I'll be honest, I wasn't too saddened with the death of Steve Jobs. Yes, he was a visionary and an innovator. Yes, he's the man who's mind is responsible for millions of phones and helping to make the music industry somewhat profitable again. Yes, he's the man who made us all see that Microsoft won in spite of it being the worse product. But after all that, he's just a guy who headed a company. Our lives wouldn't be radically different if Steve Jobs never lived. Computers and the internet would still be here. The iPod wouldn't but there were mp3 players long before the 1st iPod. The iPhone wouldn't be there, but I don't have one, and Android phones will overtake iPhones at some point. There were tablet PCs well before the iPad. All of that said, we all owe Jobs a thank you, because he made everything move faster, but I was never along for the ride (except for the iPod - curiously the only Apple product which is buggy as shit). I have an Android. I've been a PC user my whole life. Jobs' tragic defeat in his battle with cancer wasn't that big of a deal.
The loss of Al Davis? That killed me. See my life wouldn't be too different without Jobs (I would have had a Zune, which yes is awful, but without the iPod to compare it to, it would've seemed great). My life would be totally different without Davis and his Raiders. They were the NFL team I loved first. It was the 2000 NFC Championship Game and the Raiders were hosting the Ravens. I did not watch football at the time except for the previous two Super Bowls and still with just a passing interest (my love of Super Bowl XXXIV the year before is mainly from re-viewings years later) in either. Then I watched that game at the at-that-time McAfee Coliseum. I saw throngs of Raiders fans dressed in everything but a NFL jersey. There were countless Darth Vader costumes, Skeleton costumes, spikes and gorilla masks. There was every dark costume you could think of. It didn't matter that the Raiders lost that day 16-3. I was hooked. I was a Raider fan. Some would call this joining the band-wagon, but hell, I was 9 at the time, had no team that I was jumping from, and at least I didn't pick the Ravens who won the Super Bowl that year. I was a Raider fan, and that led me directly to being an Al Davis fan.
To this point in my Raider Fan life, which has spanned nearly 11 years, I've seen the team suffer the worst defeat of any team in any sport in the last decade (my opinion) in the Tuck Rule Game. I've seen them make the Super Bowl, before summarily being crushed in that game. Then I saw them win 4-5-4-2-4-5-and-5 games in 7 years. I saw a team that went 33-15 (4-3 in the playoffs) in three years then go 24-88 over the next seven. It was a tough time to be a Raider fan, a tough time to an Al Davis fan. But I always knew that sooner or later, Al would once again become that brilliant football mind that he used to be. The Raiders wouldn't always be bad. Now, they are a legitimate 3-2 after being 8-8 the previous year. They aren't bad. Hell, in many ways, they are good. They have explosive receivers. They have one of the league's best D-Lines. They have the league's best runningback at the moment. Their O-Line is solid. They have the league's best punter, and a kicker who has already hit field goals from 63, 56, 55, 54 and 50 yards on the season. They are everything Al Davis would've wanted his team to be. The only thing now missing is Al.
Football fans that are my age have long been told that Al Davis was a visionary and once one of the brightest football minds alive. That his teams were dominant for 25 years straight, and that they were the most feared team in the league, while also being the team that had the most fun. They had womanizing, boozing Quarterbacks, and fast receivers with weird numbers (Biletnikoff was #25?_. They had great hard hitting players on defense, and a string of all-pro cornerbacks. We all were told how great the Raiders used to be. I'm sure we all thought that part of this was just a myth. I iknow I did. But none of it is.
When you research the life of Al Davis, the words innovator, visionary and maverick aren't really enough. No, Al was a genius. Not in the same way Bill Walsh (although Al Davis identified that bit of genius, hiring Walsh once) was, or Bill Belichick or Joe Gibbs. No, he was a genius because he could do it all, and do it all his own way, and it all worked. It has been mentioned in scores of articles since his death that Al Davis was a scout, coach, GM, owner and commissioner at some point in his football life. Yes, he was against the merger, but that didn't really come in the way of him being associated with it. He was one of the first AFL owners to start the bidding war with the NFL, the single biggest point of ignition for the merger in 1970. He was the AFL commissioner and deeply believed that the AFL, if it stayed separated, could beat the NFL in popularity. He was the driving force behind the AFL being able to compete with the NFL. Al Davis changed football in that literal sense, but he did it in more ways than just the events of the 60's.
Al Davis' vertical offense was revolutionary. Bill Walsh used a lot of it to create his West Coast Offense. Al Davis' was groundbreaking, as he was made the Raiders first the first NFL team to be coached by a Latino (Tom Flores, who just went on to win 2 Super Bowls), and then the first NFL team to be coached by an African-American (Art Shell), and recently made the Raiders the first team headed by a woman (CEO Amy Trask). He never saw color, or gender, he just saw his team and wanted them to win. He didn't hire Flores because he was Latino, or hire Shell because he was black. He Hired them because he thought they were good coaches and wanted to win. That's why we love him.
Al Davis was the Raiders. It was his renegade image that fronted the team and then the ideal. He collected castoff veterans who were axed because partly because they didn't fit in, and partly because they were doing too much on the side to have the time to fit in. He brought in drunks, and playboys. All he asked them to do was win, and they did. 13-1, 12-2, 12-1-1, 8-4-2, 8-4-2, 10-3-1, 9-4-1, 12-2, 11-3, 13-1, 11-3, 9-7, 9-7, 11-5, 7-9, 8-1, 12-4, 11-5, 12-4. That was the Raiders' records from 1967-1985. Those 19 years were legendary. In that time, the Raiders won three Super Bowls, lost another and made four other AFC Title Games. Only the Steelers were more successful in that time-frame. It was John Madden, Daryl Lamonica, Ken Stabler, Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, Jim Otto, Marcus Allen, Cliff Branch, Ted Hendricks, Willie Brown, Mike Haynes, Fred Biletnikoff, Ray Guy. But most of all, it was Al Davis.
No team is identified by its owner. The one exception is possibly the Yankees and Steinbrenner, but the Yankees have a host of other candidates to identify the team by. The Raiders have had great players, but it was always Al Davis in front of everything. He was the guy who put all of those great players together, who hired young coaches, like John Madden at 32, Mike Shanahan at 35, Jon Gruden at 34, identifying coaching talent well before the rest of the league did. Al Davis was one of the few men who fought the league head on, and won, winning his lawsuit to move the team to LA (Reggie White is probably the other notable example). Al Davis did not like Pete Rozzelle, which led to one of the most iconic football images of the 80's not involving the 49ers, with Al Davis accepting the Lombardi trophy from Rozzelle. Al Davis' was iconic, with that white or black tracksuit as lasting as the silver-and-black team on the field. He loved the silver-and-black. No uniform has been changed less than the Raiders, and for good measure. How can you change a uniform that is perfect? It was so good so many teams in every sport started incorporating black uniforms; some good (Baltimore Ravens), some horrible (Philadelphia Eagles). Al Davis' teams weren't perfect, and neither was his behavior, but the look of him and the team he created. That was as perfect as could be.
Al Davis died last Saturday. In a way, one era of the Raiders died as well. Although he was in bad health, no one was really ready for this day to come, which is why the question of where the Raiders go from here is so interesting. Mark Davis, his son, is the successor for now (I hope for long, I would hate to see them back in LA), and the team looks to have a good foundation off of three straight fruitful drafts by Davis. But the Raiders are no longer Al's team. No other NFL team as old as the Raiders have had one owner. Yes, some have had the same family (Bidwill's, Rooney's, Mara's), but this is just one guy. This was a small-business prospering in the biggest sports business in the world. This was one man against 31 others, and for most of his life, he was up to the task.
The Raiders have always had an image, and it has always been the same image. I think the Steelers are the only other team that can say that. The Steelers have almost always been a great defensive team with tough QBs embodying the city they play in. The Raiders have always been a team with speed and flash on the outside (WRs, CBs) and toughness in the middle (o-line, d-line). It has always been the same. It probably will always be the same. It is sad Al Davis had to die this year. His team was finally right again. He finally had the fast receivers that could actually dominate games. He had the fast running back. He had a stable of fast corners (though his last great corner was gone in the offseason). Al Davis was finally about to prove that the NFL had not passed him by over the last decade. That his tricks weren't too old, that his ideas too antiquated, that the Raiders weren't too far gone.
I loved that image that the Raiders portrayed, which was what kept me with them. They were a team that didn't give a shit what anyone one else thought about how they did business. Their fans were fanatic and they were all over. The Raiders are, in my opinion, one of the four national NFL franchises, along with the Steelers, Packers and Cowboys, in that they have a national fanbase, with a lot of fans outside their own city. The Raiders have those fans, and I am one of them, mainly because of that image of rowdiness, of toughness, of living life on the edge of the rules, of fighting against the Man, of getting your opponent down on the ground, of running by him laughing, of winning. That image was built by Al Davis, and I am sure it will go on many years from now, and Al Davis will smiling all the way.
'Till Next Time (which should be my inaugaral 2011 MLB Playoff Running Diary, and my first attempt at a Running Diary Doubleheader, with the two baseball games tomorrow).