In fear of drowning, the writer tests the carpet in the office of Al Davis to see if it has been watered down the way they say the field is for all home games of the Oakland Raiders. Al Davis laughs. Being a genius, a winner, rich and powerful, he can afford to laugh. The writer explains that he has been sentenced to pro football this year and he has come to Oakland on a vacation to get away from it all. He likes what they're doing with the marsh areas.
"Hey, can I say something?" says Al Davis. "I don't know what I'm doing here today. You know what I...? If it was anybody else but a guy I haven't seen in a while...I could be...See, John Madden's the coach...."
The writer didn't catch the last name. John who?
"That's the thing," says Al Davis. "Here's a guy who's got the best record in pro football next to Don Shula. To be a head coach, you've either got it or you don't. John's got it. All he does is win. He's 12-1-1 his first year, when he's only 33 years old. We're right there every year, trying to do that one thing we haven't done. That Super Bowl thing. We come close. But things happen. God comes down and lets Franco Harris catch something...."
The writer wonders why everybody in the world thinks Al Davis is still the coach, nevertheless.
"When have I got time to coach?" says Davis, who sits in a silver and black office in his suburban Oakland marsh. "I'm too busy watering down the field."
Al Davis performs miracles. Stadiums get built in Oakland, leagues merge, the Raiders win more football games than anybody over a 12-year period, unknown players become stars, a fairly young ex-coach and ex-commissioner becomes a "managing general partner"—the majority owner—and it has to be because he's a combination genius and devil.
"I'm just an organization guy," Davis claims. "I like to think I've put together a good thing here. John Madden is part of that. The players are. We all are. I don't go to workouts. I don't send plays down from the top of the stadium. We talk. I talk to John. I tell him some things I know about the team we're going to play. Has he thought of this? Has he thought of that? He usually has."
Why does Al Davis think John Madden can't get enough credit?
"I don't know," he says. "It's an image thing. People know me. They didn't know him. I talk a lot. I've been around a long time. The war between the leagues, the merger. Maybe everybody thought I was too young to quit coaching, so they can't believe I have. But I have."
On game days Al Davis still wants to coach.
"There's nothing like that glory and excitement. But there's nothing worse than the day-to-day detail," he says.
The writer wonders if it is a lot of trouble to water down the Oakland Coliseum's natural dirt.
Al Davis says, "We play at least nine out of 14 games a year on turf. Seven here and one each against Denver and San Diego on the road. And we win. So we must be good mudders, I don't know. A few years ago the Coliseum had a drainage problem. It's been fixed. With Cliff Branch, we'd really be smart to slow him down, wouldn't we?"
Davis does things differently. He ridicules the computer technique, scouting pools, publicizing individual players, believing the draft is a cure-all. His coach was young and anonymous, his director of player personnel, Ron Wolf, was a youthful journalist and now his quarterback, Ken Stabler, is left-handed. What does he have against pro football?
"Take Ron Wolf," he says. "I hired him when he was 21. He loves college football. He knows every player, every statistic. I needed a guy who would read everything and tell me everything. He gets to know the kids. Is he a leader? Can he play in cold weather? What does everybody say about him?"
Ron Wolf is a secondary genius. Of the 47 players on the Raiders' current roster, 34 are draft choices, and 24 of them have come in the past six years. Oakland doesn't get old.
"We like kids who come from winners," says Al Davis. "Kenny Stabler quarterbacked the best team Alabama ever had. You got to put Stabler up there with the best now. He's a leader. He doesn't throw interceptions. He's a winner. All his life."
So are the others.
"We like kids who've played on a national champion and on bowl teams. We know they've got pride and poise," says Davis. "We like a John Vella and a Clarence Davis from USC. A Bob Moore from Stanford. A Jack Tatum from Ohio State. We like a Dave Casper from Notre Dame and a Monte Johnson from Nebraska. We get the unknown, too; you got to be an idiot to look at Art Shell or Gene Upshaw or Otis Sistrunk and not know they're football players." (Sistrunk, with his shaven head, would catch anyone's eye. Alex Karras says he is from the University of Mars.)
And what is the secret of drafting if you never get to draft higher than 19th?
"We work hard at it," says Davis. "Without computers. We take a punter [Ray Guy] in the first round, and he's a hell of a weapon."
What's wrong with trades?
"We'll trade," Davis says. "We like to trade. But you can't give up a couple of empty uniforms and a roll of tape and get a Bubba Smith. You've got to give up a Ray Chester."
The writer wonders why everybody says Oakland's passing game is different.
"Because it is," says Davis. "We don't run a lot of slants. That's how you get receivers killed. We like to keep ours around. Fred Biletnikoff is in his 10th season. We don't like interceptions. You throw on the break or before the break, you get interceptions. We throw after the break. Stabler is good at holding the ball."
The writer says that maybe Oakland can throw after the break because the defense is ankle-deep in watered-down dirt.
"You know what the rug has done?" says Davis. "The rug and the larger roster have brought in the little, fast guy. The Terry Metcalf, the Mack Herron, the Greg Pruitt. The rug has brought in speed. Guys can cut better and fly."
Every good team this year has speed, right?
"Somewhere," Davis says. "You say, well, Miami only has speed when Mercury Morris is in there. But that's not true. It's Paul Warfield. Warfield is what keeps you honest. Branch is what we have to keep people honest. They said he couldn't catch at Colorado. He caught kickoffs and punts pretty good, and we thought he could catch, and you've got to like a 9.3."
Don't you like Branch to run 100 yards on every play and take somebody with him, just so Marv Hubbard can make four yards? Davis shakes this off.
"A good offensive line and a quarterback who can hold the ball," Davis says. "That adds up to a good passing game. Nobody understands what quick release means. Quick release means when you throw the ball. It doesn't mean getting rid of it quick because of the rush. Stabler has a quick release."
The writer wants to know about Al Davis paying off the Bay Area sports-writers. Was it in cash or free fishing licenses for the Lake Oakland Coliseum?
"We give 'em a gift every Christmas," he says. "We've given binoculars, TVs, stereo...it's something I want to do. I guess some other teams do it. A little appreciation for the guys who live with us. Instead of a gift certificate, I gave a guy a check. He showed it to his sports editor. He gave it back. No big deal. He didn't get fired. There's no scandal."
Al Davis laughs.
"You know how to buy good publicity?" he says. "By winning, like John Madden does. We don't get the best of it around here. Nobody left their heart in Oakland. But we're treated fairly, I think. We don't go looking for it. We don't announce player signings. I don't do radio shows. I don't do TV shows. Is that a guy looking for publicity?"
Some of the accidental publicity wasn't so good from Pete Rozelle's viewpoint.
"I turned up on camera sitting at a game with Jimmy the Greek. He's a friend," says Davis. "He's an accredited journalist, a columnist, isn't he? Pete called me. We chatted about it. What's that got to do with...?"
As a member of the NFL Owners Executive Committee and the powerful Competition Committee, Al Davis is in a position to change the sport. What does he intend to do?"
"You got to be kidding," he says. "My kick comes from trying to figure ways for us to win with the rules that everybody else makes. I'm no rule maker. I want to see us do certain things. They talk about me coaching. You don't have time to coach when you're dealing with personnel, working with the Players Association, drafting, trading, trying to keep us balanced, trying to keep up on things."
Didn't he enjoy a nice edge, being the only NFL owner with a thorough knowledge of the game in every department, having been a coach, a commissioner, a talent hunter? Well, O.K., George Halas, if you want to count him. But there's only one Al Davis, and seeing as how so many other owners are dummies....
"You said that!" says Davis. "You said that. I didn't say that."
Was he serious about the Super Bowl changing to a two-out-of-three playoff?
"I don't think that's impossible," he says. "You get the best team as your champion that way. None of this 'on any given day' stuff, which happens to be true. I'd like to see two-out-of-three. It wouldn't bother me to be playing football in late January."
Didn't the confusion of the runner-up teams in the playoffs bother him?
"I was for it," he says. "I'm for competition. This provides it. Some teams wrap up the division, like us this time, but a lot of teams have a shot to make the playoffs. Sustains interest. You expand and let only the division winners go to the playoffs and suppose those divisions are all weakened and everybody wraps it up early? You could have two, three weeks of regular-season games that don't mean anything."
What would he do with television?
"I'd go Sunday afternoon, Sunday night and Monday night. Give all three networks their shot," he says. "Everybody has their own turf. The public gets the best."
Is the mystique of the pro game justified?
"I'm going to say something that will make a lot of guys howl. You hear all about the zones and the '53' and the three-man line and the two middle backers. But most defense comes from the college coaches. It has to. They go 11 on 11. We go 10 on 11 because we don't want the quarterback to run. I haven't seen anything on defense that didn't come from the colleges. What the pros have done, however, is refine the passing game. I'll give us that."
How much have the players changed?
"They've changed," Davis says. "There's not so much of this 'I'll do it because the coach says to do it.' They're smarter. You tell 'em why, and if it makes sense, they 11 do it."
Is Al Davis bitter over the strike?
"I was on everybody's side, the players', too. But there was lack of reason. Guys talk about freedom, but none of us are free. I'm not free from this job. They've got equal opportunity. What else can you ask for?"
Al Davis believes in winning, and he doesn't understand the athlete who questions that motivation.
"Football is a game you play to win," he says. "Otherwise, like they say, why do we keep score? You play, you win, the money comes; and the recognition, if that's what you want. I didn't make up those rules. That's the way life is."
There was still the question about John Madden's recognition after all this winning since 1969.
"If I were coaching this team," Davis concedes, "it would probably have a different personality. I'd go for more discipline. John can laugh with the guys. He's probably more conservative than I would be. I might throw more, go more for the big play, although John likes the big play. We'd be different is all I'm saying. We're a good blend. We bounce things back and forth, but he's the coach. Not many people realize it, but he's one of the best when the game's in progress, staying cool and making the right decisions. I get the credit for making him the coach. That's all."
So why have the Raiders gone to the Super Bowl only once?
"Two or three times I thought we had the best team, maybe. We throw a pass, which turns out to be a lateral—and a fumble—and the Jets take us and go on to beat Baltimore in the Super Bowl. We beat Kansas City twice, they beat us in the playoffs and then they whip Minnesota. People say we might have beaten Minnesota worse. Franco Harris does that thing. We might be in the tougher conference. The American wins five out of the last six Super Bowls. I think I see more good teams in the American."
Isn't it a shame that maybe the two best teams around, Oakland and Miami—when they're not losing to people like the Broncos and the Jets—might have to play each other in the first round?
"I don't care who we play," Davis says. "The main thing is to have all of your people healthy on the day you have to play somebody. We're capable of beating anybody. That's what we work for. Did John say he'd like to have Miami in the opener? I don't know that he said that. There's nobody good to have."
Listen, Al, one more question. After you win the Super Bowl this season and then go to the Jets as a part owner, general manager and coach, who will you draft at quarterback?
Al Davis tries to laugh, but winds up making a noise.