Speed Was the All-Consuming Obsession of Al Davis' Raiders

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistApril 30, 2014

Paul Sakuma/AP Images

Al Davis' Raiders stood for a lot of things. There was the dark side. The feuds. The dominance, and then the dysfunction.

But nothing defined them more than their obsession with speed.

To understand that, you have to go back to the 1940s and Ebbets Field. That is where a young Al Davis watched the Brooklyn Dodgers run the basepaths with unusual daring, and that is where a seed was planted. Davis admired the Yankees for their power and size and the Dodgers for their speed.

"The Dodgers…were different," Davis said during a 1991 luncheon, according to Raiders.com. "They believed in speed and development and were willing to take chances."

Davis wanted opponents to fear the Raiders' speed.

"You make sure the opposing defense goes to bed the night before the game knowing, fearing that they will be facing somebody who can beat them deep on any play," Davis said in the book Fire in the Iceman by Tom Flores and Frank Cooney. "Let them stay awake all night worrying about it."

Al Davis
Al DavisAP Photo

To understand the Raiders' obsession with speed, you have to go back to 1963. That's when Davis arrived in Oakland as a 33-year-old head coach and general manager with all kinds of ideas bubbling beneath a great head of hair.

One of those ideas, as described in the book Fire in the Iceman, was to acquire deep threat Art Powell. The wide receiver had a big season for the New York Titans in 1962, but he played out his option and had secretly signed with the Bills. Concerned that they might have to compensate the Titans, the Bills stalled on submitting the contract to the league. That's when Davis swooped in, traveling to Powell's home in Toronto, signing him and leaving the Bills with a worthless contract.

Tom Flores, who was Davis' quarterback that season, knew what the Raiders were getting. Flores had lined up against Powell when they were in college. Flores played cornerback at Pacific when Powell was at San Jose State.

"I still had nightmares about covering him in college," Flores said in his book.

Together with Olympic silver medal-winning long jumper Bo Roberson, Powell gave the Raiders more speed than any defense could handle. Davis used Powell in the "East Formation," which put him in the slot usually against a safety. The result in 1963 was 73 catches for 1,304 yards and 16 touchdowns. The Raiders improved from 1-13 to 10-4. 

To understand the Raiders' obsession with speed, you have to go back to early 1964. That's when Davis started collecting fast players in addition to wide receivers to attack defenses.

His tight end at the time, Ken Herock, was mostly a blocker. Davis acquired former Heisman Trophy-winning running back Billy Cannon after Cannon spent three years with the Houston Oilers. In 1961, he led the AFL in rushing. But Davis converted him to a receiving tight end.

"I knew he wanted to replace me with Billy because Billy could really run," Herock said.

After Cannon, Davis acquired a succession of tight ends who could separate from defenders—Raymond Chester, Dave Casper and Todd Christensen among them.

Over time, Davis would show an affinity for fast running backs as well as tight ends and wide receivers. Among the running backs he would acquire was Bo Jackson, who ran a 4.12-second 40-yard dash in 1986. Of Jackson, longtime Raiders front-office man Ron Wolf said: "He was the fastest guy I ever saw, even at 239 pounds."


To understand the Raiders' obsession with speed, you have to go back to November 1964 at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence, Kansas. That's where Davis and assistant coach Ollie Spencer watched Nebraska safety Kent McCloughan catch Kansas running back Gale Sayers from behind. Sayers was regarded as one of the best and fastest prospects in the land.

In high school, McCloughan had set a state record by running the 220-yard dash in 21.4 seconds, and he was named the Omaha World-Herald Nebraska Athlete of the Year ahead of Sayers.

McCloughan also recalls beating Sayers in the 60-yard dash in college. "Mr. Davis said, 'We can't get Gale Sayers, but we can get the other guy,'" McCloughan said.

Wolf recalls Davis coming back from the trip and talking about how McCloughan could provide a solution for covering Lance Alworth, the great Chargers wide receiver whom Davis had signed when he was a San Diego assistant. Davis' idea, which came from watching John Wooden's UCLA basketball teams pressing opponents, was to have fast cornerbacks jam receivers at the line and then use their speed to recover. 

McCloughan was perfect for the Raiders. "I fit the image of what they were looking for," McCloughan said.

The Oilers drafted McCloughan before the Raiders could get to him, but Davis traded for him and moved him to cornerback. McCloughan would become a two-time All-Pro, and the success he had would inspire Davis to acquire other fast, big cornerbacks who also could play that style of defense. Two years after trading for McCloughan, Davis traded for a similar style of player in future Hall of Famer Willie Brown. Others would follow, including Dave Grayson and Mike Haynes.

Gene Upshaw
Gene UpshawAssociated Press

To understand the Raiders' obsession with speed, you have to go back to 1967. That's when Davis chose a guard out of Texas A&I with the 17th pick in the draft, in part because at 6'5", 255 pounds, Gene Upshaw ran the 40-yard dash in the 4.6 range. Wolf, who was with the team at the time, doesn't recall his exact time.

The Raiders did not want just fast perimeter players anymore. They wanted speed everywhere. The rest of the offensive line also had relatively fast players, according to Wolf. He said offensive tackle Art Shell ran a 4.85 40-yard dash, while John Vella ran a 5.1.

If a player was speed-deficient, Davis didn't even consider him. It didn't matter if he was a playmaker. He had to run fast.

"If you brought a guy's name up with a bad 40, you'd get shot down pretty quickly," said Jon Kingdon, who was a high-ranking Raiders talent evaluator for 35 years. "The time had to be there."

Herock, who, after his playing days worked as a coach and in the front office for the Raiders, said no one could talk Davis into selecting a player who was not fast, no matter how hard he might try. "After the meetings, he would just lower the guy down on the board and let someone else take him," he said.

In 1969, some of the Raiders scouts were high on a lanky stand-up defensive end out of the University of Miami, but they couldn't get Davis to consider Ted Hendricks because he ran a 5.1 40-yard dash at the Senior Bowl, Wolf said.

After watching Hendricks dominate at linebacker for the Baltimore Colts and Green Bay Packers, Davis changed his mind and gave up two first-round picks in a 1975 trade to acquire the future Hall of Famer.

A similar story played out years later. Kingdon recalls Raiders scout Bruce Kebric stumping for linebacker William Thomas out of Texas A&M in the 1991 draft. But Thomas ran a 4.9 40-yard dash, so Davis would not seriously consider him. After two Pro Bowl seasons with the Eagles, Thomas came to the Raiders as a free agent.

To understand the Raiders' obsession with speed, you have to go back to January of 1968 when they were preparing for their first Super Bowl. Herock remembers Davis telling him how fast the Packers were, especially their linebacking crew of Ray Nitschke, Dave Robinson and Lee Roy Caffey.

"He said they were all in the 4.6s," Herock said. "He knew every one of their times. I'm thinking, 'No way.' I knew we weren't that fast. I thought, 'We don't have a chance against Green Bay.'"

The Packers beat the Raiders 33-14 in Super Bowl II. But the loss was not without a black-and-silver lining. The Raiders now knew what they needed to win a Super Bowl.

The search for speed intensified. In the days before the combine and readily accessible game film, Davis turned up the heat on his scouts to make sure they were highlighting fast prospects. Herock recommended safety Jack Tatum and linebacker Phil Villapiano in part because coaches at Ohio State and Bowling Green told him on school visits in 1970 that each was the fastest player on the team. 

Four years later, Herock timed Florida A&M offensive lineman Henry Lawrence running a 4.6 40-yard dash at about 260 pounds. Davis was delighted, and upon Herock's recommendation the Raiders chose Lawrence with the 19th pick of the draft.

When Lawrence showed up to camp, Davis wanted to see his speed for himself, so he timed him again. This time, Lawrence ran a 4.9. Turns out he had gained close to 15 pounds.

"Al exploded," Herock said. "He said, 'Dag gummit, you told me he was going to run a 4.6!' I thought I was going to get fired."

With Davis driving hard, the Raiders kept getting faster. And better. They would be back to the Super Bowl three times in an eight-year stretch starting with the 1976 season. And they would win three Lombardi Trophies.

To understand the Raiders' obsession with speed, you have to go back to 1972. That's when the Raiders drafted Cliff Branch out of Colorado in the fourth round, even though he had caught only 13 passes the season before. What attracted Davis was Branch's time of 10.0 in the 100 meters in the NCAA Championships.

"He was the original if he's even, he's leavin' guy," Wolf said. "It was unbelievable how fast he was."

Just one problem: Branch couldn't catch. After his rookie season, when he had just three receptions, Wolf remembers a meeting in which receivers coach Dick Wood told other coaches and front-office members that Branch failed to catch 15 catchable passes. 

The Raiders didn't give up on Branch, though. "Back then, you had time to develop players, and Cliff needed time," Kingdon said.

Flores, who was an assistant coach at that point, made Branch a special project. And Fred Biletnikoff, an established Pro Bowler who couldn't come close to Branch's speed, taught the young receiver all of his tricks.

They worked together after practice every day, catching up to 300 passes thrown from different angles. Branch also worked the speed bag to develop hand coordination and quickness.

He struggled again in his second season, and then the coaching staff decided to play exclusively to his strengths.

"He was not asked to run ins anymore," Wolf said. "It was all hooks, outs and ups. And that's when he really started catching the ball."

In his third season, Branch caught 13 touchdown passes and was named first-team All-Pro. The success the Raiders had with him was intoxicating. And this is where the speed obsession might have started to be counterproductive.

"It may have led to a mindset that if I was successful with this guy, I could do it with that guy," Kingdon said. "But in many ways Cliff was an exception. Sometimes it would work, sometimes it wouldn't." 

Raghib "Rocket'' Ismail with the Raiders.
Raghib "Rocket'' Ismail with the Raiders.Al Bello/Getty Images

Among the players who failed to play up to their 40 times for the Raiders were Vance Muller (4.32 40-yard dash), Alexander Wright (4.14) and Raghib "Rocket" Ismail (4.28). In 1990, the Raiders had two Olympic gold medal winners on the roster in Sam Graddy and Ron Brown, and a third player with Olympic-caliber speed in Willie Gault. Only Gault could effectively translate his speed to the football field.

As Davis slowed in his later years, his quest for speed kept accelerating. "It became stronger as he aged," Kingdon said.

And so in the sunset of Davis' career, he mistakenly drafted Stanford Routt (4.27 official time), Darren McFadden (4.33), Darrius Heyward-Bey (4.30), Jacoby Ford (4.28), DeMarcus Van Dyke (4.28) and Taiwan Jones (4.33). His final draft choice was quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who ran a 4.36.

Cornerback Fabian Washington could have been the poster player for this era of Raiders drafts. Prior to the 2005 combine, two scouts said they had Washington rated as a fourth-round talent. Then he ran a 4.29 40-yard dash, and the Raiders chose him with the 23rd pick. "He was elevated higher than he should have been because of the speed," Kingdon said. "But his speed was something he wanted, so [Davis] took him."

Davis passed away in October of 2011. In April of the following year, the Raiders drafted wide receiver Juron Criner, who ran a 4.68 40-yard dash.

Some will tell you that is when an era ended. And some will tell you that is when Mr. Davis rolled over in his grave.

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.