Raiders-Steelers storied rivalry renews

Published Nov. 20, 2010 4:20 p.m. ET

It may finally be time for a new chapter about what was one of the NFL’s most storied rivalries.

With a 5-4 record and first-place AFC West standing, the Oakland Raiders have become relevant in the playoff race once again, like the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3). This means Sunday’s Raiders-Steelers game at Heinz Field has the potential to create some lasting memories that could augment the iconic images of Jack Lambert, Ken Stabler and the Immaculate Reception.

While much has changed for both franchises since their storied 1970s matchups, one thing has remained constant: team ownership. Al Davis (Oakland) and the Rooney family (Pittsburgh) have butted heads for 40 years through their respective squads and when helping to shape the NFL’s policies and direction in league meetings. The two franchises have radically different ideologies but share a common bond as family-run organizations without major outside business ventures.

“He’s always brought to the league a drive and desire to have a competitive team and a viewpoint from the football side of things that maybe some owners don’t,” Steelers president Art Rooney II told about Davis. “Al thinks about football first. There’s no question about that.”

Critics would claim Davis thought too much about football in recent years, handicapping his coaching staff with persistent and counterproductive meddling. But if he is going to take the blame for Oakland losing 11 or more games each of the past seven seasons, Davis, 81, also deserves credit for the personnel moves that helped the 2010 Raiders get back on track. Oakland has won three consecutive games for the best start since its 2002 Super Bowl squad.

“His detractors, you don’t hear them chirping as much now,” said Hall of Fame wide receiver James Lofton, a former Raiders player and assistant coach. “It’s nice to see him get a little bit of due again.”

Now an NFL analyst for Westwood One Radio, Lofton in 2007 was a candidate for the Raiders’ head coaching position that went to Lane Kiffin. Lofton served as the team’s wide receivers coach in 2008 on the same staff that includes current head coach Tom Cable.


Lofton believes Cable has the type of agreeable personality that allows him to successfully coexist with Davis, who has overseen nine different head coaching reigns in the past 17 seasons.

“This is going to sound corny,” Lofton said, “But being a former offensive lineman, Tom appreciates the work it takes to build a team, to be a team player and give that singular commitment you have to have.”

This type of owner-coach relationship has proven disastrous for the Raiders in the past, yet it continues. For example, it’s widely believed that Davis overruled Cable’s desire to reinstate a healthy Bruce Gradkowski ahead of Jason Campbell at quarterback for the Steelers game.

For most teams, such a move would cause the head coach to lose locker-room respect. But it seems Oakland players have learned to accept how the team will operate as long as Davis is at the helm. As tackle Langston Walker told USA Today earlier this week: “He runs the team but we’re winning, so who cares? It’s a bigger issue when we’re losing and you wonder about the weird things that go on.”

Like his father and grandfather, Art Rooney also has a strong presence around his team. Rooney, though, leaves the X's and O's to his top football capos: head coach Mike Tomlin and personnel director Kevin Colbert.

“Our philosophy has been hiring good football people and getting out of their way,” said Rooney, who assumed the team presidency from his father Dan in 2003. “I talk to Mike and Kevin every day. My father was the same way. We’re here but we’re not trying to call the plays, design the offense or anything like that.”

That isn’t to say Rooney is a wallflower. After failing to make the playoffs last season, Rooney stressed to Tomlin that he wanted to see a greater emphasis on the running game that had stopped becoming a Steelers staple.

Rooney also was directly involved in what he admits was the toughest football challenge of his presidency: The fallout of Ben Roethlisberger’s off-field indiscretions. The star quarterback received a four-game NFL suspension and embarrassed a club that values what the Steelers brand has come to represent.

Unlike with another Steelers player (wide receiver Santonio Holmes) who got into trouble last offseason, Rooney decided against ordering a Roethlisberger trade while also assuring fans that the matter would be dealt with accordingly.

“That was something where we all had to put our heads together and decide how we were going to handle it,” Rooney said. “The key to it was for us to be satisfied that he was committed to doing what was necessary to sort-of right the ship and understand he needed to do better as a person. Just working through those things took a lot of time.

“Certainly, there was a lot of fan feedback and pieces to the puzzle that we had to communicate — how we were handling it, what our expectations were and kind of reinforce the fact that we weren’t changing our expectations of people. On the other hand, if somebody is able to correct a mistake in their life, we do feel like people deserve a second chance if they had a commitment to making that work. As we went through it, it was certainly something that wasn’t just a football kind of decision. It was a little bit unusual in that regard.”

Roethlisberger has avoided further trouble and apologized repeatedly for the actions that made him a pariah among some Steelers fans and teammates. Rooney, though, said Roethlisberger is still in the process of making amends.

“I think the key thing for him, which he understands, is that it doesn’t happen overnight,” said Rooney, whose team gave Roethlisberger an eight-year, $102 million contract extension in 2008. “He’s going to have to demonstrate the fact that he has changed, that he does have the commitment to be the kind of leader of the organization that we think he can be. He’s still in the process of winning some of the fans back and going through all of those kinds of things.

“The situation he put himself in … He’s got to learn — and he has learned — that he’s got to do better. I’m satisfied he’s done what it takes and that he understands it’s an ongoing commitment he has to have.”

Rooney said he tries to speak with Roethlisberger “a few times a week,” but such player outreach isn’t unusual. Rooney is a fixture inside Steelers headquarters whether watching practice, conducting business meetings or working out in the weight room

“He does pull-ups,” Steelers rookie outside linebacker Jason Worilds said. “That’s cool as hell.”

So is the smooth style in which the sturdily-built, blue-eyed Rooney interacts with his charges.

“It’s different here,” Steelers reserve quarterback and Pittsburgh-area native Charlie Batch said. “People who have been other places, that’s one of the first things they notice. His office is in the corner. If you want to walk back there, his door is always open.”

Along the way, Steelers players will pass six glass-encased Lombardi Trophies inside the team’s library. Judging by how this season is unfolding, it isn’t that much of a stretch to think Pittsburgh and Oakland may be jostling for another title in the postseason.

“There’s no question: The Raiders-Steelers rivalry has been a great thing down through the years,” Rooney said. “Any time our two teams meet when so much is on the line and both teams are fighting to stay in first place in the division, we’re excited about it.”