In the mid-'70s, the Raiders adopted the poem “Autumn Wind” as their theme song to symbolize their villainous persona and intimidating style of play. For the better part of the next 25+ years, the wind shifted in direction between north (Oakland) and south (Los Angeles), but it blew in W’s more often than not.
However, in 2002, rivals and pundits began to realize that this “Autumn Wind” was morphing into a typhoon of ineptitude and buffoonery. The Raiders were not beginning to suffer victory droughts because of global warming. Rather, it was the very man who provided them with that 25-year jet stream of prosperity, owner Al Davis.
Last week, the 79-year-old Davis fired 33-year-old head coach Lane Kiffin with “cause.” A coach getting axed in the middle of the season happens nearly every year, but never in the outlandish and personal manner as Davis did.
He detailed, along with a three-page warning letter, how Kiffin was a liar, committed acts of insubordination, and made damaging personnel decisions. It was a diatribe that makes even Joe Biden’s answers appear as simple and mundane as Sarah Palin’s.
By “disgracing” the organization, Davis does not believe he has to pay Kiffin the remaining millions on his contract. It is ridiculous, though, to buy into Davis’ reasoning when the context of the Raiders' recent history is put in perspective.
After Jon Gruden had led the Raiders to two-straight AFC West titles, Davis let his stubbornness get in the way. Davis has always loved for his teams to bomb the ball down the field instead of meticulously trying to loosen up a defense through intermediate passes like Gruden preferred.
As a result, he traded Gruden to Tampa Bay in 2002 for a couple of first-round draft picks. The Raiders still went to the Super Bowl the next year...Only to lose to Gruden and the Bucs.
Since the start of the 2003 season, the Raiders have a league-worst 20-64 record (maybe Matt Millen wasn’t so bad, Detroit) and are now under the helm of their fifth head coach (Tom Cable). He cannot expect his team to develop any identity or rapport when they are forced to learn a new playbook every other year.
Kiffin had only been on the job for 20 games (5-15 record) and was beginning to take the Raiders in the right direction. The locker-room bickering and discontent that signified the tenures of Bill Callahan and Art Shell was at least publicly absent under Kiffin.
Opening up 1-3 is nothing to celebrate, but excluding their opening-day dismantling at the hands of the Denver Broncos, they played competitive football. With a young quarterback in JaMarcus Russell, it is unrealistic to expect them to be challenging the San Diego Chargers and Broncos for an AFC West title at this point. Davis “just wants to win,” but that opportunity is being delayed again due to his impatience.
Like every coach, Kiffin made some head-scratching choices that came back to bite his team. He did not exactly elicit shades of John Madden toward the end of the first half of the Raiders 28-18 loss in their last game against the Chargers.
Despite having two timeouts and 45 seconds to go with a 15-0 lead, Kiffin let the clock run down to allow kicker Sebastian Janikowski attempt a 76-yard field goal to close out the first half of their game against the Chargers. The Chargers have an explosive offense, and Kiffin had a golden opportunity to steal some points on the Chargers' prevent defense.
Kansas City Chiefs Head Coach Herman Edwards knows that there is not even a Madden video game glitch that will allow a kicker to blast a 76-yard rocket. Anytime a coach appears to be playing outlandishly conservative at the end of any half, they are signifying that they have just completed a crash course in the Herman Edwards clock-management survival guide.
Judging a coach as young and promising as Kiffin on one play would be irrational. He is not just going to fade into oblivion; that would not be the M.O. of coaches whom Davis refused to pay. In 1989, he withheld $300,000 from Mike Shanahan.
Even today, that money has eluded Shanahan’s bank account. As fate would have it, Shanahan ended up with the Broncos and has already won two Super Bowls and compiled a 21-6 record against the Raiders.
Confusing Davis for a fool is not an accurate assessment. In fact, he is one of the most successful and influential owners in NFL history. He has captured three Super Bowl’s, hired the first Latino head coach and second African-American coach in NFL history, and helped oversee the merger between the AFL and NFL.
All of the intuition and foresight he once displayed has been replaced by an overbearing presence. Now, Davis has always cast a large shadow over the on-field exploits of his team, but he has taken it to another level in the past few years.
Creating much of Davis’ ill will toward Kiffin was the fact that the coach did not have a man-crush on defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, whom he wanted to fire in the offseason.
The final straw came when Kiffin told the media after the team’s loss to the Broncos that he was left out of the defensive game planning and had not had any recent communication with Davis.
Former All-Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who spent the final four years of his career in Oakland, backed up Kiffin’s revelation and described how out of control the organization has gotten on Showtime’s Inside the NFL last week.
"All the preparation that goes into a week of work is there, the practicing that you have to put in order to do these things, sometimes [Al Davis] messed with that part of it and that's what kills you," Sapp said.
"Al Davis is the total bottom line, buck stops right there. I remember one time we had a defensive game plan because we were struggling against the run. We were going to get our safeties and put them up in the box and almost have a nine-man front. We practiced this thing 80 percent of the time on Wednesday and Thursday. We showed up that Friday morning, [defensive coordinator] Rob Ryan came in and he looked like someone had just shot his dog. He said he [Davis] pulled it on us...He snatched the teeth out of our defense."
Regardless of Davis’ claims that he is immature, Kiffin is going to get another shot as a head coach in the NFL or college football. Davis, on the hand, comes out of this feud looking as beat up as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Unless Davis begins to lessen his totalitarianism over the entire franchise, an “Autumn Wind” will continue to evade the skies of Oakland and keep the team mired in its colossal “Black Hole” of futility and despair.