No pro football history book is complete without noting Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis’ substantive impact upon the game.
But the final gridiron chapter of Davis’ own life remains to be written.
Davis won’t see how his final attempt to rebuild the Raiders into a winning franchise unfolds. He died Saturday at age 82.
However, Davis was well aware in his final days that Oakland once again is headed in the right direction.
For eight consecutive seasons, the Raiders didn’t just fail to reach the playoffs. They became a laughingstock with a revolving door of head coaches, sloppy play and what remains the biggest draft flop in NFL history, quarterback JaMarcus Russell.
There was no reason for pride. There was no poise.
Davis took the brunt of the blame. Another one of his mantras — “Just win, baby!” — was mocked. After seven straight years of double-digit losses (2003 to 2009), it was fair to question whether Davis knew how to win in today’s NFL.
The Raiders are well on their way to proving that he did.
Oakland (2-2) is a viable contender for the AFC West title it hasn’t won since 2002. The foundation also is laid for potential success for now and years to come.
Oakland fields the NFL’s rushing leader, Darren McFadden, the only running back averaging more than 100 yards a game (117.0). No team fields a combination of specialists better than kicker Sebastian Janikowski and punter Shane Lechler. The defensive line is among the league’s best.
And while Davis changed head coaches over the past decade more than the trademark Raiders athletic suits he would wear, Hue Jackson quickly has proved a keeper.
An offensive specialist, Jackson has helped get quarterback Jason Campbell back on track. While he isn’t known for spectacular plays, Campbell usually avoids making the big mistake. That might be enough in an offense with such a potent ground attack.
It was Davis who traded with Washington to land Campbell in 2010. Davis made an even bigger deal the previous year when he acquired Pro Bowl defensive end Richard Seymour from New England for a 2011 first-round draft pick.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick doesn’t usually get outsmarted, but Davis got the better end of this deal. Not only does Seymour remain one of the game’s best players, but he also has provided the locker-room leadership the Raiders sorely lacked. The Patriots enter this weekend ranked last in the NFL defensively and still haven’t found a replacement to complement standout lineman Vince Wilfork.
Davis initially was ripped for the Seymour trade because of what the owner proved to be a misguided belief. It was expected Seymour would plot his escape from a downtrodden club like Oakland as soon as he could. Seymour instead was thrilled to sign a two-year, $30 million contract extension in February.
That was when Davis went on a frenzied signing spree before the NFL lockout began. He allocated roughly $80 million in contracts to Seymour, defensive tackle John Henderson, outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley and cornerback Stanford Routt.
I questioned the moves because of the timing — they undermined the NFL’s poverty plea in contentious labor negations with the NFL Players Association — and because doling out another batch of short-term, front-loaded contracts seemingly reflected desperation to keep potential free agents in the fold at an exorbitant cost.
I will now praise Davis for his foresight. Davis realized that free-agent spending would explode once a new collective bargaining agreement was signed. Some of the Raiders he re-signed even can be considered bargains compared to the salaries being paid today.
Davis followed this with a strong rookie class that includes the draft’s biggest steal (fifth-round wide receiver Denarius Moore), another starter (left guard Stefen Wisniewski) and four other immediate contributors. Waiting in the wings is former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor, a third-round supplemental pick who is set to begin practicing with the team next week after serving a five-game suspension.
Oakland’s scouting department did the legwork, but Davis pulled the trigger on all the selections.
Davis’ work wasn’t done at the time of his death. Although he was with Oakland as offensive coordinator last season, Jackson can’t correct every Raiders flaw overnight. Oakland once again leads the NFL in penalties despite Jackson’s use of referees during practices and constant harping on the issue during meetings (a laser pointer is one of his favorite tools). The pass defense is ranked 22nd and was butchered by New England’s Tom Brady and Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick in losses. Nobody knows for sure whether Campbell can make enough big plays in the passing game when needed.
However, Jackson didn’t hesitate to show some Davis-style swagger last week when proclaiming Oakland would win its division.
“Everybody took that the wrong way,” Jackson told me and co-host Jim Miller last week on Sirius XM NFL Radio. “Obviously, people can spin it and use it how they want to. What I’ve been saying is the same thing since I got the job. We’re going to win the AFC West. We’re going to get into the playoffs and challenge for the Super Bowl.”
Jackson’s comments are further proof that the “commitment to excellence” long espoused by Davis is truly there once again. The best way the Raiders can honor Davis? Fulfill that commitment.