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Al Davis: A Wonderful Football Life

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When the Jets play the Raiders, I cannot help but think about Al Davis, the former Raiders owner who passed away four years ago. It makes me kind of sad. The last decade or so of Davis' tenure was not good. He was a hands on owner, and the game had passed him by. He had outdated philosophies of player evaluation. He didn't invest in top of the line facilities for his team. He didn't understand the intricacies of the salary cap. There were other problems, and he would not bring in lieutenants with more modern ways of thinking. As a result, the Raiders descended to the bottom of the league and became a laughing stock.

What makes me sad is not a bad decade for the Raiders. It is that a generation of football fans has grown up thinking of Davis as a foolish guy who had no idea how to run a team. I am not going to defend a thing about the the way the Raiders were run after 2003. They were every bit as bad as people said they were and possibly worse. What I would like to do is talk about what Al Davis did in the decades before then because a lot of people might not realize he was one of the most brilliant and influential men professional football has ever seen.

Passing Game

Davis was indeed a very hands on owner with the Raiders. Given the lack of success the team had near the end of his tenure, it was popular for observers to lump him in with the likes of Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder. This was not accurate, though. Jones and Snyder were business men who bought football teams. Al Davis was a football man.

Davis was a position coach in college and the pros. He then came to the Raiders first not as owner but as head coach and general manager. In his first season, he took a Raiders team that had won one game the year before and went 10-4. It was only a few years later he put together a group to purchase the team. These were the days before somebody needed to be a billionaire to buy a team. How many owners actually coached their team to success before buying the franchise?

The Raiders were innovators, the first team to bring many passing concepts into the league that are now a staple of every team's offense.

The brilliant Chris Brown of Grantland wrote a tribute to Davis after his death in 2011 discussing what Davis meant to the modern passing game.

But Davis wasn’t content to stretch the field horizontally; he wanted to get vertical. If Gillman could get a trash can open against a zone, Davis tested how good he’d do if he added his favorite ingredient: speed. Gillman, of course, used "vertical stretches" — passing concepts that spaced receivers not left to right, but deep to short — but for Davis they became the centerpiece of his offense. Indeed, this is what Davis meant when he brought the "vertical game" to Oakland. It was not a matter of throwing deep bombs (though it was sometimes), but was instead the science of stretching defenses to their breaking point. With receivers at varying depths, a small defensive error often meant a 15-yard pass play for Davis’ offense, and a serious mistake meant a touchdown.

The phrase "vertical passing game" has become synonymous with the Raiders through the years. In a modern context, it is easy to think this meant the Raiders just liked to do nothing but throw deep. What it really meant is they threw deep at a time when that was not an important element in passing attacks.

As Brown goes onto discuss, deep passes were part of the offense, but they also served the role to make everything work better. What is more difficult for the defense, defending the first 10 to 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, or defending the entire field? When the deep pass is a threat, defenders get taken away from the short spot on the field. That means there are less defenders underneath and more space. Less defenders in an area is good for an offense. It means there are less potential tacklers. There are less players to clog passing lanes. There are less obstacles for offensive players to build up to top speed while running. These things probably sound like common sense to you reading this in 2015, but they were not always part of conventional wisdom. Davis' influence played a huge role in making this mainstream thinking. It is in no small part because of his influence that these things do seem like common sense.

I highly recommend on you clicking on the article. It discusses Raiders route combinations that are now staples of modern playbooks. There are two other small excerpts from it I would like to share.

Davis also pioneered the use of "slot" formations, in which the tight end lines up to one side by himself, and two split receivers position themselves to the opposite side.

Davis continued to tweak the Gillman offense by adding more formations, adding options for running backs in the passing game, and generally expanding the possibilities of what an offense could do with the football. This was innovative stuff, so much so that it had an outsize effect on a young Raiders assistant coach by the name of Bill Walsh, who went on to craft his own multi-Super Bowl-winning offense with the 49ers that looked a lot like what Davis had created in Oakland. As Walsh explained in his book Building a Champion:

"[Al Davis’] pass offense included an almost unlimited variety of pass patterns as well as a system of calling them, and utilized the backs and tight ends much more extensively than other offenses. … To develop an understanding of it took time, but once learned, it was invaluable."

Bump and Run

I think it is interesting how our views of one aspect of the game can shape others. Buddy Ryan was best known for attacking defenses with a heavy blitzing style. I once heard a story that he developed that philosophy when he was an assistant coach with the Jets. Head coach Weeb Ewbank put an emphasis on protecting Joe Namath to the point Ryan reasoned getting pressure on the quarterback was the most destructive thing that can happen to an offense.

Davis was a big believer in a sophisticated passing game as the best way for an offense to succeed. Having success requires precision and correct timing.

Perhaps with this in mind, Davis' teams built their pass coverage around physical bump and run coverage. Raiders defenses tried to make opposing receivers uncomfortable with contact.

Davis might not have invented this technique, but his teams helped bring it into the mainstream to the point that the New York Times gave him credit for developing it in his obituary.

Diversity

In the year 2015, it is both remarkable and a sad commentary on the NFL how little diversity there is in the ranks of coaching and the front office. Davis was an exception.

Davis hired the first Latino head coach in modern NFL history, Tom Flores. Flores won a Super Bowl. Davis hired the first African-American head coach in modern NFL history, Art Shell. He won 59% of his games between 1989 and 1994. (Shell did have a disastrous 2-14 record in a one year second stint with the Raiders in 2006). In the front office, Davis also hired the first female CEO in NFL history, Amy Trask.

There is one instance that really tells the story of Al Davis' commitment to justice. In 1963, he forced an AFL preseason game to be moved out of Mobile, Alabama, because his players would have had to stay in segregated hotels.

AFL

In addition to being a coach, general manager, and owner, Davis was also briefly the commissioner of the American Football League during a critical time. Over the past century, numerous rival leagues have popped up to challenge established sports leagues. They have experienced varying degrees of success. Most were total flops. Some like the United States Football League gained some degree of popularity and for a time and a spot in the national consciousness. Others like the All-America Football Conference, American Basketball Association, and World Hockey Association stuck around for a handful of years and had a few franchises healthy enough to move into the established leagues at the time their upstart leagues folded. Only the American Football League forced a total merger with its competition.

Davis' brief tenure as commissioner might have been the most critical moment in shaping the modern NFL.

But when the New York Giants signed away AFL kicker Pete Gogolek, who had played out his contract in Buffalo, that’s when the AFL went on the attack. Though a gentleman’s agreement between the two leagues stated that the opposing league wouldn’t sign players in Gogolek’s position, the Giants went ahead with it anyway, inkng Gogolek to a three-year deal worth $96,000.

That’s when Davis knew what he wanted. He wanted to be the one to drop the bomb on the NFL. He wanted blood.

Said Davis: "Now, we can go after their guys. We are going after the quarterbacks, after places they feel it."

The AFL had been saving money for a scenario like, and the owners went to work going after the top NFL quarterbacks -- Roman Gabriel, Fran Tarkenton and Sonny Jurgensen. Then, a bombshell. Bud Adams in Houston signed tight end Mike Ditka, one of the biggest stars in the NFL. Ditka had never made more than $25,000 in Chicago, but Adams gave him $50,000 just to sign (the contract would have paid him $183,000 during the next three years).

Along with Ditka, the AFL eventually also landed Gabriel and quarterback John Brodie. In a legacy piece on the late Bills owner Ralph Wilson, an AFL historian, Ange Coniglio, argued these moves forced the NFL to negotiate merger terms favorable to the AFL.

The irony is that Davis was not party to the negotiations. He wanted to compete directly with the NFL. A lot of people seem to think the AFL would have been better off had they not negotiated and let Davis continue to lead them.

John Madden

John Madden had an enormous impact on professional football in three different ways.

His NFL video game franchise has become legendary and changed the way football fans interacted with the league.

He is one of the greatest announcers in the history of sports. His detailed analysis taught millions of fans across generations the inner workings of the game, and his use of the telestrator revolutionized the job of analyst.

Before any of that, he was a Hall of Fame coach. He won a championship and has the best career winning percentage of any head coach since 1930.

This is because of Al Davis. Davis gave Madden, then an obscure 32 year old position coach, the chance to run the Raiders in 1969.

"I saw greatness in John and he lived up to it," Davis said in 2006 after Madden was elected to the Hall of Fame. Madden's diverse set of accomplishments in the game make him one of the few people in the same ballpark as Davis as far as legacy. He got his chance because of an owner smart enough to trust a hunch that there was something inside a 32 year old with a thin resume.

Team Movement

This one might not be such a positive from the perspective of the fan, but it is undeniable that Davis' move of the Raiders to Los Angeles in the early 1980's changed the NFL. The league tried to block it. Davis filed and won an anti-trust lawsuit allowing the team to move to Southern California. The Raiders would move back to Oakland in 1995, but the lawsuit created a new era of franchise movement.

The Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis. The St. Louis Cardinals moved to Phoenix. The Los Angeles Rams moved to St. Louis. The Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee. The Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore. Expansion franchises were granted in Cleveland and Houston as a result of these moves.

More than that, teams gained leverage in dealing with cities. The threat of moving has led to state of the art stadiums popping up across the league with all of the positives and negatives that come with them.

Raider Legacy

Davis' ultimate legacy is the Raiders. They are one of the most consequential franchises in the league. They are only one of eight teams with 3 Super Bowl wins and 5 appearances. Only Pittsburgh has played in the AFC Championship Game more frequently. Davis is one of fifteen Raiders in the Hall of Fame.

With a history so rich, the team has played in a lot of meaningful games. Many of them live on in NFL lore, the Heidi game, the Immaculate Reception, the Sea of Hands game, Ghost to the Post, the Tuck Rule game, and others.

When people think of silver and black, they think of the Raiders. Davis made those the team's colors when he took over as coach. Davis' "Commitment to Excellence" and "Just win, baby!" slogans are now part of American sports lore.

Along with their success is the image of the Raiders as NFL villains. They weren't above bending the rules from their use of Stickum on the hands of their receivers to these encounters.

Another coach, Weeb Ewbanks of the Jets, believed that the Raiders flew a helicopter over the Jets’ practice fields to spy on them. And in a great read on CNNSI, longtime football guru Dr. Z recounts how Ewbanks claimed to receive anonymous harassing phone calls during halftime and discovered an Al crony just randomly making himself at home on the Jets bus. The Raiders were also accused of watering down the field before a game if they played a team known for its speed (a trick that happens in baseball all the time).

Or this one before the AFL Championship Game against the Jets in 1969.

At five o'clock on the frigid morning the Raiders were playing the Jets for the AFL championship in Shea Stadium, a work crew talked its way onto the field and erected a weather shelter over the Oakland bench. "We'll build one for the Jets later," they said as they left. Only the fact that it blocked the view of fans in the stands prevented Davis from getting away with it.

Sports are better when we have villains to root against. Think about the Patriots. Why have the wins the Jets had against them been so sweet? Because of the way that team goes about its business, it makes beating them better. Davis had the same effect on his team for decades. They were the villains. Having bad guys in sports make them more fun.

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In the end, I think Davis in many ways was Bill Belichick before Bill Belichick. He didn't care whether people liked him or not. In some ways, it felt like he relished being viewed as the bad guy. He was ahead of his time and never afraid to buck conventional wisdom. He looked for any edge, frequently within the rules, frequently in a grey area, frequently just disregarding the rules. Just like Belichick, even if you don't care for the all of the ways he went about his business, you had to respect his genius.

So if you must laugh about the end of Davis' tenure, I hope you will at least appreciate the decades of genius that came before. He helped build the NFL as an in-game strategist, a league executive, a finder of talent, and an entertainer. I'm not sure whether or not you can say Al Davis was more influential than any man in history making the NFL into the game it is today, but I also don't think anybody who says he was would be laughed out of the room.