Commentary

Al Davis savored his contradictions

Updated: October 9, 2011, 2:47 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

So was Al Davis the genius innovator or a guy who went through life looking for a fight? Was Davis the quietly compassionate loyalist or the garrulous offender who ate whole municipalities for lunch?

Friend or foe? Man in white or man in black?

The answer: You bet.

[+] EnlargeArt Shell,Al Davis
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesAl Davis drafted Art Shell and later hired him as a head coach.

Even to those who knew him well, of which there were (by design) a sacred few, Davis was a difficult read. He could be maddeningly stubborn on issues that cried out for compromise, a trait that landed him in court again and again. He could be terribly kind. He froze out rivals and occasionally people who did him no harm. He was, by John Madden's account, the first person you'd call if you were in serious trouble.

Davis was both sides of the coin, consistently. He was the coin. And as the NFL awoke Sunday morning to a post-Davis pro football landscape, the only fair way to remember him was by recognizing it all. Davis certainly did.

Davis tried several times to tell people who he was, because he didn't consider it that complicated a venture. He was a Brooklyn-born street cat. He loved the fight, which is why he returned to it so repeatedly, taking on the NFL (in moving to L.A.) or this or that local government (in building or abandoning stadia or the accompanying money stuff). He relished the scrap.

Davis would go toe-to-toe with a Raiders beat writer on some relatively trivial factoid, if for no other reason than to reinforce the idea that the club's owner read every word -- and never mind that he might not interact with the media again for weeks or months. It was all in there.

As a coach, a front-office executive and an owner, Davis loved nothing more than designing ways of beating opponents by outscouting or outscheming them, yet the Raiders of his tenure were famous mostly for brute force. He savored that contradiction. He was a West Coast offense designer, later a progenitor of the wildly vertical approach to scoring, but people remembered Lester Hayes.

Al had three Super Bowl trophies by the early '80s. It all worked out.

[+] EnlargeLester Hayes
Getty ImagesLester Hayes and the Raiders' defenses were intimidating, which sometimes overshadowed the team's offensive innovation.

And then, of course, it didn't. Davis, who already had litigated the Raiders to Los Angeles, flirted with suburban Irwindale, was thought to be considering the NFL's favored new locale of Hollywood Park, then abruptly returned the team to Oakland in 1995. Lawsuits flew back and forth even beyond the finish line; Davis sued the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in 1998 for business fraud, claiming that officials promised more than they delivered in ticket sales and the like.

A friend of mine, Roger Dreyer, represented the Raiders in that suit; I sat in court for a few days to watch. One afternoon, in the hallway, Davis looked at me directly and said, "Why are you even here?" then smiled knowingly and patted me on the shoulder. "It's OK. You can stay," he added. It was the strangest exchange I ever had with an NFL owner. (Dreyer scored a $34 million judgment for the Raiders, later tossed on appeal, in what appeared to me an utterly unwinnable case. He then informed me that Davis considered the amount a disappointment. After all, he'd sued for $1 billion.)

There is no fair accounting of Davis' career that excludes these last discouraging years, the Oakland redux, which by and large have been a waste. The Raiders reached the Super Bowl once more, mostly with a roster and scheme constructed on Jon Gruden's watch; beyond that, they suffered seven straight years with 11 or more defeats before last season's 8-8 finish.

During those years, it was an increasingly popular notion that Davis was holding on too tight, stuck in the past, trying to win with ideas that were outmoded. It's a fact that he burned through coaches: Mike White, Joe Bugel, Gruden, Bill Callahan, Norv Turner, Art Shell, Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable and now Hue Jackson just in the past 16 seasons. It's a fact that Davis passed on, at age 82, still searching for some combination that would restore his franchise to the heights it once enjoyed.

[+] EnlargeAl Davis
US PresswireAl Davis' storied career defies easy characterization.

It's all true, and of course it is one side of the coin. Here is a glance at the other: Davis hired the NFL's first black head coach (Shell), its first Hispanic head coach (Tom Flores) and its first female CEO (Amy Trask, who now soldiers on without him). He was legendarily loyal. When former Raiders great Jim Otto dealt with repeated health issues, he said that Davis called to check on him every day. When Flores' wife was stricken with cancer, the first call he received was from Davis, even though Flores had left the organization to become Seattle's head coach.

Davis was largely out of the public view these past several months and even missed a road trip (to Buffalo in Week 2) this year for only the second time since the team relocated to Oakland in '95. Yet Raiders coach Jackson felt such a bond with the owner that he was genuinely shaken by the news as he shared it with the team on Saturday morning in Houston.

And in perhaps a fair final tribute, the Raiders who took the field against the Texans on Sunday were beginning to resemble some of the better teams from Davis' past. They run the ball well. They're big on both front lines. They are led by a strong-armed quarterback (Jason Campbell) who isn't afraid to throw it downfield and let one of his horses go get it. One of those, Denarius Moore, was a midround draft-day find in the finest Davis tradition.

The Raiders certainly are no finished product. That, too, sounds right. Davis built it and tore it down what seemed like a thousand times in pro football. He was good for all of it, which is to say, he endured long enough that you could utter almost anything about his career and be at least partially correct. It's called a legacy.

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Voodoo Wave," is in international release. His work "Six Good Innings" was named a Top 10 Sports Book by Booklist. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.

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