Al Davis, Bill King/Greg Papa, Rickey Henderson
by Glenn Dickey
Dec 10, 2008

SOMETIMES I wonder what Al Davis thinks as he watches a Raiders team that is plumbing historic depths. If the Raiders lose even one of their last three, and my guess is that they’ll lose at least two and perhaps all three, they will become the first NFL team in history to lose at least 11 games for six consecutive seasons.

Does Davis still believe he has the ability to turn it around? He said so when he hired Lane Kiffin in the spring of 2007. “I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again,” he promised.

In fact, though, even at that point, the Raiders were much lower than they’d ever been under Davis.

The Raiders had been wildly successful under Davis, first as a coach, then as the managing general partner, from 1963 through 1985, playing in four Super Bowls and winning three, playing in 10 league/conference championship games. Then, they hit a lull for the next 11 seasons. Though they did reach the AFC Championship game once under Art Shell, in that period, they were mostly mediocre in that period. Still, they had only one season with double digit losses.

Then, in 1997, Davis hired Joe Bugel to replace Mike White as head coach, a monumental mistake. Davis had interviewed Jon Gruden but didn’t hire him, possibly because he was too independent, possibly because Gruden was using an offensive system as OC for the Philadelphia Eagles that was an offshoot of Bill Walsh’s system, which Davis has never liked. But Bugel was typical of a certain type of coach who is an outstanding assistant – he was an offensive line coach – but doesn’t have the ability to be a head coach. He lost his team before he even started as head coach when he sucked up to Davis so blatantly at his press conference that he lost the respect of his players.

Bugel went 4-12, the worst season since Davis had come to the Raiders, and was fired. This time, Davis made the right decision a year late, hiring Gruden.

Gruden and Davis were oil and water from the beginning, because Gruden was not afraid to speak up, or even yell profanely, when he was meeting with Davis. There were none of the deferential “I’ve learning so much about football from Mr. Davis” comments to the media that Davis had come to expect. And, there was that system. Davis has always believed in the “stretch the field” theory of offense, throwing deep passes to force the defense to defend against the whole field. Gruden believed in the Walsh theory of “moving the chains”, throwing high percentage passes that kept drives alive, the first ball control offense based on passing.

Still, curse words and all, they worked together. Gruden convinced Davis to get rid of Jeff George, the cowardly lion, and bring in Rich Gannon who wouldn’t win any prizes for pretty passes but did what it took to win games. The team built up, and so did Gruden’s reputation. When his face started appearing on billboards, I wrote that his days were numbered. There could only be one face of the franchise with the Raiders, and that face is not the coach’s. When Tampa Bay came with an offer to buy out Gruden’s contract, Davis jumped at it – and Gruden rejoiced.

Since then, Davis’s coaching calls have not been inspired. His first one, Bill Callahan, got to the Super Bowl with the team Gruden had put together, but not until Gannon took over the offense when the team was 4-4 at midseason, virtually ignoring plays sent in by Callahan and offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, audibling out of more than half of them. That team got embarrassed by Gruden’s new team in Tampa Bay and it’s been a toboggan slide downhill ever since.

Callahan started the slide with a 4-12 year. Norv Turner followed with 11- and 12-loss seasons. Shell’s return, with Tom (bed ‘n’ breakfast) Walsh as the offensive coordinator was a 2-14 disaster. Kiffin was 4-12 and 1-3 this year before he was fired. Tom Cable, who is Bugel redux, is 2-7 going on 2-10.

Next year? It makes no difference because Davis won’t hire a coach who will be independent and the players won’t respect one who isn’t. It may be a retread like Jim Fassel or somebody from the current staff, but whoever it is;, he won’t be anything more than a scapegoat.

The Raiders will again be drafting high, but that won’t matter, either. There have been teams which have stockpiled talent in this situation – the Rams went from being the NFL’s worst team in the ‘90s to Super Bowl champions – but the Raiders haven’t had very good drafts, either. There have been some gems – corner back Nnamdi Asomugha, kicker Sebastian Janikowski, punter Shane Lechler – but the drafts have been mostly mediocre at best.

How can Davis look at this and think he’s doing it right? He’s not senile; his responses to questions at his rare news conferences show that. He still knows football, even if, as Warren Sapp said, it’s football of the ‘60s. He can still recognize talent, whether a player or a coach. But he’s obviously lost the ability to put a team together.

The joker in the pile is the three minority partners who bought into the team last fall, enabling Davis to use that $150 million on free agents and one traded player (DeAngelo Hall). We all know how that’s worked out.

I can’t believe that these businessmen put out that much money without some kind of written guarantee that they’d be able to either buy the club at a date in the near future or be able to make a change in management. There might have been an understanding that Davis would have a chance to roll the dice in the free agency market this year but then have to step back if it didn’t work out.

I hope so. I remember the glory years; I covered the team for five of them, 1967-71. Those were great times, very exciting times, and I’d like to see them return.

But they won’t as long as Al Davis is in charge.

ANNOUNCERS: Bill King had many admirable qualities in his broadcasting style, but perhaps the best was his ability to transmit excitement over great plays even when it was the opponent making them. He told me once that, when he was broadcasting the Raiders, a player complained that listeners couldn’t tell from his voice whether it was the Raiders or the opponents making a big play. “You don’t know it,” King told the player, “but you just paid me the greatest compliment I could get.”

Baseball was the least of his sports, and it’s ironic that the A’s have pushed him for the broadcasting honor in the baseball Hall of Fame while the Raiders and Warriors have shamefully not worked on his bhalf for the Halls in their sports, but King carried that style over to baseball. Usually, I can tell from the sound of the announcer’s voice as soon as I tune in whether their team is winning, but I couldn’t with King and I can’t now with Ken Korach, who took over as the A’s lead announcer when King died.

That’s certainly not true on Raider broadcasts now. Greg Papa, who used to be a very good football announcer, is a terrible homer now, possibly because that’s the only way Al Davis will allow him to continue. I know instantly how the Raiders are doing when I tune in to a Papa broadcast.

It’s maddening. My only consolation is that I seldom have to hear him scream, “Touchdown, Raiders!”

RICKEY HENDERSON: It’s widely assumed that Rickey will be a first ballot choice for the Hall of Fame – I had no hesitation in checking on his name on my ballot – because he was a superb player, a great defensive left fielder, the most prolific base stealer in history and the best leadoff hitter in history. Pitchers had no answer for Rickey. If they pitched to him, he could hit a home run. If they nibbled at the corners and wound up walking him, he might steal second and score on a single.

Even when he didn’t steal, the mere threat of that could be distracting. One of my lasting baseball memories is a moment in the 1989 World Series when Giants pitcher Kelly Downs got so distracted by Rickey dancing off second base that he lost his concentration on the batter. Jose Canseco took advantage of that to hit a no-doubter into the seats at Candlestick.

Those who covered Henderson throughout his career are also eagerly awaiting his acceptance speech. Rickey is a very excitable person and he sends words tumbling out in a lightning-fast stream of consciousness when he’s asked questions. Scott Ostler had the best description of Rickey’s speech patterns: verbal jazz. Rickey just riffs. I’m sure the audience at Cooperstown won’t know quite what to make of him.


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