SI Vault
Richard Hoffer
December 11, 1989
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December 11, 1989

Lord Of The Rings


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Who can blame him? One of the few times he made himself available to anyone beyond this small circle, he was wildly disappointed. A close friend arranged an extensive magazine interview for Davis, and it went so badly for him—the worst part was that certain blasphemies were laid out for Davis's mother to read, but there was also a reference to Hitler that could be construed as favorable—that Davis reportedly didn't speak to that friend for a year.

In the past Davis's secrecy, and the suspicion it generated, was a powerful weapon for creating confusion among his foes. Nobody in the league knew what he was up to. Alone among the owners, he disdained the NFL scouting combine, preferring to keep all intelligence to himself. This attitude fueled a comic paranoia; one rival coach shook his fist at "bugged" light fixtures in a locker room, and whenever a helicopter passed over a practice field, some naturally assumed that Davis was in it.

You do not need a genius, which is how many people have described Al Davis, to explain the Raiders' comeuppance. The NFL draft was designed to enforce parity, punishing winners and rewarding losers. Like any team denied high picks over a long period of time, the Raiders have suffered. The offensive line got old, the defense just got bad, and a quarterback never developed.

Still, Davis never relied solely on the NFL draft. He was so far out of the mainstream that for years he could have been said to be holding his own draft, one that neither interfered with nor resembled the league's version. Davis depended on an astounding network of unofficial scouts, all loyal to the Raiders and nobody else. Former Raider great Gene Upshaw says it was hard to meet anybody who did not represent himself as a Davis operative. "I'd run into some high-school coach," he says, "and he'd tell me he was a Raider scout. Everybody was a Raider scout."

Davis also depended on his own instincts. He drafted Mark van Eeghen out of Colgate after watching him run through a rainy-day drill in a gym. Davis prospered with all sorts of strange picks like that. Howie Long, the All-Pro defensive end on today's Raiders, was plucked out of Villanova in the second round of the draft. Defensive tackle Bill Pickel came from Rutgers, also in the second round.

That's Davis's history. None of the Raiders of yore fit a computer printout, either. "He never had normal players," says Tom Keating, a defensive tackle from the glory years. "Fred Biletnikoff was certainly not the fastest or strongest receiver, just a guy who had unbelievable hands. Al had a left-handed quarterback and a 47-year-old placekicker who thought he should be playing instead of that quarterback. We had a team full of people like that. We had an owner like that."

Davis took other teams' mistakes and turned them into Raider All-Pros. Castoffs like Matuszak, Lyle Alzado and Jim Plunkett all prospered under Davis. He played every angle. He obtained playing rights to Willie Wood, who had retired to a coaching job with the San Diego Chargers, just in case the Chargers, a division rival, thought about activating him against the Raiders. Davis once hung around a celebrity golf tournament in Las Vegas just to see if any football players were unhappy or otherwise available.

But his touch has deserted him in recent years. No reclamation project has buoyed the Raider defense, and no running back has come out of the tail end of the draft to lead the team in rushing, as Marv Hubbard, an 11th-round pick in 1968, did from 1971 to '74. In picking a coach, Davis stumbled even worse. Regardless of his prospects in the NFL, Shanahan could never have made it as a Raider coach. Davis might have thought he wanted some fresh air in an organization that had been hermetically sealed, but he quickly realized that Shanahan was all wrong. He made it clear that Shanahan was fired less for his silly disciplines (players could not sit on their helmets) or even his 8-13 record than for his refusal to throw long to Willie Gault. Davis mumbled something about shotgun formations, too.

Indeed, it was Davis's early-season return to the Raider way that corrected a disastrous beginning. Shell is no mere memento from the glory years but a forceful man determined to put the old philosophy back into effect. Against the Bengals last month, the Raiders' fourth win in five games under Shell, L.A. opened with a 63-yard pass to Gault. Bo Jackson suddenly was sweeping outside for big yardage—92 on one play—instead of banging into the left side of the line. And the defense brought back memories of Hayes's "kick maximus gluteus" unit; Bengal quarterback Boomer Esiason went down spitting up blood. This was all heartening but still inconclusive. The Raider way, after all, means Super Bowl rings on the players' fingers.

As the Davis mystique has faded, so has the Raiders' old image. The team does not dominate, a word that is ordinarily well represented in Davis's public statements (so are "attack," "commitment to excellence," "pride and poise" and "getting it done"). The Raiders are no longer the misfits who prospered in Oakland, inspiring talk of a "criminal element" in football. "They are on a par with the Atlanta Falcons," says Hayes. "There is no more fear of the Raiders. The fear factor is now null and void."

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