Al Davis's Commitment to Excellence Missing in the NFL

Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders was a football guy who knew how to build and run a NFL football team.
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(EDITOR’S NOTE: Back in 1992, when Al Davis was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Rick Gosselin sat down with the Raiders' owner in his office at the club’s El Segundo practice facility for an hour-long interview on a variety of topics -- the Hall, the AFL, the NFL, the Raiders and team building. His words almost three decades ago offer lessons that some franchises still need to learn.)

When Al Davis ran the Oakland Raiders, there was a “Commitment to Excellence.”

Davis became the part-owner and general manager of the Raiders in 1966 and remained the face and primary decision maker for the franchise for the next 45 years. What Davis was doing worked – and it worked because he forged a philosophy of how he wanted the Raiders to look and how he wanted them to play. Davis freely admitted that identity was crafted from two baseball teams of the 1950s: the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees.

The Yankees went to eight World Series in the 1950s, winning six of them with sluggers Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra.

“The Yankees represented tradition, the uniform, the pinstripes…proud to wear the Yankee uniform,” said Davis, who grew up in New York. “Power…the home run. Size…they always had big people. Intimidation. Fear. They would take players from other teams late in their careers and turn them into great players because they wore that Yankee uniform.”

Pinstripes: The Raiders have changed cities over the years (Oakland, Los Angeles, Las Vegas) but never the uniform. The Silver and Black remain classic NFL garb. The pirate with the eye patch has an aura about him.

Power and size: Big people intimidate, which is why Davis added the likes of John Matuszak, Bob Brown, Ted Hendricks, Lyle Alzado and Bo Jackson when he could. Davis collected big cornerbacks – Lester Hayes and Mike Haynes – and big tight ends – Raymond Chester and Dave Casper. He even had big kickers, Ray Guy and Sebastian Janikowski.

Second chances: Jim Plunkett was a classic case of a player who resurrected his career by donning the Silver and Black. A washout at New England, Plunkett quarterbacked the Raiders to two Super Bowl titles.

The Dodgers went to three World Series in the 1950s, winning one of them. The Dodgers also broke baseball’s color barrier by promoting Jackie Robinson in 1947.

“The Dodgers were speed, development…a way of playing baseball,” Davis said. “Defense, which was pitching in those days. And the willingness to take chances. They spearheaded progress. They used to time guys running to first base. Their developmental camps were not tryout camps. They were to develop players, which has always been the Raiders’ modus operandi. Develop people, have patience. Don’t worry about mistakes.”

Speed: Davis collected Olympic-caliber sprinters Warren Wells, Cliff Branch and Willie Gault to be the focal points of his vertical stretch offense.

Take chances: The Raiders are the only NFL franchise to use the first-round draft picks on both a punter (Guy) and a kicker (Janikowski). Davis hit on both. Guy is the only pure punter in the Hall of Fame and Janikowski ranks 10th in NFL history in scoring.

Development: Davis used a second-round draft pick on a defensive end from tiny Villanova in 1981 and was willing to be patient as he developed into an NFL-caliber player. Howie Long moved into the starting lineup in his third season and now has a bust in the Hall of Fame. Todd Christensen was another project. An early washout with both the Cowboys and Giants as a fullback, Davis signed him off the street and converted him to tight end. In his second full season at the position, Christensen led the NFL with 92 receptions.

Color barrier: Davis also broke a color barrier in football, hiring Art Shell as the NFL’s first African-American head coach in 1989.

Davis is a football guy through and through. He spent three years as head coach of the Raiders before taking over as the general partner. In fact, he was the AFL Coach of the Year in 1963, so he had a clear vision for what he wanted – and needed – in a football team.

“I wanted to encompass all those virtues from two great (baseball) organizations into our organization,” Davis said. “That was the idea of the Raiders -- the uniform, tradition, loyalty, speed, power, everyone contributes… It’s not always held, but I tried.”

Davis did not endure his first losing season until the 22nd year of his ownership. The Raiders went to the AFC championship game in all five decades of the Davis era and to the Super Bowl in four of them. The Raiders qualified for the playoffs 21 times and won 16 AFC West titles. In all, the Raiders appeared in 14 AFC title games.

The success of the Raiders on the field was a byproduct of their successes off the field. There were few better than Davis in identifying players. Specifically, players who fit the Raider identity.

“Most of our scouts are people who played here or worked here,” Davis said. “So we do it all (player procurement) by comparison. We don’t believe in the dog-pound approach. Some teams draft guys – big guy, little guy, fast guy, slow guy. Then when you bring them all into the dog pound you have all these different dogs in there.

“We don’t do it that way. We know the type of player we like at every position. We’ve only had three left (offensive) ends in our history – Art Powell, Warren Wells and Cliff Branch. We know what we want. We know what it takes to play each position for us. We don’t adjust to the players. The players adjust to us. We’ve been to four Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks and three different head coaches. We have a way of doing things here.”

The success of the “Raider way” underscores the problem in the NFL today. Al Davis was a football guy who ran a football team. He understood the game and created for the Raiders an on-field identity – big, fast and powerful. NFL bullies. His blueprint for success was in place for more than four decades, and the Raiders reaped the benefits of that continuity.

Today’s NFL is populated with owners who aren’t football guys. They are businessmen. They didn’t bring philosophy to the sport. They bring money – and the hope that their billions can buy success. There is no philosophy, nor is there any patience. Their “philosophy” is whatever plan their next head coach brings into the building. Change coaches, change philosophy, change players. There is no continuity.

What’s the philosophy of the Cleveland Browns, who have hired six head coaches since 2010? The Miami Dolphins have had eight head coaches since 2000, as have the Detroit Lions. The New York Giants have had three head coaches since 2016. What’s their philosophy?

I miss Al Davis. I miss the football guys. So does the NFL.

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Rick Gosselin has covered the NFL for 48 years for United Press International, the Kansas City Star, and the Dallas Morning News. He has covered the Detroit Lions, New York Giants, Kansas City Chiefs and Dallas Cowboys. He has been a Hall of Fame voter for 25 years and, in 2004, won the Dick McCann Award for "long and distinguished reporting on professional football." He is a living legend in the NFL and you can read him at Talk of Fame Network and find him on Twitter at @RickGosselin9