The Raiders Without Al Davis?
It’s not as fanciful as you might think. Davis is not in good shape physically. He has had problems with his legs for years, and at 76, those problems seem to be accelerating. He was unable to go to the Super Bowl last year because of them, and he is on a walker.
Davis guards his privacy ferociously, of course, but he hasn’t looked good when he’s been in public, though he spoke well and strongly the last time I saw him, at a memorial for Bill King. A reader who sat in a luxury box for last Saturday’s game said a member of the Raiders organization spoke to those in the box about Davis being ill.
Increasingly, he seems to be living in the past. Stung by criticism, he had his public relations man send out a release recently which listed all the team’s triumphs in the past. Nobody else in the building, even Amy Trask, knew anything about this until it was published in papers the next day. Davis probably knew others would attempt to talk him out of it, as they should have, because all that accomplished was to highlight the failures of the recent past. Among other things, the Raiders have won only two games against AFC West opponents in three years, none this year.
And, though Davis trumpeted the fact that he has "discovered" head coaching talent, the sad fact is that he drives away the best ones. He fired Mike Shanahan and sent Jon Gruden to Tampa Bay. Both Shanahan and Gruden have their teams in the playoffs, which has become foreign territory for the Raiders.
The Raiders media guide always lists the franchise record since Davis came in 1963 as the best in the NFL, but most of that comes from their early years, when Davis was young. In the last 20 years, the team’s record is below .500 and it’s getting worse, with only 13 wins in the last three years.
This year was the most devastating of all because there were such high hopes in the offseason, with free agents Randy Moss and Lamont Jordan coming in. But the Raiders were a losing team from the first game. They were competitive in the early losses, but not in the later ones. All season, Raider fans consoled themselves with the belief that the hated 49ers were even worse, but the Niners won their last two as the Raiders were losing their last six. Both finished at 4-12.
Football has been Davis’s life, but even he might be realizing that he no longer has the answers. It will only get more difficult for him and his team. Norv Turner has been fired but there won’t be any good coaching choices for him. Young coaches on their way up will not look at this as a good opportunity. Proven coaches will have better alternatives, especially because there will be several openings this year. Turner was the best choice left in the last go-around, and Davis probably won't have even that good a choice now.
If Davis did choose to sell the team, he’d be in a better position now than he’s been for some time. The truce negotiated with Oakland and Alameda County politicians has eliminated almost all the lawsuits and made it possible for the Raiders to sell their own tickets.
Also, Davis has more than a majority of the stock for the first time, since he bought out the shares of the Ed McGah family to settle that lawsuit. He's had operating control for some time as the sole surviving general partner. The NFL requires all new owners to have more than 50 per cent of the stock, but the Raider arrrangement was “grandfathered” in.
IF DAVIS sold the club, it would be much different under new management.
Davis is a throwback to the old days of the NFL when individuals like George Halas and, a little later, Vince Lombardi were totally in control. Now, authority is usually split up, because NFL operations have become increasingly more complex.
When Davis was younger, he was more willing to be challenged. In the early days, of course, the big decisions were on draft picks and trades because there was no free agency. If Ron Wolf believed strongly in a player (as he did in Ken Stabler), he knew he could make his case with Davis. When Gruden came to the Raiders, he fought for the players he wanted – and battled Davis to get rid of the underachievers. Now, though, there doesn’t seem to be anybody in the building who is willing to challenge Davis. Decisions are made on the basis of what he wants. We’ve seen how well that works.
A new management would almost certainly follow the modern model, not the Davis example, so decision-making would be truly shared. That isn’t a guarantee that it would work, but it could hardly be any worse than the current situation.
There would be other significant changes. The relationship between the front office and the media would cease to be confrontational, which would be good for both sides. There would be good business people in the front office, which would include marketing people.
The ticket business is probably the best example of what’s wrong with the Raider operation. Though everybody agrees the current system hasn’t worked, the reason it was done this way was that the Raiders had screwed up their ticket operation so badly in Los Angeles. When their ticket manager, George Glace, retired because he didn’t want to move to Los Angeles, the Raiders had nobody to replace him. They went from a smaller, soldout stadium in Oakland to a large stadium with only a third of its seats between the goal lines. As a result, the Raiders in Los Angeles sold only about 30,000 season tickets and had huge differences between their best and worst crowds, with some crowds of 90,000, others only slightly more than 30,000.
Can they do better handling their own tickets now? They certainly could with new management. Under the current one, they’d better hire somebody who knows the business.
A new management would certainly be able to work more closely with local politicians. A new management would have an easier time finding a coach because candidates wouldn’t automatically cross the Raiders off their list of acceptable teams because they didn’t want to have to deal with the man at the top. New people could develop a plan for the type of team they want, instead of putting together a Fantasy Football team with free agents.
They might even be able to do something about their fan base. The crazies among their fans drive away many people who would like to go to the games, but Davis has never acknowledged this.
ONE OF THE problems for Davis if he were to sell the team is that he doesn’t have a fallback position. Because he’s spent so much time fighting everybody else in the NFL, he won’t ever be the respected “elder statesman” that Bill Walsh has been, for instance. Nobody from the league office will be calling him to get his opinion.
Still, at some point, Davis has to realize that he’s chipping away at his own legacy. He’s in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but as the Raiders continue to stumble, he’s seen more and more as an anachronism who doesn’t realize his time has gone. The brilliant alley-fighter who elicited admiration even from those who hated him is long gone, replaced by an aging caricature.
Will he realize this and sell the team before it gets even worse? We can only hope.
HOLIDAY GREETINGS: Thanks to all of you who sent me holiday greetings, even if I couldn't answer all of you.
LETTERS: This section has been updated with comments on my Monday column on the 49ers.
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