While having a blog discussion on Silver and Black Pride with fellow Raider ‘PantyRaider’, I discovered my own personal realization that the finality of an era is upon Raiders fans. With the recent passing of the great Al Davis, I certainly hope that football fans (and sports fans in general) will never forget the great things that he did for not only the sport, but also for the advancement of civil rights and the many barriers that were broken by his persistent "Commitment to Excellence".
That being said, and before this turns into a perfunctory eulogy spouting off achievements that everyone reading this should already be aware of, I’d like to dive into the meat of my intention with this article, which is the future and where we go from here. Subsequently that cannot be done without (at a minimum) nominally mentioning the late and great Al Davis.
First and foremost I must admit my own guilt. I am guilty of feeling like Mr. Davis made some critical mistakes during the last 10 years that have directly impacted and contributed to the significant setback of this storied Franchise. I am guilty of wishing at times that he would retire, and I am guilty of cursing him from time to time as well. But… (And there is a but) I acknowledge his right to do so, and I can’t blame him for every single ill that has befallen this great team over the past 10 years. As a fan those decisions had a direct impact on "my team", and even though I own no tangible stock in the Oakland Raiders, I definitely own emotional commitment and dedication stock in the entire Organization since I was 5 years old. That should make me a board member at a minimum, but I digress.
For years it would seem to me that he drafted and acquired talent with an outdated philosophy that required a formula that was very hard to replicate and was very "hit-or-miss". When it hit, it hit BIG (Stabler-second round draft pick that sat 2 years before getting playing time, Plunkett- a washed up player traded a few times and then released and forgotten by most)-the list goes on and on. I love a comeback, and I am all for giving a player a second chance. That truly can bring out the best in an athlete lighting a competitive fire that may have been all but extinguished. Unfortunately when it missed, it missed BIG. And it seemed at times to miss more often than it hit.
During my conversation with PantyRaider I was reminded of another great Raider named Jack Tatum, or as he was more affectionately known "the Assassin". This was a man who played with an unmatched ferocity and a true intent to maim in my opinion. The reference to The Assassin holds merit here as a symbol of how not only the Oakland Raider Franchise has changed, but how the game has changed as well.
When The Assassin hit Darryl Stingley of the New England Patriots in that 1978 preseason game and paralyzed him from the chest down, and then later out and out refused to apologize for his actions, it solidified the persona of the Raiders for the years to come. They were (even before that game) known as "cheaters", "vicious", and flat out "mean". Overall, the Oakland Raiders persona reflected a core of men who were committed to winning at just about any cost. They delivered a brand of football that was almost unique to the sport and was defined as hardnosed and just about as tough as it gets. I believe all of this was a direct reflection of the leadership within the organization and it started with Mr. Davis and trickled down from there.
These are the Raiders I grew up with. These are the Raiders I came to love and respect. These are the Raiders I’ve physically fought for (no joke I was punched in the back of the head once in South Carolina for wearing a Tatum jersey in public). This is the Franchise that inspired me to become a football fan. The NFL is one of only a handful of sports where grown men are paid to commit physical assault on each other in an arena setting and get paid for it.
But the game is changing. The focus on safety and Traumatic Brain Injury is real and it is not going anywhere anytime soon. The regulations and rules continue to pile up, as do the fines for the big hits that we all love so much. As long as this game is a contact sport, there will always be risk and injury. And as long as there is contact in the NFL, I will be a Raiders fan. But where is my (our) team going from here?
A new GM, what the hell is that? I almost don’t know how I should feel about these changes. For decades there has been only one man allowed to steer this pirate vessel. Sure he made some mistakes along the way, but we all stood by him-even when we were laughed at for taking a kicker in the first round. A new coach, well that’s not really new is it. A new scheme, on offense AND defense-again that has seemed to change with the seasons over the past decade as well. I guess in the end, the one thing that I can say with certainty is that there has been one overall constant within the Raiders organization over the past decade and as cliché as it sounds, it was change.
They key word in that last sentence is was. Over the past 10 years I have become very complacent with saying every December "well there is always next year". As I look to what the future holds for the Raiders I find with some reflection, that it is a little scary. The fright comes from the fear and the fear comes from the unknown. The stable pillar of consistently erratic and unorthodox player acquisitions has moved on and there is certainly a new sheriff in town.
Reggie McKenzie has already impressed me. Immediately cleaning house as soon as he stepped in and naming "his guy". Who coincidentally is a young virtually unknown and unproven Head coach that our new leader was willing to take a chance on? Sound familiar? It does to me and I’m beginning to feel some comfort here. But that is not what has impressed me most. From day one Mr. McKenzie has set his sights on the future of the organization by attacking the salary cap issues, adjusting players "out of whack" contracts, and releasing some players that just don’t fit with the new vision. I’m not saying the new vision requires everyone to have a haircut and wear a button up shirt, but if you were the most penalized player on the most penalized team in the league, that obviously counts for something. In the end you have to admire a man that takes a job with impossible shoes to fill, no current resources to work with and exhausted future resources hanging over his head. He fixed the cap, cut out the bad, made several moves to compile future resources and brought in some half way decent free agent players with a few slots yet to be filled and he HAS the money to fill them. Overall I’d say he turned that shit sandwich into prime rib if you ask me.
While Mr. Davis is gone, his legacy will never die. As Mark Davis grabbed the wheel of this vessel with its captain’s departure, I think he did the smartest thing he could have done. Found a former Raider with championship experience and a pedigree to get the job done in Raider fashion, and then turned the wheel over and stepped aside. I feel good about this. I feel as if our future is now the plan instead of the moment. I feel that the decisions that are being made are calculated and the risk/reward is being thoroughly analyzed for long term sustainment. I see proven business strategies taking shape and after a long time, I feel confident about my emotional investment. As a result of these changes I am making a commitment, (a Commitment to Excellence you might say) to change my old slogan of "well there is always next year" to the next decade is going to be fu@#ing awesome! The future of this Franchise is as bright as it’s ever been, but it’s the history of the dark past that will always make the Raiders the greatest NFL franchise in the league.