Everyone has an opinion about Al Davis, but the majority seems to think that the game of football has passed him by, and that his arcane ideas about building a team with speed and playing full on man-to-man defense is as outdated as his fashion sense.
I have a different take, one that boils down to the psyche of a proud man.
He went on to coach the Oakland Raiders and turn a poor team into a perennial powerhouse.
He was the commissioner of the AFL, and so influential that when other AFL owners wanted to meet with the NFL to talk merger, they did so behind Davis' back—knowing that his influence and fire would potentially stall and/or completely negate the talks.
You see, it was Davis that first started outbidding the NFL for their stars, and thus made the AFL relevant to the NFL as competition. This led directly to the merging of the two leagues into the NFL that we know today.
He acquired majority control of the Raiders by ruthlessly phasing out one of his co-owners while the guy was out of the country watching the Olympics. Not a man who cared about making friends when it came to the business of football.
He filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL, and was the only NFL owner to back the USFL during their anti-trust suit against the league. Throughout the course of his career he's shown vision, revolutionary thinking, and made a large amount of enemies.
He's a Hall of Famer, and has been asked by other Hall of Famers (nine I believe) to be the one who inducted them into the hall. He has always been one of the most controversial, yet highly respected, NFL owners.
Yet he's nothing short of a joke amongst NFL pundits and fans now. Oh, many people who deride him use the disclaimer that he is one of the most respected people in NFL history, but then they go on to say that he's out of touch, senile, demented, and has lost it when it comes to NFL strategy.
I think it goes more to human psychology than anything.
Al Davis is a very proud man. This is the man who built the Raiders, who ensured they stayed in Oakland in their infant years. He designed the logo, and brought in players to be proud of and put teams on the field that were both feared and respected. He ran every aspect of the franchise, from the owners duties, to general manager, to coach for a spell, to scout, to everything football related. And he did it with passion, fire, and an energy rarely seen from anyone in NFL history.
His Raider squads borough this same fire and passion to the field. They played with an angry chip on their shoulder, much the way Davis continually battled the powers-that-be, flew in the face of convention by hiring Tom Flores and a young John Madden, and was a general pain in the ass to the NFL administration.
In essence, his teams have always been a reflection of he himself.
Now is no different.
The Raiders are a somewhat rudderless ship with talent but no direction. They're embattled coach, Tom Cable, has shown no real football acumen on the field, and continually causes negative headlines off the field, whether justified or not.
This is a reflection of Al Davis.
Al Davis is now 80 years old. I truly believe he still has the same passion, fire, and verve that he always had. The last seven years (really, with the exception of a few excellent years, since we returned to Oakland) must hurt Al as much or more than it does the Raider Nation.
So why does it keep happening? How can a man that loves his team, his players, his sport, and his fans continue to preside over such a disaster?
Admitting to himself that perhaps he doesn't have the energy to do it anymore would be tantamount to dying for Al Davis. A man who was a dynamo from his young days in Flatbush, Brooklyn admitting that Father Time is not allowing him to be the man he always was would be surrendering.; and no matter what, Al Davis has always been a winner and will never surrender.
Al Davis is now a rudderless ship, and for a man so in control and so successful at accomplishing anything he wanted to in his younger years, that is a very sobering and scary proposition. He is at an age where his body and mind don't necessarily respond when he asks them to, and he's lost some control of himself. Yet, like always, he's the last one to realize it.
This is a man who is still trying to do everything like he always did. It's unrealistic to expect the man to be as effective as he ever was. His health is failing; his mind, though sharp, must become fatigued much more quickly. His body and mind are breaking down, and the Raiders along with it.
But don't expect a man of Al Davis' pride and success to go gently into that good night.
He has already stated he will be around until the Raiders win two more Super Bowls, or until he dies.
This is a man who used to be a fixture on the practice field, a former coach that not only knew how to pick players to succeed in his system but also knew how to mold them into better players and better people, despite the "thug" image the team cultivated and wears proudly.
Tim Brown, a long-time and much-beloved Raider who has no love lost with Davis, summed it up when he talked about "the shoelaces getting a little tighter" when Davis was around. If Mr. Davis came to the practice field, the players focused more and got more out of practice. Tighten up for the boss, boys.
Now, a Davis sighting at practice is almost like spotting Bigfoot. He simply does not have the physical or mental stamina to oversee absolutely every aspect of this team like he did so successfully for so many years.
Has he lost his football sense? No, I don't think so. He's drafted Nnamdi Asomugha, Robert Gallery, Michael Huff, Tommy Kelly, Kirk Morrison, Thomas Howard, Chaz Schilens, Louis Murphy, Justin Fargas, Michael Bush, Mario Henderson, and numerous other players that either start or heavily contribute to the Raiders. And I mean numerous.
But you only hear about the Fabian Washingtons and Patrick Buchanons that wash out and are first round bust picks. Never about the solid players Davis has drafted in the later rounds (of the above mentioned picks, only Asomugha, Gallery and Huff were first rounders).
He's made some poor decisions to be sure, but what NFL personnel man hasn't? But because Davis demands and expects so much from himself and takes on more responsibility than he can handle at this point in his life, his judgment is becoming a little clouded.
What he has lost is the ability to do everything himself, and there is no shame in that for an 80-year-old man. It is ludicrous to think that the man could continue to be effective overseeing every aspect of the team while being physically unable to get out of bed some mornings. I think his health is much more dire than anyone lets on, and the fact that he looks older and rougher in every subsequent picture is how I've drawn this conclusion (and the only "evidence" I have of my previous statement.)
The psychology of the situation is delicate and even a little sad. We have a man that on one hand wants what it best for his beloved Raiders, and wants nothing more than to see them return to glory. Knowing Al Davis' history and how much he loves this team, this is a definite truth. The Raiders are as much his son as Mark Davis.
But on the other hand his pride will not allow him to admit to himself that at his age, he cannot do it alone, and he needs help. Therefore, he continues down a path believing things are as they always were, and that he has the physical and mental stamina to continue overseeing everything Raiders.
Until Al Davis reaches his nadir and admits to himself that he needs help, and cannot do it alone, the Raiders will continue to suffer. Al Davis has had so much control for so long that giving up that control would leave him without an identity.
If he's not the Oakland Raiders, then who is he?
That's a question and a mortality I don't think he wants to face.
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