Dressed in a sleek white warmup suit that covers his frame as
predictably as snow covers the North Pole, Al Davis roams the
Oakland Raiders' universe, putting his hands on everything. His
touch may be cold, but he travels less like a snowstorm than
like a twister. He can suddenly thrash his surroundings, and
when he appears, people run for shelter. In a sport marked by
confrontation and intimidation, few, if any, figures are crossed
less and feared more.
During his 33 years with the Raiders, Davis, 66, whose title is
president of the general partner, has built some of the most
successful teams in NFL history, including three Super Bowl
champions. But he has also made moves, especially in recent
years, that have compromised the Raiders' prospects for success
and given the organization an aura of paranoia and divisiveness.
The environment he has created undermined the Raiders during a
six-game losing streak at the end of the 1995 season. As a
result of that slump, the Raiders missed the playoffs for the
third time in four years and the seventh time in 10. Many
current and former Raiders players, coaches and administrators
believe the blame for these years of failure lies at the top.
"The word is spreading about the Raiders and Al Davis," says
Seattle Seahawks fullback Steve Smith, a Raider from 1987 to
'93. "The way they collapsed last year was typical. The Raiders
have had more talent than any other team the last 10 years. They
should have won at least three Super Bowls during that time, but
they didn't because Al screwed everything up."
Davis, who did not return several calls to be interviewed for
this story, is a man of contradictions, so the Raiders are a
team of incongruities. An example: On one hand, most Raiders
employees live in fear of Davis; conversely, discipline barely
exists. "There's so much confusion there, it's unbelievable,"
says Greg Skrepenak, a Raiders tackle for the last three of
their 13 years in Los Angeles and last season when the team
returned to its old base, in Oakland. Skrepenak signed with the
Carolina Panthers as a free agent in February. "The problems
were selfishness and a lack of cohesiveness. You had guys
walking out of meetings, coming in late or not showing up at
all. There were guys talking back to coaches and coaches yelling
at each other. You're never really sure where the decisions are
coming from, and it seems like everything's a big secret.
Ultimately the decisions fall on Al Davis."
Nonetheless, in what has become an annual rite of spring,
optimism abounds in Raiderland. Last year hopes were buoyed by
the hiring of Mike White as coach and the switch to an offensive
scheme featuring short timing patterns. This spring a draft-day
deal that landed Ohio State tight end Rickey Dudley and the
signing of two big-name free agents--defensive tackle Russell
Maryland and cornerback Larry Brown, both former Dallas
Cowboys--have allowed Oakland to put a happy spin on 1996.
Certainly the Raiders have enough talent to inspire talk of a
Super Bowl run. Last summer they spent several days scrimmaging
the Cowboys, who have won three of the last four Super Bowls,
and Dallas cornerback Kevin Smith says, "We feel like they're at
least as talented as we are, maybe more so. The other day a
bunch of us were trying to figure out why the Raiders don't win."
Last year Oakland was 8-2 before its meltdown, and several
players say the early success masked a lack of motivation that
would help cause the team's demise. True, Oakland was beset by
injuries, the most damaging of which was the shoulder ailments
that sidelined quarterback Jeff Hostetler during most of the
last six games. But bad luck alone cannot explain a collapse of
such magnitude. "It only takes a few bad apples to destroy a
season, and that's what happened to us," says Raiders halfback
Harvey Williams. "A lot of people didn't give a s---. When
you're out in the middle of the ocean and you've got dead weight
on board, you're going to drown."
Some players showed disregard for authority. In one ugly
incident, which occurred a few days before the Raiders' 34-21
loss to the Cowboys on Nov. 19, defensive end Anthony Smith
attacked his position coach, Floyd Peters, after Peters
questioned his play during a meeting. Witnesses say the 6'3",
265-pound Smith knocked the 60-year-old Peters to the ground
while other players and coaches watched. Yet Smith started
against Dallas, which disgusted many of his teammates.
"The problem with the Raiders is there's no accountability,"
says one prominent veteran. "People say Al Davis is too
involved. Hell, I think he should get more involved, if that's
what it would take." Last season Davis spent less time around
the players and coaches than he had in previous years, but he
remained the Raiders' absolute authority figure.
Davis has a history of undermining his coaches, and one source
says that despite his lower profile in 1995, Davis pulled his
share of power plays on White. Several times he showed up at
practice and waited for White to approach him after drills. As
White walked toward him, the source says, Davis walked away.
While White is highly regarded by even Davis's most strident
critics, he was unable to motivate the Raiders during the
six-game skid, which began with the loss to the Cowboys and
continued the following Monday night with a 12-6 defeat by the
San Diego Chargers. "That game was a prime example of people
giving up," Williams says. "[Some guys] had that look in their
The look must have shown up on film, because two weeks later the
Pittsburgh Steelers based their offensive game plan on the
premise that the Raiders, because of poor conditioning and a
lack of mental toughness, would fade as the game wore on.
Pittsburgh coaches instructed their offense to run plays faster
early in the game to tire out the Raiders. The strategy worked.
The Steelers won 29-10. "They didn't even put up a fight," says
one Pittsburgh player.
The next week, despite Hostetler's valiant attempt to play with
a torn rotator cuff in his left (nonthrowing) shoulder, the
Raiders were blown out in Seattle 44-10. To Seahawks linebacker
Winston Moss, who played for the Raiders from 1991 to '94, the
action on the visitors' sideline was all too familiar. "There
were guys fighting, tirades from coaches to players and coaches
to coaches," Moss says. "You could tell they were tired, just
going through the motions."
According to Skrepenak, "Things got more and more lenient" in
Oakland as the year wound down. Five minutes before the start of
one late-season home game, he says, a player took a cellular
phone call in the locker room as the other Raiders were
gathering for a pregame speech.
Davis has done many good deeds in his life. He has, for
instance, offered financial assistance to former and current
players, ailing former coaches and even journalists. And he has
kept those gestures quiet. He was also the first NFL owner to
hire a Hispanic and a black as head coach. But Davis's abuses of
power have become increasingly visible. For example, after
practice it is customary for him to enter the equipment room,
drop a towel on the floor and wait for an employee to clean his
shoes. "I saw him make someone wipe his shoes in front of 75
people," says Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who coached
the Raiders in 1988 and was fired four games into the '89 season.
"If you don't do what he says to do, when he says to do it,
you're on the s--- list," Steve Smith says. Tight end Jamie
Williams, who spent 1994, the last of his 12 NFL seasons, with
the Raiders, likens Davis to an "evil emperor. There's no one to
challenge him because he's surrounded by yes-men."
The list of those vanquished by Davis is extensive. In recent
years his treatment of two employees in particular--popular
trainer George Anderson and future Hall of Fame running back
Marcus Allen--damaged team morale. Anderson, who had been with
the Raiders since 1960, three years before Davis arrived as
coach and general manager, says he was forced to retire in 1994
for refusing to do a television interview condemning a book
written by former team physician Robert Huizenga. In the book
Huizenga said Davis and the coaching staff pressured team
doctors to clear injured players to return to action too soon.
Five years earlier Huizenga had successfully treated Anderson's
wife of 42 years for Hodgkin's disease. "The word loyalty is
bandied about much too casually in the Raiders' organization,"
Anderson says. "For Al Davis, loyalty means, 'You be loyal to
me. I'll think about being loyal to you.'"
Sources who were part of the team say that in the late 1980s and
early '90s Davis ordered Raiders coaches to limit Allen's
playing time, often in favor of far less effective runners.
Steve Smith and others say that Davis sometimes ordered that
quarterbacks not throw the ball to Allen. "The other players had
heard so much about this 'family' thing, but then we saw what
happened to Marcus," says Ronnie Lott, who played safety for the
Raiders in 1991 and '92. "All of a sudden, the guy who was Mr.
Raider wasn't part of the family. We wondered, How can you not
play your best player?"
Says Allen, who signed with the Kansas City Chiefs as a free
agent in 1993, "I always felt we had the best personnel in
football, but the best personnel wasn't always on the field. We
had to win a certain way or no way. Sometimes we sacrificed
winning for a philosophy--or one man's philosophy."
Davis gave up on linebacker Matt Millen, who won Super Bowl
rings with the San Francisco 49ers and the Washington Redskins
after his 1989 release, and on receiver James Lofton, who was
also waived in 1989 and went on to start in three Super Bowls
for the Buffalo Bills. And the blame for the Raiders' well
documented quarterback problems can be placed largely on Davis,
who traded for Jay Schroeder in '88 and stuck with him for five
seasons, even after Schroeder was outplayed by Steve Beuerlein
in '89. "Al wanted Jay to be the starter because Jay was the guy
he brought in, and he felt Jay was more a Raider-style
quarterback," says Beuerlein, whom Davis traded to Dallas in
1991 and who now plays for Carolina.
Davis favors players whose most striking attribute is raw speed
and obscure players whom he has discovered. Three examples are
tight end Andrew Glover, a Raiders starter the past two seasons
who caught only 10 passes as a senior at Grambling; defensive
back Dan Land, a converted running back with excellent speed;
and defensive back James Trapp, who won the NFL's Fastest Man
competition in 1995.
"Teams would watch our waiver wire," five-time Pro Bowl wideout
Tim Brown said last summer, "because the word around the league
was that the Raiders were going to release football players and
keep the guys Al likes."
In 1988 Davis ordered Shanahan to play Willie Gault, a former
Olympic sprinter, ahead of Brown. Shanahan refused because
Brown's superiority to Gault was so obvious in practice. "That
was the biggest fight we ever had," says Shanahan. "No one had
ever stood up to him. Everyone there is afraid of him, so that's
the behavior he expects."
Even after he was fired, Shanahan says Davis tried to bully him.
"He told me that if I went to the Broncos, he wouldn't pay me
the $250,000 he owed me [under the terms of his contract],"
Shanahan says. Shanahan resisted, saying, "I have a contract."
According to Shanahan, Davis replied, "I'll get you." Shanahan
went to the Broncos, as quarterbacks coach, anyway. He still has
not received a penny from Davis. According to league spokesman
Greg Aiello, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue ruled three years
ago that Davis was required to pay Shanahan the $250,000, but
Davis appealed the decision, saying he had lent Shanahan about
$200,000 that had not been repaid. The matter is under review.
Davis's treatment of Shanahan's successor, Hall of Famer and
former Raiders tackle Art Shell, was equally heavy-handed.
Sources say Davis meddled with game plans during the week and
sent notes to offensive coaches requesting specific plays during
games. "Some strange play would appear during a game," Jamie
Williams says, "and players would look up to the press box and
say, 'That was Al.'"
After hiring White to replace Shell before last season, Davis
seemed to make a conscious effort to remain in the background.
However, in an interview last fall, White conceded that Davis
regularly faxed him plays and called him with suggestions,
sometimes in the middle of the night. (White canceled an April
interview with SI because, according to his assistant, he was
instructed to do so by Raiders senior assistant Bruce Allen.)
During this off-season Davis persuaded assistant head
coach/offense Joe Bugel, who was being wooed by new Miami
Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson, to stay with the Raiders. There
were those aggressive free-agent signings of Maryland and Larry
Brown, who was MVP of last January's Super Bowl, to large deals.
And with Hostetler's health restored and the addition of Dudley,
a 245-pounder who runs 40 yards in 4.5 seconds, the Raiders'
offense looks even more dangerous than it did in the first half
of last season, when it was the NFL's top-rated unit.
But can a team thrive in a workplace filled with confusion and
paranoia, one in which team officials, according to Moss, Jamie
Williams and other former players, eavesdrop on interviews and
locker room conversations and report back to Davis? "Players say
the walls have ears," Skrepenak says. "I think Al can find out
information, because locker room talk always got back to the
Nor are the coaches immune to Davis's snooping. Shell says two
or three unnamed assistants "backstabbed" him before his firing.
"You'd go into staff meetings," says one former assistant, "and
the whole thing was orchestrated for people to turn on each
other. And the more you discredited people to Al, the better off
you were." According to one former assistant, Davis would use
film sessions to criticize play-calling. During reviews of plays
that failed, Davis would solicit an opinion from a coach who
wasn't involved in the call, and that assistant would have no
choice but to criticize his coworker.
In such an environment it's tough to sell a team concept. "We
have to look at the organizations that have won Super Bowls in
recent years and how they got that way," says Raiders defensive
tackle Chester McGlockton. "Then, from our owner on down, we
have to get our house in order."
In March, Davis said he considered cleaning house after last
season, "but you can't do that with the [salary] cap today."
"You can say 'problem players' all you want, but that's a lot of
bull," says safety Patrick Bates, a 1993 first-round draft
choice who sat out all of last season because of his distaste
for the Raiders' organization and was traded to the Atlanta
Falcons in April. "Somebody has to say, 'I'm going to step up
and discipline this team.'"
Only Davis has such power. He thrashes about like a twister, but
he seems to be striking the wrong targets.
for an employee to clean his shoes."