I’d rather be right than consistent. – Al Davis
What could be contrived as a gimmicky marketing slogan by some, Al Davis lived by those words. And, for the majority of his career, he was consistently right. He created a culture and built it until the day he died.
History shows that the great Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders of the past all personified the Raider mystique – both on and off the field. The Raider mystique is what Raider Nation hangs its hat on, separating itself from the other 31 teams in the NFL.
Over the last decade, the Raiders would change coaches as much as they change underwear. Each new coach would say the same rhetoric after, claiming a need to change the culture. Given some of the on-field performances of the last 15 years, such notions may be justified. However, attempting to change the culture can also be construed as changing the very bedrock that is the heart of the Raider organization.
The Raiders have always done things differently. Not better or worse, just different. Trying to change that way to become more conventional all sounds well and good, but a head coach coming in and trying to change such culture in the space of 12-24 months is impossible considering the culture has been near engrained in the organization from the top down for the better part of 55 years.
The last coach to truly understand the Raiders culture is, ironically, their newest coach Jon Gruden. Forget about the development of players, game plans, strategy and the like. Gruden is more than adept in those areas of the game; but what makes him the best fit for the Raiders, is that he doesn’t shy away from the culture. In fact, he embraces it. He knows what it means to be a Raider. Gruden personifies the culture, and understands that the best way for the Raiders to succeed is to have the entire organization embrace its origins, rather than fight against it.
The Raider mystique starts with the elder Davis. Davis typified what it meant to be a Raider. Above everything else was a win at all costs attitude, doing whatever it takes when the time comes to just win, baby. His unwavering commitment to winning resulted in breaking down racial and gender bias barriers not only in sport, but also in business. Davis was a pioneer in many aspects, but for him such feats were simple, because he was consistently doing what he believed was right. His stern belief in being right may have failed him during his later years, but it is the foundation of what made the Raider organization great.
If there is one person currently in the Raiders organisation who exhibits a similar approach, it is Gruden. Not everyone may agree with all of the decisions Gruden has made since returning to the franchise. Despite that, there is no arguing he has a clear, methodical approach that he is sticking by and implementing. Gruden and Davis had some philosophical differences regarding football strategy, but they both agreed that you need to have size on the offensive line, and speed to get after the quarterback. Additionally, Davis was known to sign castoff players who had something to prove. Fast forward to 2018, and Gruden has taken a similar approach with personnel this off-season, so much so, that he joked that Al Davis was making the draft picks for him from the great beyond. Gruden is not necessarily trying to be like Davis, but the philosophy and the conviction in their beliefs mirror each other immensely. This alone is why Gruden is the best person right now to lead the Raider organzsation into its future.
Gruden’s return to the Raiders would never have happened if it weren’t for Mark Davis. Davis is infatuated with Gruden and was always Davis’ head coaching preference. On multiple occasions going as far back as 2012 (and possibly further), Davis attempted to coax Gruden out of the Monday Night Football booth back onto the gridiron, but to no avail. To his credit, Davis has stayed relatively in the shadows during his time as managing general partner, though his activity has increased as he has grown to be more comfortable in the role. Davis’ first ‘intervention’ in the football operations department came in 2014, when he was highly critical of Reggie McKenzie’s desire to sign offensive tackle Rodger Saffold in free agency. Saffold was coming off a shoulder injury and had ‘failed’ the club’s medical as a result. The deal was subsequently nixed and the Raiders instead fixed their hole at left tackle by signing Donald Penn. Davis then went on to play a major role in the hiring of Jack Del Rio (who was not Reggie McKenzie’s first preference).
Davis most importantly understands the Raider culture. It is why the only two names on his head coaching wish list over the past six years have been Gruden and Jim Harbaugh. Since 2012, Davis has shrewdly assembled a football operations department who adhere to the Raider culture whilst still maintaining modern day best NFL practices. On the business side, he has overseen a restructuring of personnel (including Marc Badain to President), and improving the team’s relationship with the NFL. His finest achievement to date was receiving approval to relocate the franchise to Las Vegas (a project spearheaded by Badain), finally giving the team a new stadium and a permanent residence. It is fitting that a Davis would be instrumental in getting a stadium deal done given this had been a work in progress under his father’s watch for over 30 years.
Moving to Las Vegas has its detractors, with some declaring that the Raiders have their identity and culture due to its Oakland roots. This may be true in part, though it is said that the greatness of the Raiders is in its future, and on the surface at least, a new stadium positions the team well financially for the long haul. Mark Davis didn’t explore the Las Vegas route to make headlines. He did it because it was right. Confronting and controversial perhaps, but right nonetheless. The Raiders have always maintained close engagement with the local community in Oakland, and that has already begun in Las Vegas. Mark Davis is a regular visitor to Las Vegas, and is often seen at the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights games, while a number of Raiders players recently were in Las Vegas for a growing number of community events. By the time the Raiders fully relocate to Las Vegas in 2020, they will be as much a part of the community as they ever have been in Oakland.
It is an exciting time for the entire Raider organization, because the foundation of the team is finally in place after Al Davis’ passing. Mark Davis’ Raiders are the modern day old Raiders, led by the modern day Al Davis in Jon Gruden. The road has been a wild up-and-down roller coaster ride to get where they are today. At least the Raiders now are finally in a position where they are embracing their unique approach, because for all the talk about the renegade style, those Raiders teams just won, baby.
And, at the end of the day, that’s all Raider Nation wants.