A Silver and Black Gap

When Al Davis died, the Raiders lost their aura. How will they get it back?
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Photo via rocor on Flickr

It always seemed strange that it was impossible to find a student “from” New Jersey at my college in New York City. Those raised in the northern half of the state were New Yorkers; anyone who lived in the southern portion was from Philly. It was always hilarious to watch an Upper East Sider ask someone from Montclair which borough she grew up in, but it was odd to me because people from Northern California’s East Bay, where I went to high school, don’t play that game. People from Oakland or Berkeley or Richmond do not, and would not ever, claim San Francisco, even though it is just across the Bay Bridge. We have our own bus system and our own newspapers. We’re A’s, they’re Giants. We’re Raiders, they’re Niners. We are defined by the chip on our collective shoulder. Honestly, who cares about them?

This relationship has made the area’s recent sports history particularly painful for us East Bay natives. The A’s have four times as many World Series titles in Oakland as the Giants do in San Francisco, but the bragging rights we earned by sweeping the earthquake-interrupted World Series in 1989 disappeared after the orange and black won the 2010 title. Even our '02 Moneyball season was tainted by the fact that the year ended with the Giants as National League champs (worse yet, they played the Angels, perhaps the only team Oakland fans hate more than our National League neighbors). And, of course, the Giants got that fancy new stadium, while the A’s play in a Soviet cement bunker and have lately been at risk of moving out to San Jose—unless, that is, the Giants stop that from happening, too.

The 49ers-Raiders “rivalry” is even more lopsided. The Super Bowl count stands at five to three, and the Raiders’ most recent win happened while the team was in Los Angeles, not Oakland. The Niners play in the iconic (albeit freezing) Candlestick Park, while the Raiders are stuck sharing the aforementioned cement bunker with the A’s. At least three Niners—Steve Young, Joe Montana, and Jerry Rice—are household names; the NFL Network named the grit-intensive possession receiver Fred Biletnikoff the greatest Raiders player of all time. They’re wrong, of course—nobody was better than Marcus Allen—but neither would be in the 49ers’ top five.

Until last year, the Raiders had one key advantage over the 49ers and every football team ever: Al Davis. Davis died October 8, leaving the team without its owner, sole decision-maker, and public face. If it seems as if nobody knows what the Raiders’ path forward looks like, it probably has something to do with the absence of the guy who forged it for half a century. It’s not that Al’s answers were always (or even often) the right ones, or that Raiders fans believed he was God. The team has had three winning seasons in the past 15 years and stood as one of the league worst and weirdest teams for the same period. This is transparently Al's fault, if only because his autocratic control of the franchise makes it impossible to blame anyone else. There is no one else to blame for drafting JaMarcus Russell, or trashing the end of Marcus Allen's career, or the organization's cruel pettiness and wild insularity over the last decade and a half. This was how Al wanted things. “The words ‘cunning,' ‘shrewd,' and ‘devious' don't have a bad connotation to me," he once said. We know that you were laughing at us, and we know why.

But we also know Al Davis’s win-at-all-costs approach was the one thing we had that your team didn’t. It didn’t always work, obviously, but it didn’t always fail, either. Even when the Raiders were mediocre, they had a mystique. “I don’t want to be the most respected team in the league,” Davis famously said. “I want to be the most feared.” And so he was. His employees were scared of him, particularly after he sabotaged Allen and, 20 years later, fired head coach Lane Kiffin in front of a room full of reporters via a letter calling him a disgrace to the franchise. It's a funny thing for an owner to say, the better-feared-than-loved bit, but Al Davis was that kind of owner.

At the Coliseum, prime real estate is reserved for the scariest and most garishly made-up fans, a scene that Hunter S. Thompson described best: “The massive Raider Nation is beyond doubt the sleaziest and rudest and most sinister mob of thugs and wackos ever assembled in such numbers under a single 'roof,' so to speak, anywhere in the English-speaking world.” It was intended as a compliment—Thompson had become a fan himself. Somehow, the fact that Raiders apparel became the semi-official uniform of NWA—a marriage immortalized in Ice Cube's excellent ESPN documentary Straight Outta L.A—was somehow not the most hardcore thing about the team.

Thompson was from space; NWA was from Compton. But what each found in the Raiders was something Davis created. Though he grew up wealthy in Brooklyn, he became the ultimate Oaklander, moving through the world as if everyone was out to get him. He told Raiders fans that we shouldn’t feel inferior to anyone, because we were tougher and smarter than all of them. He drew the attention, ire, and envy of the sophisticates across the bridge with his crazy stunts, crazy costumes, crazy draft picks, and crazy tirades. He demanded that those inclined to ignore it acknowledge the East Bay. Now that Al is gone, the Raiders can belatedly join the 20th century NFL in terms of personnel decisions, managerial behavior, and so on. Yet it feels somehow more than hollow. It feels insecure.

Everything was great that first day of the post-Davis era, when the Raiders pulled off an upset of the Houston Texans on the backs of several roundly ridiculed Davis draft picks. Down 25-20, the Texans had the game all but won, with an open path to the end zone and an expiring game clock. They had 473 yards of offense to the Raiders’ 278. The Raiders needed a miracle. And thanks to safety Michael Huff, they got one: a pick in the end zone as time expired for a most improbable victory over a significantly better team. After the game, coach Hue Jackson couldn’t contain his emotions. “That was a hell of a job by you, Michael Huff,” he told the players in the locker room, crying openly. “But I tell you, I tell you this: Al Davis had his hands on that ball, man.” It was reassuring, in a way, to think that the crazy old coot could continue running a football team from beyond the grave.

But the game the very next week shattered the illusion that Davis could protect the Raiders from anything terrible. The stomach-turning sight of Jason Campbell collapsing with a broken collarbone shattered every Raiders fan’s belief in guardian angels. And so Jackson, acting as chief decision-maker because the team couldn’t interview GM candidates mid-season, and because the team hadn't needed a GM in 50 years, donated two high draft picks to the Bengals for the all-but-retired Carson Palmer. Before many Raiders fans had even decided how they felt about the move, the pundits had declared it a JaMarcus-scale disaster. “Highway robbery” by Cincinnati, Will Brinson of CBS Sports opined. “A desperate decision that will only be met with disappointment,” Vinnie Iyer of The Sporting News piled on. They were laughing at us again. Only this time Al Davis wasn’t around to bite back.

That the great Palmer experiment failed to get the team to the playoffs was, paradoxically, not all Palmer’s fault. In the disastrous game against the Kansas City Chiefs the week after Campbell went down, while our new quarterback was busy throwing three interceptions and completing just 8 of 21 passes, running back Darren McFadden left with a foot injury; he wouldn't play again this season. Meanwhile, the division rival Broncos received what looked, for a while, disconcertingly like divine intervention. If Campbell’s injury made us stop believing in angels, Tim Tebow’s ability to win without NFL-grade quarterback skills made us confront the reality of a wrathful god. The playoff race came down to the last game of the season, but we already knew it was over.

Even more painfully, the golden boys across the Bay had simultaneously forgotten how to lose. The Niners won 13 games with Alex Smith as their quarterback—did Raiders fans need any more evidence that someone was out to get them? As if the resentment between the two teams wasn’t strong enough—after an August shooting outside Candlestick, the two teams have been banned from playing preseason games against each other—their divergent fortunes this season increased Raiders fans’ fury toward the Niners pretty effectively.

With the season over, the question now is not just what the Raiders will do at quarterback or whether they can put together a real run defense next year, but who will become the team’s public face and who will call the shots. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, they will announce Packers exec Reggie McKenzie as their general manager soon, but the hole in the front office isn’t only about decision-making. The best-case scenario, perhaps, is that John Madden—who called Davis his best friend—steps up to assume a ceremonial role, if not an official one, as Head Raider. The team needs someone who can command attention, and who better than the Hall of Famer who won a Super Bowl as Oakland’s coach? Numerous reports say Madden is already quietly advising Mark Davis, Al’s son and the de facto team owner, but Madden's strategic skills are not what the Raiders need. What they need—what we need—is the bluster, bravado, and blinding arrogance required to tell fans unequivocally that Carson Palmer is the best quarterback in the league despite copious evidence to the contrary.

The highlight of Davis’ famous letter firing Kiffin was the line in which he discussed the expensive failure playing quarterback. “I do realize that you did not want to draft JaMarcus Russell,” Davis wrote. “He is a great player. Get over it and coach this team on the field, that is what you were hired to do. We can win with this team!” It was a preposterous statement, but it momentarily convinced us that the Raiders were destined for greatness. Perhaps that made it hurt more when the team finished the 2008 season 5-11. But while the pundits and the rest of the league may have been laughing at us, they were at least talking about us, which felt right.

It has been a rough year in Oakland. The city remains one of the poorest and most dangerous in the country, and Mayor Jean Quan’s mayor's disgraceful handling of Occupy Oakland—which included two war veterans being seriously injured by police—cast the city in the worst possible light. The A’s are likely to skip town in the next few years, giving some other municipality the tax benefits and revenue opportunities associated with a pro sports franchise. The Warriors may not be far behind—rumors abound that new owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber would like to move them to San Francisco.

Al Davis couldn’t have pulled the city out of poverty or stopped the baseball team's dysfunction. He might have just drafted a bunch of fast guys and fired a coach, per his late-life usual. He might not even have been able to figure out a way to beat Tebow. But, for all that, it's strangely sad not to hear what he would have said about that holy fool. The owner's bark may have been bigger than his bite, but for those of us from the East Bay, that bark meant a lot.

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