Raiders pay tribute in emotional win

BY Reid Forgrave • October 8, 2011

It’s just a guess — an idle piece of media speculation, really — but it’s fair to suspect Al Davis would have cared little about the glowing tributes, the moments of silence and the kind words showered upon him in the 24 hours after his death, especially those authored and uttered by his many media enemies.

A man the media spent the better part of two decades vilifying and mocking likely would take little pleasure in the roses spread on his memory.

No, for Davis, a man obsessed with the Oakland Raiders football team he’d owned and operated like a sometimes-benevolent dictator for nearly 40 years, none of those tributes would have meant a damn thing. There was only one tribute that would matter the day after Davis’ death: Just win, baby.

And that the Raiders did.

It wasn’t pretty, not at all. The offense sputtered, not getting a first down until after the first two-minute warning. Quarterback Jason Campbell, another in a long line of Davis reclamation projects, struggled mightily, completing only 43 percent of his passes and tossing an interception, yet somehow still managing two touchdown passes.

And the penalties — of course, the penalties, because these are the Raiders, and the Raiders get penalties — they were abundant, 11 for 89 yards and negating nearly every one of running back Darren McFadden’s big plays.

On Sunday, this team, a team that’s always been made in the image of its owner — tough as nails, full of outcasts, always on the outside looking in — pulled off a gutsy win against a very good Texans team.

They won 25-20, the game-changing play a rebellious fake punt head coach Hue Jackson called in the fourth quarter from the Raiders’ own 37-yard-line. They won in heart-stopping fashion, with safety Michael Huff picking off Texans’ quarterback Matt Schaub in the end zone, on second-and-goal and as time expired.

They played all 60 minutes, and they played what Davis used to call, in his Brooklyn accent, “Raid-uh football.”

“Mr. Davis definitely was watching over us today,” said running back Rock Cartwright, who gained 35 yards on the game-shifting fake punt. “He had a lot to do with the interception by Huff that ended the game.”

Yet there was an ugly underlying truth hidden beneath the Raiders’ first victory in the post-Al Davis era. It’s a truth no one dare speak — too soon, too soon — but a truth we all know.

And that truth is that the Oakland Raiders have a much better chance at being a good football team, a more consistently winning franchise, in the post-Al Davis era than it was during the final, ugly decade of the Al Davis era.

Jackson will finally have a chance to loosen the well-intentioned-but-flawed iron grip that Davis always held over the team. The Raiders will have a chance to spread their wings after a decade of staying tethered to both Davis’ ego and his lust for the Raiders’ glorious past.

During his Raiders lifetime, Davis’ franchise went to five Super Bowls and won three. Their last Super Bowl appearance, however, was after the 2002 season, after Davis ran off the coach (Jon Gruden) who built the team. Then the team went 37-91 from 2003 through 2010. Davis drafted JaMarcus Russell and gave away Randy Moss. Al Davis’ silver-and-black magic vanished.

The best way these Raiders can honor Davis’ legacy is to continue the Raiders resurgence that’s suddenly come about: No more 2-14 seasons, no more streaks of five coaches in six seasons, no more public castrations of the manliest franchise in sports.

Afterward, the Raiders seemed to grasp the gravitas of their victory, the biggest victory for the franchise in a long, long time.

Davis’ son, Mark Davis, could be seen in the stadium crying after the game-saving interception. When the game ended, Jackson dropped to one knee and also showed emotion, thinking about Davis, the man who believed in him and gave him a chance, the man who, by hiring Art Shell 22 years earlier, made Jackson believe a black man could be a head coach in the NFL.

Cornerback Joe Porter mugged for a camera and pointed at the “AL” decal on the back of his helmet: “Just win, baby!,” Porter yelled as he went into the locker room. The team’s CEO — Amy Trask, whom Davis made the first female CEO in NFL history — told reporters the team might take a bit more time than usual before opening the locker room to reporters, so heavy were the emotions.

Inside this Raiders locker room — as well as the team’s many tentacles that reach throughout Raider Nation, and throughout the many ex-Raiders who knew firsthand both the good and the bad of Al Davis and chose to remember the good — these emotions came in their most authentic form, not just some ritualistic, meaningless words to honor a man they’d spent so long maligning.

Kicker Sebastian Janikowski dressed quickly and stood at his locker, talking with reporters about his four field goals, three longer than 50 yards. A reporter asked about Davis.

“He was looking over us, I’m telling you,” Janikowski said.

Then the reporter asked about Janikowski talking with Davis’ son before the game.

“It was kind of tough,” he replied. Janikowski paused, emotion clouding his eyes: “I don’t know. I’m done.” Then he turned away.

Other players kept giving personal tributes to this misunderstood man, this man you either loved or you hated, this man who embraced the villainous caricature of his public persona while at the same time — quietly, behind the scenes — played Good Samaritan to those he cared most deeply about, like when he paid medical bills or funeral expenses for ex-players who’d fallen on hard times.

“Everybody misunderstood, thinking he was senile or crazy or whatever, but that’s one of the greatest football minds I’ve ever been around, plain and simple,” said cornerback Stanford Routt.

“He gave me my first job. He always believed in me, and that was one thing he always stressed. … We couldn’t just go out there and lay an egg (against the Texans). That’d be disgraceful to him.”

“As soon as I got to the Raiders last year, I spoke with him, (and) he said, ‘I can remember when you were a little boy running around here, knocking things over and just being bad,’ ” recalled linebacker Bruce Davis, whose father used to play offensive tackle for the Raiders.

“We just wanted to go and make sure we honored him and his memory in the right way, as much as he’s done for this game and the silver and black.”

“He was a ton of knowledge,” said defensive tackle Richard Seymour. “He’s like that grandfather that was around that you just wanted to hear stories.”

And there it is: Davis had become a grandfather to the Raiders. He was still too involved, meddlesome even, yet he no longer had quite what it took. Time had passed him by, as it will someday for all of us.

As a football man, he maintained total control of the Raiders past his usefulness. That’s an uncomfortable truth, one we take no pleasure in trumpeting, but it is a truth nonetheless. Amid the celebration of and sorrow expressed for Al Davis within Raider Nation, there is also a healthy dose of relief.

“This is a new beginning for this football team,” Jackson said.

“There’s many times in past when a team like this in this stadium stopped fighting. And you guys all know that. We’re not going to stop fighting. I don’t care what the situation is. We’re never going to. What we’re about is winning, and that’s what I mean by the new beginning. You just keep believing. Have faith. Today was a game of faith.”

The Raiders now can recommit to excellence. And that’s one final thing that would make Al Davis very, very happy.

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