While the rest of the NFL was moving swiftly into the second decade of the 21st century, the Oakland Raiders remained a throwback to the days of the AFL.
As the 2011 season began, Al Davis remained the man in charge, just as he’d been in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. The Raiders and Davis were one in the same. Everything that happened – from uniform design to contracts and media statements -- went through Davis.
He was the feudal lord, hiring (and firing) coaches, making personnel moves, moving his franchise up and down the state of California and still making decisions with his gut and his football mind.
But it was a franchise run by feel and instinct rather than organizational structure, cost-benefit analysis and a deep front office full of diverse voices.
The Raiders hadn’t been to the playoffs since the 2002 season, and the head coaching job had become a carousel of failure. As Lynn Zinser of the New York Times wrote, “The Raiders have been the league’s unintentional reality show for so long, the shock value had run out on crazy.”
But in October, when Davis died, control passed to his son, Mark. No one was quite sure what kind of owner Mark Davis would be, or whether he even wanted to run an NFL franchise.
Those doubts were addressed this week, however, when Davis hired Reggie McKenzie as the team’s new general manager and McKenzie immediately fired head coach Hue Jackson after just one 8-8 season.
“Change happened on Oct. 8,” Mark Davis said, referring to his father’s death, “and we had to bring this full-round.”
No more, he was saying, are the Raiders going to be feudal, or futile.
Davis gave McKenzie the keys to the team and told him to build a steady, sound, winning franchise, based on the good strategies and talent evaluation McKenzie was a part of in 18 years with the Green Bay Packers.
By hiring a football man to take care of his football team, Mark Davis took control of the organization by letting go. Wisely, he said, “I don’t know what my dad knew.”
In signaling his team’s move to join the rest of the NFL in the 21st century, Mark Davis also demonstrated a confident, at-ease leader. As columnist Tim Kawakami of the Bay Area News Group wrote, “Davis was the star of the show, with his own style – relaxed, wry, spontaneous, patient through some tedious questioning, direct and cagey, too.”
Davis indicated it won’t be business as usual for the Raiders. Though the franchise has a rich history, what’s past is past and it’s time to do whatever is necessary to build a solid foundation for future success.
In speaking to the media Tuesday, Mark Davis said everything is on the table – including moving the franchise back to Los Angeles if the team can’t get a new stadium in Oakland.
“Yeah, Los Angeles is a possibility,” he told reporters after the news conference. “Wherever’s a possibility. We need a stadium.”
The bottom line to Mark Davis’ quick actions – the hiring of McKenzie, the firing of Jackson, his commitment to running the franchise – is that he knows it’s time the Raiders evolve. There’s still a Davis in charge, but don’t expect his fingerprints to be on everything. He appears willing to hire good people, set up an organization and allow it to function without meddling.
“Have the Raiders gone sane?” asked a headline on a New York Times blog.
Already, ESPN AFC West columnist Bill Williamson gives Mark Davis two thumbs up. Wrote Williamson:
“One of the reasons why McKenzie was likely attracted to the job is that the owner knows his place. The best-run sports teams are those where the owner allows his employees to do their jobs. Unlike his father, (Mark) Davis doesn’t have a long history in football. He recognized that and it is clear he is interested in letting those who know the game lead the team.”
Welcome to the 21st century, Raiders.