- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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A player with potential, Criner has speed in the 4.7 range. He is not the burner that Al Davis craved. If Davis were still alive, there's little chance Criner would be in Oakland today.
The Autumn Wind is still a Raider, but it blows on a different course.
When Davis died at age 82 on Oct. 8, it was clear that the Raiders were going to embark upon a major transition period. Davis was the Raiders’ decision-maker for nearly 50 years, even into his ailing final days.
While we anticipated change, the modification since the 2011 season ended in Oakland has been swift, dramatic and wildly intriguing.
This just doesn’t happen in the NFL anymore. Imagine if George Halas were still running the Bears or if Vince Lombardi were still on the sideline in Green Bay? The Raiders are suddenly moving from the staunch and independent ways of Davis and emerging as a modern outfit with youthful spirit and ideas.
“I think the biggest challenge is that because the leadership has been the way it’s been done for so long, people are used to doing things one way,” new Oakland head coach Dennis Allen said earlier this offseason. “I think the biggest challenge is just getting people within the organization to open up the thought process to doing things another way. There are different ways to do things in this league. I think everyone within the organization has been open and receptive to conforming to the way [new general manager] Reggie [McKenzie] and I are trying to do things.”
Though Davis was a legend, his ways didn’t always work in today's NFL. The Raiders’ last Super Bowl title came nearly 30 years ago and Oakland hasn't had a winning season in 10 years. Its playoff drought is tied for the second-longest in the NFL.
If there has been an MVP in Oakland since Davis’ death, it has to be his son, Mark Davis. While his father ran the team, the affable Mark Davis chose to ride in the background. Once he took over as the leader of the Raiders, Mark Davis continued that stance.
Davis -- who was being advised some of his father’s top lieutenants in John Madden, Ron Wolf and Ken Herock --- listened to the advice and hired Green Bay personnel man McKenzie as GM shortly after the end of last season. Davis deserves credit for respecting his advisors' recommendations (McKenzie has a strong ties to Wolf and Herock) and for allowing McKenzie to run the team once he was hired.
McKenzie’s task is steep and it will take time. But thus far, McKenzie -- a former Raiders linebacker -- has put his head down and dug in. The Raiders didn’t hire a Davis clone in McKenzie. McKenzie is doing it his way.
He hired Allen, then Denver’s defensive coordinator, as head coach. The last defensive-minded head coach in Oakland was Madden -- who was hired in 1969. McKenzie fired longtime scouts and totally revamped the team’s draft preparation, focusing on modernizing the process. He has already hired a new college scouting director, former Green Bay colleague Shaun Herock, and more scouts are on the way in.
McKenzie cut several players to whom Davis gave supersized contracts in his final years -- part of what should be a new emphasis on salary-cap management under McKenzie. McKenzie added players in free agency and in the draft who fit his coach’s schemes -- and not a rigid scouting plan. Speed and measurables are no longer as important as they were when Davis was running the team.
On the first day of the Raiders’ offseason program, newly signed linebacker Philip Wheeler made some eye-opening comments.
“I actually heard some of the coaches saying we’re not just big and fast anymore,” Wheeler said. “We’re going to be big, fast and we’re going work harder and have good football players. … The (Raiders) were always bigger, faster and stronger than everybody. But the awareness of the game, some of it was down or whatever. I feel like Mr. McKenzie brought in a lot of players in who actually know how to play the game and aren’t just faster than everybody. We have actual football players here now.”
Change in Oakland haven't stopped with the players. It has flowed throughout the organization in the past few months, including the hiring of a new public-relations director with whom McKenzie has history. The Raiders have become more accessible and appear to be willing to be more transparent than under the Davis regime.
It’s a new NFL world and McKenzie is introducing his team to it. Allen said the plan is to meld the past and the future in Oakland.
“It’s an exciting opportunity for all of us that are involved,” Allen said. “To take over such a historic program, be a part of that tradition there with the Raiders, is obviously exciting for all of us. We’re excited about the opportunity to put our stamp on the program.
“I think with every great program in the National Football League, I think you really have to respect the history and tradition within the organization. The Oakland Raiders. It’s one of the most storied franchises in all of sport, not just the NFL. We want to embrace those, embrace the past, and the history of the organization. But yet, we want to do it our way. Reggie and I are going to work together to do it the way we want to do it, and put the best team out on the field we can put out there.”
Much of the transformation will be based on bringing stability to the franchise. The past three head coaches -- Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable and Hue Jackson -- all created distractions for themselves and for the team. Throughout the years, the instability caused many former Oakland players to be relieved when they became former Oakland players.
“There’s definitely a difference,” cornerback Stanford Routt (whom McKenzie released) told reporters in Kansas City after he signed with the Chiefs this offseason. “You know what? I think there’s a little more stability here to say the least.”
Still, Allen made it clear the building process in Oakland will involve every facet of the organization.
“Our deal is, we want to foster an organization that’s based on trust, honesty, integrity, doing the right things, doing it the right way,” Allen said. “Those are things that both Reggie and I believe in. That’s the way we’re going to run that organization. We’re going to do things the right way. We’re going to do things in a first-class manner. We’re going to build a team that’s going to be tough, smart, disciplined. Just like I talked about doing the right things within the organization, that’s the way we’re going to do it as a team.”
Call it a new shade of Silver and Black.