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When Silver and Black was the New Black

Lessons from the career of Al Davis

by James Leroy Wilson
October 11, 2011

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When Silver and Black was the New Black

The legendary Al Davis, who controlled the Oakland/LA Raiders for almost 50 years, passed away on Saturday, October 8.

He was an interesting and polarizing figure -- so much so that two years ago I figured out that, over the previous 25 years, his Raiders ranked 85th out of the 97 major pro franchises that were in existence all of those years. http://www.partialobserver.com/article.cfm?id=3328

That said, he does deserve credit as well. From the time he became the Raiders head coach in 1963, his Raiders suffered only 7 losing seasons in the following forty years, during which time he briefly served as AFL commissioner before returning to the Raiders as general manager and then controlling owner.

The sad part is that his legacy was tarnished by the seven losing seasons of 2003-2009, and he became the laughingstock of the league.

Nevertheless, the team remained competitive for the most part in the 20 seasons after the Raiders' third and last Super Bowl victory of 1983, returning to the game in 2002 before things fell apart. And, the Silver and Black of L.A.'s Raiders and Kings were fashionable with the youths of the early 1990's. Davis often knew how to make a splash, such as the signing Bo Jackson, to keep the Raiders relevant in the NFL.

Here are some lessons that could be learned from Davis's tenure with the Raiders.

1. Nothing is ever set in stone, including the location of a team. When the Raiders moved from Oakland to Los Angeles in 1982, I was a kid who had never heard of such a thing. Regrettably, such moves soon became commonplace in the NFL -- including the Raiders moving back to Oakland in 1995, demonstrating to me that fans must be able to forgive and forget.

2. Trust the people you hire. Al Davis did this with John Madden and Tom Flores for the most part, and this led to three Super Bowl titles. Bu he got rid of Mike Shanahan and Jon Gruden, who also have three Super Bowl rings between them for other teams. Most of his other coaches have had short tenures.

3. Sexy free agents and draft picks aren't always the best picks. Davis seemed enamored with other teams' Super Bowl MVP's, strong-armed quarterbacks, speedy receivers, and Heisman Trophy winners. As the game became more nuanced and featured more of the short passing game, several of Davis's picks over the last twenty years never panned out.

4. Sometimes adversarial relationships create progress. As AFL Commissioner, Al Davis turned up his league's rivalry with the NFL a notch, which forced the creation of a common draft, the Super Bowl, and the merger of the leagues, which is something Davis himself didn't intend.

5. Silver and black is cool. It is impossible for the Raiders' uniforms to go out of style.

6. Diversity is cool. Davis is the first owner to hire an Hispanic head coach (Tom Flores) and an African-American head coach (Art Shell), and both were successful.

7. Over time, success doesn't breed success. What worked in the 60's, 70's, and early 80's stopped working as consistently. If the Raiders make the playoffs this year, it will be for only the 7th time since 1986, and only the 4th since Art Shell was fired (the first time) in 1994.

8. Adaptation is vital to success. The Raiders adopted the West Coast offense under John Gruden, and their three playoff appearances of 2000-2002 were under that system. Since then, Davis has insisted on the "vertical" passing game that served the Raiders so well in the 1970's, and the Raiders have kept losing.

9. Know your brand. Davis thought the vertical passing game was part of the Raiders "brand" in the same way that a punishing defense is the "brand" of the Steelers and Bears. But it was the renegade reputation of the Raiders, the team people loved to hate, that made them an asset to the NFL. The particular style of play was less relevant.

10. Even when you love what you do, sometimes it's best to retire and become an afficionado instead of remaining a professional.

If the Raiders have a successful year this year, it would have been nice for Al Davis to see it. On the other hand, he should have given up control several years ago.

But his legacy will be the dynasty that was the Raiders, one of the most dominant teams for nearly 20 years from the mid-60's to the mid-80's. It should never be forgotten that he was once the best GM in football.

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