I came into football awareness in the late 70s and early 80s in Sacramento, California. The choice in football lay between the Raiders and 49ers, and for reasons I can’t fully explain I chose to love the Raiders and hate the Niners. This persisted in spite of the Raiders move to Los Angeles; by that time I identified closely enough with the team that I hated those who hated it. This meant, of course, that I developed a healthy lack of respect for the NFL and for establishment sports media at an early age.
I don’t know much about Davis’ political leanings, although apparently his father was a Taft Republican. The Raiders donated more money to the Democratic Party than the Republican, but this would not be unusual for a team that bounced between Los Angeles and Oakland. Davis did hire the first Latino head coach, and the first black head coach of the modern era. Davis had a reputation for generosity with his players, although this doesn’t mean that he supported any structural efforts on their behalf. Indeed, Davis understood his relationship with the players in personal terms, supporting Howie Long’s devastating decision to cross the picket lines in the 1987 strike. And of course, Davis knew how to hate.
What to say about Davis and Marcus Allen? Davis lost faith in Allen on November 30, 1986, when Allen fumbled in overtime on what should have been the winning drive against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Raiders were 8-4 at the time, but they lost the last four games of the season, including an awful 37-0 defeat at the hands of the Seahawks. It was twenty-four years ago, but I swear I remember the fumble like yesterday; I was crushed in the way that only a 13 year can be crushed. It was very, very easy for me to blame the Raiders’ collapse on Allen, and so on some level I understood Davis’ reluctance to rely on Allen. But then, I was 13 year old; Davis was fifty-eight, and should have known better.
But… The Raiders drafted Bo Jackson in part because of Davis’ skepticism about Marcus Allen, and it turned out that hey, Bo Jackson was actually better than Marcus Allen. Jackson didn’t become a Raider by accident; he was precisely the kind of player that Davis was interested in, and the Raiders targeted him because of the feud. The Jackson-Allen 1-2 punch almost made up for the fact that the Raiders were trying to put together an elite team with helmed by Jay Schroeder, although this was itself a result of Davis’ weird attitude about Steve Beuerlein.
As I understand it, Davis’ player acquisition strategy was guided by an emphasis on athletic ability over demonstrated football skills. The Raiders thus aimed for players of outstanding physical ability, without specifically trying to fill holes in the offense or defense. As a strategy, this seems to have made sense for the first two and half decades of the Raiders existence, and less so afterward. I don’t think that this is accidental; as the NFL (and the NCAA) matured in terms of physical training and scouting, it became harder to find “athletes” who were undervalued because of their lack of skills. This is to say that NFL teams began to appropriately correct for lack of skill in their acquisition, just as the gap covering raw athletic ability narrowed. By the 1990s, the Raiders were drafting players like Ricky Dudley, who had Hall of Fame caliber athletic ability but who couldn’t catch the ball. Under Davis’ influence, the Raiders were never able to update this acquisition strategy.
That said, the thing I hold most against Davis is a departure from the focus on athletic ability, which was the drafting of Todd Marinovich. Not much serious thought seems to have gone into this, beyond the notion that Marinovich was somehow undervalued because of his attitude. Turned out that Marinovich just sucked, and that he didn’t even fit into the Raiders offensive scheme. If there’s one thing I can’t forgive, it’s that Al Davis made me believe in Todd.
Nevertheless, he was a remarkable individual, and football would have been poorer without him.
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