Dressed in a sleek white warmup suit that covers his frame as predictably as snow covers the North Pole, Al Davis roams the Oakland Raiders' universe, putting his hands on everything. His touch may be cold, but he travels less like a snowstorm than like a twister. He can suddenly thrash his surroundings, and when he appears, people run for shelter. In a sport marked by confrontation and intimidation, few, if any, figures are crossed less and feared more.
During his 33 years with the Raiders, Davis, 66, whose title is president of the general partner, has built some of the most successful teams in NFL history, including three Super Bowl champions. But he has also made moves, especially in recent years, that have compromised the Raiders' prospects for success and given the organization an aura of paranoia and divisiveness. The environment he has created undermined the Raiders during a six-game losing streak at the end of the 1995 season. As a result of that slump, the Raiders missed the playoffs for the third time in four years and the seventh time in 10. Many current and former Raiders players, coaches and administrators believe the blame for these years of failure lies at the top.
"The word is spreading about the Raiders and Al Davis," says Seattle Seahawks fullback Steve Smith, a Raider from 1987 to '93. "The way they collapsed last year was typical. The Raiders have had more talent than any other team the last 10 years. They should have won at least three Super Bowls during that time, but they didn't because Al screwed everything up."
Davis, who did not return several calls to be interviewed for this story, is a man of contradictions, so the Raiders are a team of incongruities. An example: On one hand, most Raiders employees live in fear of Davis; conversely, discipline barely exists. "There's so much confusion there, it's unbelievable," says Greg Skrepenak, a Raiders tackle for the last three of their 13 years in Los Angeles and last season when the team returned to its old base, in Oakland. Skrepenak signed with the Carolina Panthers as a free agent in February. "The problems were selfishness and a lack of cohesiveness. You had guys walking out of meetings, coming in late or not showing up at all. There were guys talking back to coaches and coaches yelling at each other. You're never really sure where the decisions are coming from, and it seems like everything's a big secret. Ultimately the decisions fall on Al Davis."
Nonetheless, in what has become an annual rite of spring, optimism abounds in Raiderland. Last year hopes were buoyed by the hiring of Mike White as coach and the switch to an offensive scheme featuring short timing patterns. This spring a draft-day deal that landed Ohio State tight end Rickey Dudley and the signing of two big-name free agents—defensive tackle Russell Maryland and cornerback Larry Brown, both former Dallas Cowboys—have allowed Oakland to put a happy spin on 1996.
Certainly the Raiders have enough talent to inspire talk of a Super Bowl run. Last summer they spent several days scrimmaging the Cowboys, who have won three of the last four Super Bowls, and Dallas cornerback Kevin Smith says, "We feel like they're at least as talented as we are, maybe more so. The other day a bunch of us were trying to figure out why the Raiders don't win."
Last year Oakland was 8-2 before its meltdown, and several players say the early success masked a lack of motivation that would help cause the team's demise. True, Oakland was beset by injuries, the most damaging of which was the shoulder ailments that sidelined quarterback Jeff Hostetler during most of the last six games. But bad luck alone cannot explain a collapse of such magnitude. "It only takes a few bad apples to destroy a season, and that's what happened to us," says Raiders halfback Harvey Williams. "A lot of people didn't give a s—-. When you're out in the middle of the ocean and you've got dead weight on board, you're going to drown."
Some players showed disregard for authority. In one ugly incident, which occurred a few days before the Raiders' 34-21 loss to the Cowboys on Nov. 19, defensive end Anthony Smith attacked his position coach, Floyd Peters, after Peters questioned his play during a meeting. Witnesses say the 6'3", 265-pound Smith knocked the 60-year-old Peters to the ground while other players and coaches watched. Yet Smith started against Dallas, which disgusted many of his teammates.
"The problem with the Raiders is there's no accountability," says one prominent veteran. "People say Al Davis is too involved. Hell, I think he should get more involved, if that's what it would take." Last season Davis spent less time around the players and coaches than he had in previous years, but he remained the Raiders' absolute authority figure.
Davis has a history of undermining his coaches, and one source says that despite his lower profile in 1995, Davis pulled his share of power plays on White. Several times he showed up at practice and waited for White to approach him after drills. As White walked toward him, the source says, Davis walked away.