Just Win, Baby: Al Davis and His Raiders by Glenn Dickey, 1991
Wayne Valley knew why Davis wouldn’t come back to coaching. “He doesn’t have the guts to stay on the sideline,” Valley told me at the time. “The great ones, like George Halas and Vince Lombardi, have gone out there year after year and let people take their shots. ‘The Genius’ can’t do that.”
If he had returned to coaching, how successful would Davis have been? Hank Stram, who coached the Chiefs against him, thinks that Davis would have ranked at the very top. “He had good vision,” Stram told me. “He has always had a clear idea of what he wanted, and he believes in it strongly.”
The rivalry between the Raiders and the Chiefs in the 1960’s, when Davis was coach and afterward, is a fascinating story. “Al always geared his season to beating the Chiefs and the Chargers,” Tom Keating said.”When he beat either of those teams he was really happy. I remember, in my first season with the team, we beat the Chargers in an exhibition game, and he just went nuts. An exhibition game!”
The Chargers were the AFL’s best team early on, but as their top players faded the Chiefs became the team Davis had to beat. And, though his team was not the physical equal of the Chiefs in Davis’s three coaching years, the Raiders split their six games against Kansas City.
Davis and Stram looked for the same kind of player – size in the line, speed everywhere else—and even coveted some of the same players. By the time he came back as general partner, Davis knew he had to build a team that could beat Kansas City if the Raiders were to win a championship. “He drafted Gene Upshaw to block Buck Buchanan,” Stram noted. “Because we always had great kickers, he upgraded his kicking game by drafting Ray Guy as a punter. In fact, I almost drafted Guy just to keep him away from the Raiders.”
“He had a great capacity for using players,” Stram said, “They believed in him. And he was always very good at utilizing players in particular roles. He told me one time that they’d picked up a guy who could only play fifteen plays a game, but they’d be fifteen good plays. He was talking about what we now call situation substitution. Another time, he told me he’d traded for an offensive tackle because this guy could block a defensive end they’d be seeing in the playoffs. Now, who else would be thinking ahead like that?”
Virtually the only early coverage of the Raiders was in the Tribune, but when Davis, in his first year turned the sad-sack Raiders into a 10-4 team that twice beat the Chargers, the AFL Champion that year, the Raiders suddenly became big news.
Davis had a mania for secrecy. At the time the Raiders practiced at Bushrod Park in Oakland, which was next to a large apartment building. Davis was so certain that spies from other teams were watching the practice that he had his players wear numbers different from their game-uniform numbers, and on occasion he ran plays with twelve players on the offense to totally confuse anyone watching.
On the field, the Chiefs and Raiders were night and day. Davis’s Raiders were a bombs-away group, always going for the jugular on both offense and defense. Stram’s Chiefs, despite their offensive talent, played conservatively, content to let their defense control the game.
The Raiders had won seven of their last eight games with the Chiefs, but the statistic was misleading. In 1969 there was almost no physical difference between the teams; the two Raider wins had come by scores of 27-24 and 10-6. The score of the second game showed what was happening: the teams had come to know each others tendencies so well that it was becoming almost impossible for either offense to move the ball.