Oakland Raiders Training Camp Loses Some History Without Al Davis
Justin Smith – Jul 28, 2012
For the first time in nearly 50 years, the Oakland Raiders will take the practice field at training camp without the prospect of seeing their owner and patriarch, Al Davis, presiding over the activities.
Though less of a presence in recent years due to poor health, it is well known that Mr. Davis had his hands in every aspect of the Raiders’ business, from actual business to defensive schemes and draft choices. He was truly an all-encompassing owner, overseeing and managing every aspect of his beloved franchise.
He felt it imperative to get down at field level so he could ensure his philosophies and direction were being followed by players and coaches. He also felt it imperative to show the players he was around, to have them “tie their shoes a little tighter when Mr. Davis is around,” as former great Tim Brown once put it.
The players over the years loved that level of commitment and participation from their owner. Al was always a player’s owner in that he paid players what he felt they were worth, allowed them to have personalities regardless of how over the top or ridiculous, and let his boys be boys essentially. Drinking and dames? Play ball on Sunday, and all is forgiven fellas!
How many other teams would allow one of their stars to arrive at training camp riding a white horse? And how many other teams would’ve let that group be themselves? Well, Al did. And the team loved every minute of it.
His training camps, especially in the heydays of the 70’s and 80’s, were widely viewed as lax and too player-friendly. But that was off the field. When it came time to practice, the Raiders always brought their A-game, and with guys like the Mad Stork, the Tooz, Snake, Dr. Death and others, it was always heated.
Former Raider Pat Toomey recalled this exchange between Davis and a collection of Raider players during the 1977 season at the El Rancho Tropicana Motel – the old headquarters of Raiders training camp in an article he wrote for ESPN Page 2.
Toomey states that he and Duane Benson pulled into the parking lot behind their room to find Fred Biletnikoff, Kenny Stabler, and Pete Banaszak swilling beer in lounge chairs a little down the way without a care in the world. They were discussing what tack they’d take that night when approaching the local "talent" in Santa Rosa. Would they be Cropdusters? Navy Seals? Doctors? The sky was the limit.
As the players conversed, Davis came out of the hotel dressed in his trademark black & white regalia; his hair slicked back as always. As he walked to his car, the players called him a genius and such amongst themselves; half-joking, but mostly serious. Suddenly, Biletnikoff held up his thumb and forefinger an inch apart and yelled to Davis “Mr. Davis! The rough’s a little long on 18!”
Toomey, having previously played for Tom Landry in Dallas, was stunned. You simply didn’t infer to your owner that things were lax—ever! And you certainly didn’t outright imply training camp was a country club! That kind of thing could get a man cut; or at least running all day long.
But what did Davis do? Just laughed and waved them away. And the Raiders kept winning.
That exchange shows two aspects of Davis; the real respect players always had for him, and his belief that his players could succeed even while having a good time. The NFL simply doesn't have those personalities anymore - with the exception of Chad Johnson. Davis was simply getting too old to fight the powers that be, and so his team folded into the coffers of the "No Fun League" as well and became all about business. But not always; and thank goodness for that.
Davis always relished training camp. He stalked the sidelines in six different decades, whether with a spring in his step or the aid of a golf cart. He was, until his health wouldn’t allow in recent years, an omnipresent figure.
Some said this was due to his need for control. Well, of course. But he owned the team and loved every aspect of football, so he immersed himself in it at every level. Besides, doesn't the person signing the checks get to make the rules?
Al would give personal instruction, encouragement, criticism and direction to any one of his players he felt needed it. He was a transcendent owner, in that he had already succeeded at every measurable level of football operations, and now he used his power as owner to impart that wisdom on coaches and players alike.
That wisdom never waned, though many felt it became stale over the last decade. But young players new to the Raiders in the last few years like Darren McFadden and Terrelle Pryor, and veterans like Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly have sung the praises of their beloved owner and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the game; speaking with an awe and reverence at his ability to recall the most intricate minutiae of games that happened years ago like they were yesterday.
It will be interesting in Napa, the absence of Al Davis. Not only will he not be physically present, but his death has ushered in a sea of changes across the organization that would make the team on the field almost unrecognizable to the NFL icon.
Gone is the rush four, single-high safety, press man-to-man defensive scheme that we all know and a few at this point, still love. It was a good scheme for many years, but in the new, pass heavy NFL was becoming obsolete. More flexibility was needed.
Defensive coordinator Jason Tarver and new head coach Dennis Allen have spoken early and often about multiple fronts, moving pieces around, blitzing from everywhere and attacking the ball. Many cynics feel that if Davis were still present, this wouldn’t be possible.
While Davis had a heavy hand in maintaining the old school defensive structure for years, regardless of coordinator, the last few seasons he relinquished a little control as the Raiders began playing some zone coverage on occasion and blitzing more often. He was slowly becoming more flexible as the team continued to struggle.
The changes on defense will be noticeable, but not nearly as noticeable as Davis is in his absence. It is the rare franchise in any sport, (the rare business of any kind) that can state that their owner, CEO and patriarch was always there to lend an ear and a piece of advice to even the smallest of contributors.
The players have touched on it. Michael Huff discussed how he would miss Davis’ presence, but he was excited to have more flexibility on defense. Tommy Kelly echoed those sentiments, but he was always close with Davis and stated he misses talking to him. Kelly felt love and respect for Davis for being one who believed in him when few others did, and that comes through—always.
Terrelle Pryor is working very hard to validate himself as Davis’s last official draft choice with the Raiders. Pryor speaks glowingly of Davis, and has stated openly that he’s disappointed he won’t be able to show Davis that he made the right choice by selecting Pryor in the supplemental draft.
Many have touched on this being the first training camp without Davis since 1963; mainly people are discussing change, both on and off the field, and the need for a "New Era" while maintaining respect and deference to the old era.
Thus far Allen and General Manager Reggie McKenzie are doing a good job of that, maintaining much of the old-world pride by saying the right things while instilling their own virtues and ideas in the players.
Make no mistake though, it is the end of an era; of almost half a century of omnipresence and hands-on involvement never before seen from the owner of a sports franchise. Cynics and critics will state that this fact was never a good thing, but three Super Bowls, multiple HOF players and a record for most HOF induction speeches all beg to differ—loudly!
The Raiders and the Raider Nation will all feel a little like something is missing this year as we get used to the new world without Davis.
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