Method Behind the Madness
Al Davis runs the Raiders like we run our Madden teams. We don’t pay attention to stats like “toughness” or “route running,” we only care about the fastest, quickest players with the best hit power ratings.
Just like Al. Except while he’s doing it in real life with real people, we’re playing a video game that makes Reggie Bush look like an All-Pro. And yet, somehow, he’s enshrined forever in the Hall of Fame.
When Davis got his first and only head coaching gig in 1963, he was considered one of the more inventive and effective coaches of his time. Seriously, its true. He may have only coached “Da Raiduhs” for three years, but he finished with a record of 23-16-3 (yeah Donovan, ties even existed in the 60’s) and a very respectable .590 win percentage, in a time when the regular season was only 14 games long. He was even UPI’s Coach of the Year for the AFL in 1963 (seven years before the merger).
After he resigned from his position as head coach and a brief stint as the AFL commissioner, he became the Raiders’ general manager and the Al Davis we know now–the sunglasses-wearing Brooklynite who battles every word that ends with the letter “R” and looks like the Crypt Keeper.
Davis secured his position as a the savior of the Raiders’ franchise after spending three years with Sid Gillman’s San Diego Chargers (there’s a point to all this, I swear), revitalizing a team that, well, sucked. In the franchise’s first three years, from 1960 to 1962, Oakland had a record of 9-23 and three different head coaches. They were last in total offense in 1961 and 1962, but suddenly jumped to third in total offense and second in points scored in 1963.
What was Davis’ secret? How did he get an anemic offense to perform like San Diego’s offensive juggernaut only one year later? Simple: the Raiders got tougher, and Davis copied Gillman’s offense predicated on throwing the deep ball.
Yup, for over 50 years, Al Davis has been building his Raiders’ teams around the deep passing game, and it worked–mostly. In 1963, the Raiders were first in passing touchdowns, fourth in passing yards, first in yards per completion with an obscene 17.7 Y/C, and dead last in completion percentage (you gotta sacrifice something when you only throw Hail Mary’s). Davis took Gillman’s scheme–the original West Coast offense–and tweaked it to create a new Raiders offense. The Raiders finally had a plan to move the ball down the field and score touchdowns.
The West Coast offense was innovative; routes became based on timing, receivers really started to stretch the field and coaches created mismatches with their receivers (previously, coaches just lined up receivers against the defensive backs and let the best man win). Davis saw results immediately, as his quarterbacks threw for more yards, Art Powell shined as the primary deep threat, and Jim Otto anchored an offensive line that developed a reputation as both tough and nasty.
The only problem was that teams were starting to figure out Davis’ vertical passing game (well that, and the Raiders had Tom Flores at quarterback. Having Tom Flores was slightly worse than not actually having a quarterback). Without the same offensive weapons as Gillman’s Chargers, his offensive started to sink in the AFL rankings, dropping to last in total passing yards in Davis’ last season as head coach.
When Davis returned as Raiders’ general manager, he acquired the Bills’ backup quarterback Daryle Lamonica. Davis gave Lamonica his first chance as a starting quarterback, and Lamonica was precisely what Davis was looking for. In his first year, Lamonica piloted arguably the AFL’s top passing offense to an AFL Championship game victory and a Super Bowl berth, where the Raiders were manhandled by Lombardi’s Packers (it’s Lombardi. Cut the Raiders some slack).
The 1967 season was the start of a legitimate franchise for Davis’ Raiders, with the acquisition of Hall of Famers Gene Upshaw and Willie Brown, and breakout seasons for Hall of Famer Fred Biletnikoff and Lamonica, or as he was known by the Raiders faithful, “The Mad Bomber” (and deservedly so. Lamonica would throw the deep ball regardless of whether or not his receivers were open, and Al was ok with that).
Mad Bomber would not lead to Oakland to its first Super Bowl title however, as he would give up the starting job to Davis’ new golden boy: Ken “the Snake” Stabler (Come on. His nickname was The Snake! OF COURSE he was Al Davis’ starting quarterback).
**TANGENT** Lamonica had a bit of a problem. He couldn’t really read a zone defense, but that didn’t stop him from carelessly throwing the ball over the middle of the field. That would be like if I was driving, and came up to a red light at an intersection, but instead of stopping, I said “F*** THIS, I’m going anyway.” Eventually, Davis and coach John Madden got tired of every other pass getting intercepted, and benched him for Stabler. **END TANGENT**
Snake led the Raiders to their first ever Super Bowl victory in his fourth and best statistical year, flanked by Biletnikoff, the tough-as-nails possession receiver, tight end Dave “Ghost” Casper, Stabler’s safety blanket, and Hall of Fame snub Cliff Branch, who’s one of the fastest deep threats of all time. It also helps to be protected by Hall of Fame offensive lineman Art Shell and Gene Upshaw.
That team was like heroin to Davis. He tried to copy its success for the next 35 years, trying to find players with similar skill sets. It makes the selections of Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jamarcus Russell, Jacoby Ford, Robert Gallery and countless other “workout warriors” make sense though. Er, well, make slightly more sense than they did before.
Davis won with strong, violent offensive lines, athletic defensive backs, lightning-fast wide receivers (who could actually catch the ball, though) and strong-armed quarterbacks who could make all the throws. But they were successful 30 years ago. He’s stuck thinking athletic skills are the be-all and end-all of coaching, while ignoring the intangibles of Shell, Upshaw, Stabler, Biletnikoff and Hendricks that made a group of individual Hall of Famers gel into a team.
Davis focuses so heavily on athleticism that he creates teams solely up on the idea that wide receivers with 4.3 40s win games and offensive lineman have to have a 34” vertical leap. He collects super-athletes, not football players.
He also collects his fair share of characters. But somehow, he made it work. He took the sociopathy of Jack “The Assassin” Tatum (he hit a Patriots’ receiver so hard he broke his neck. When you paralyze another human being during a football game, you limit your nickname options), the womanizing and hard-partying ways of Stabler, the bizarreness of Ted Hendricks and the rampant steroid abuse and ‘roid rage by Lyle Alzado and molded whatever the hell that is into a championship team.
*TANGENT* Lyle Alzado and Bill Romanowski are two of the most recognizable bullies in football history. What do they have in common? Steroids. Which is funny, because the two Raiders who acted like they had huge balls definitely had tiny steroid balls. *END TANGENT*
But that’s why it’s so fitting that Davis’ birthday is on July 4th. His teams represent what we love most about football: the breakaway runs, the bone-crushing hits and Hail Mary’s. You can’t have that with a bunch of slow, unathletic guys from Swarthmore. He helped turn modern football into the most popular sport in America, and made boring, run-laden offenses into high-powered, aggressive schemes.
Yeah, his drafts and team philosophies have become a punchline of sorts, but he’s not a bungling Matt Millen-type. He’s just a guy living in the “good ol‘ days”, where having the fastest guy on the field meant a whole lot more than it did today. But football evolved. Now, being a “football player” is just as important as how fast you can run and how high you can jump.
Eventually, all the athleticism and talent will come together for the Raiders, but until then, we should sit back and enjoy watching the fastest 300 lb. Davis could find. Happy birthday Al, I hope you finally get the present I’m sure you wish for every year: a 6-4, 235 lb. wide receiver who runs a 4.2 40, can bench press 39 reps, and can throw a perfect spiral 65 yards.