It's been so long since the Raiders just won, baby, that Al Davis has come to be viewed as more a curiosity than genius, more oddity than iconoclast. It's been 19 years since the Raiders were in the Super Bowl, which is two relocations and several lawsuits ago. As a result, his franchise had become nothing more than a curiosity, too, an image more than a football team, a romantic notion of something that used to be powerful and cutting edge, even sort of fearsome.
They will have a chance to turn back the clock Sunday, a good chance to court greatness again. All they have to do is defeat a battered and unspectacular Tennessee Titans team, at home, here in the Black Hole. And what a story that would be, this group of castoffs and senior citizens and future Hall of Famers reaching the Super Bowl. It's not the biker, criminal intent team the Raiders used to be so proud of back in the Jack Tatum/George Atkinson days when that pirate on the side of the helmet perfectly symbolized who the Raiders were. No, despite some old-fashioned Raiders trash-talking last week from a few of the boys who are under 40, this is a team that has more use for warm milk than shot glasses. They can't raise much hell 'cause they're too old to be awake much past midnight. Nobody's Cruzin' with the Tooz; they're making nice like Jerry Rice. Perhaps no football team since George Allen's Over-the-Hill-Gang has better personified the phrase "old pros."
Rice, who every time he steps on the field sets a record, is 40 and coming off a 92-catch, 1,211-yard regular season that most 25-year-olds in the NFL would die for. Tim Brown, 36, is coming off an 81-catch season and was, at times, miffed he wasn't used more. Rich Gannon, the MVP at 37, looks like the greatest late bloomer in the history of the league. Nasty linebacker Bill Romanowski, 36, takes so many pills and supplements he has to carry them around, literally, in a tackle box, but he never misses a down, much less a game. Nine years after being voted to the NFL's 75th anniversary team, 37-year-old Rod Woodson is starting at safety and is still spry enough to have returned an interception 98 yards for a touchdown. The Raiders have 11 players who have been in the league 10 years or more, including Trace Armstrong, James Jett and Darrien Gordon.
When asked earlier in the week whether a team with this many old guys has enough kick to finish, Woodson bristled, and said, "I hate those questions . . . You sound like management." Woodson smiled, reminding some listeners he was thought even by coaches and scouts to be too old when he left the Steelers (1996), too old when he struggled through a post-surgery season with the 49ers (1997), too old when he joined the Baltimore Ravens (1998).
Asked where he and Rice and Brown, among others, would be if not for Al Davis, Woodson said, "Retired.
"But all you need is one team that wants you. Al Davis defied everything that is the norm in the league. I'm not going to say he's definitely the only one, but he's one of a very few who looks at how good you are, not your birth certificate. Al's history was always that he'd give second chances to the bad guys nobody wanted, to the black sheep of the league. He wants to know if you can fit in, if you can play, and he's not looking much at trends. When New England won the Super Bowl last season, look at what happened. Everybody wanted to copy them; don't spend money on free agents, don't bring on any older guys. . . . People in sports are so knee-jerk in their reactions. So many of these young guys, even the hyped ones, they don't know what they're doing."
One more victory, and it'll be okay to toast Al Davis again, after at least a dozen years of roasting him. And it's a good thing because it's all too easy to concentrate on the eccentricities and forget that even while battling the NFL in the courts as well as in the court of public opinion, he has contributed so much more to professional football than most owners. Remember, it was largely Davis who as AFL commissioner forced the NFL to merge with the AFL, which went after and got so many of the top college players in the early 1960s. While the NFL applies subtle pressure on municipalities now to build these shiny new palaces for their teams, it was Davis who ushered in franchise free agency by forcing the league to allow him to move to Los Angeles in 1982. It was Davis who talked of luxury boxes years ago, making people think he was crazy. It was Davis who thought play in the old NFL was far too conservative and, after studying at the knee of Sid Gillman, came up with the now estimable "vertical passing game." It was Davis who, without being threatened from outside, hired a Hispanic head coach (Tom Flores), a black head coach (Art Shell), and a female chief executive (Amy Trask). It was Davis, before most others in the league, showed how to capitalize on brand loyalty and aggressive marketing.
Should the Raiders beat the Titans, as they're favored to do, Davis will be put under the spotlight again. All the old topics, his battles with Pete Rozelle, his battles with the league, will be topical once again, even though he seems disinclined to involve himself in those discussions now. A week ago, accepting congratulations after a convincing victory over the New York Jets, Davis was engaging, but also consumed with a topic that's becoming all too familiar: death.
Gillman, for whom he worked as an assistant coach and remained close through the years, had just died. Even more recently, Will McDonough, the Boston Globe columnist and broadcast analyst who had covered every Super Bowl, had died at 67 of a heart attack. "You just run out of tears," Davis said in the locker room. "I'm losing everybody. They're all leaving me."
One dear love that will outlast him is the Raiders, the organization he popularized and made central to the evolution and success of pro football in America. On the shoulders of a bunch of old pros others could no longer see the value in, Davis should be carried right down to the Super Bowl, the only stage big enough to remind folks of who Davis and the Raiders were, and apparently still are.