Huff is now taking batting practice and I fear that he’ll return soon and Bochy, who has an unhealthy respect for veteran players, will put him in the lineup. He’s also playing Ryan Theriot from time to time, though Theriot has no range left in the field. Aaargh.

And, meanwhile, the Giants are dreaming that Freddy Sanchez will return, and that’s exactly what it is: dreaming.

When healthy, Sanchez is an excellent defensive player and a good hitter, ideal for the No. 2 slot in the order. But, he can’t stay healthy.

In 2009, he had played 86 games for the Pirates when he was traded to the Giants. He played another 25 for them, a total of 111 games. In his first full season with the Giants, injuries again limited him to 111 games.

Last year, the Giants signed him to a contract extension early in the season. I was on a “Chronicle Live” show that night, too, and we were talking about that off camera. None of us thought it was wise because there wasn’t going to be a great free agent battle for Sanchez after the season.

It wasn’t long after that before Sanchez was knocked out for the season, after just 60 games. He had surgery on his shoulder in October, and he had another setback last week, while rehabbing with the San Jose Giants, and had to be shut down again.

Sanchez is 34, and what’s happening to him is eerily similar to the pattern for former third baseman Eric Chavez, whose career was short-circuited by injuries. I think Sanchez will return to the Giants at some point but he won’t be the same player – and I doubt he’ll play long before he breaks down again.

OVERDONE CLICHÉ: A Chronicle reader last week wrote in an e-mail that he was tired of seeing the description “iconic” applied so often.

I agree. It’s much overused.

Unless, of course, it’s applied to me.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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