October 13, 2011

The Autumn Wind Is a Raider

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I am not a Raiders fan. I never have been and I never will be. But the news of Al Davis’s death struck a chord in my heart, as it should for any other NFL fan. Certainly, that chord might be a bit different depending on which team you follow, but to say that Al Davis hasn’t had a huge impact on your team or on the NFL in general would be quite naïve. The passing of a man that our generation came to know as an old, bullheaded, win-at-all-costs lunatic of an owner deserves a peek into his past as a young(er), bullheaded, win-at-all-costs lunatic of a man.

Al Davis demanded a commitment to excellence from his team, and while the Raiders’ performance in recent years may have blurred this mantra, any well-learned NFL fan knows that the dynasty he established in the 1970s is one of the biggest and baddest the game has ever seen. Al Davis’ “Just win, baby” motto wasn’t just a slogan — it was an obsession, a law in the land of silver and black that allowed Al Davis to sculpt his own legacy and serve as an architect of the NFL in the process.

In NFL terms, there is a BC (before completions) and BC (before completions) and an AD (anno Davis). Our generation takes for granted the pass-happy, big-play offenses that make up the NFL today. As head coach of the Raiders in the 1960s, Al Davis —  never afraid to go against the grain — implemented what was called the “vertical game,” a West Coast style of offense that relied on the deep ball rather than a grind-it-out, run-heavy approach. His coaching successors —and the rest of the NFL — were quick to follow suit.

Always unconventional, Davis hired people who would not simply fill a mold, but rather create their own. He hired the youngest coach at the time, John Madden. He hired the first female CEO, Amy Trask. He hired the first Latino coach, Tom Flores. Not too shabby given all their success. Unconventional, yes. Foolhardy, no. Recent head-scratchers notwithstanding, Al Davis was a visionary who built from the ground up, on his own terms.

It’s hard to think of Al Davis without invoking memories of the Raiders of yore, and Davis wouldn’t want it any other way.

Al Davis couldn’t care less about what I have to say about him or his teams, which is exactly what makes him so admirable. He couldn’t care less about what I think, what other owners think, what the media thinks, and certainly not what the commissioner thinks. When a co-owner of the Raiders temporarily left the country, Davis ousted him. When a coach couldn’t win, Davis fired him. When the NFL didn’t appeal to Davis, he became commissioner of his own league, the AFL. He had a my-way-or-the-highway mindset, and left a very crowded highway in his wake. It’s probably with good reason that the NFL Network considers the No. 1 NFL feud of all time to be “The Raiders versus … the World.” Al Davis enmeshed his passion for the game with his love for the Raiders. Outside of that black hole, nothing else and no one else mattered.

And within that black hole, there is of course the Raiders mystique.

Jack Tatum celebrating over an unconscious Sammy White. George Atkinson concussing a defenseless Lynn Swann with a vicious forearm to the back of the head. “Big Ben” Davidson flying in from off-screen and driving his helmet into quarterback Len Dawson’s ribs three seconds after the play was over. Iconic Raiders images from the 1970s aren’t pretty, but they embody Davis’s team — a ruffian group with a we’ll-take-15-yards-if-it-will-teach-you-a-lesson attitude, and above all, a team that won albeit with an unorthodox style of doing so.

Saying you love the NFL but haven’t heard John Facenda’s NFL Films rendition of “The Autumn Wind Is a Raider” is like saying you love Catholicism but haven’t heard of the Bible. There’s a reason the autumn wind is a Raider. The crisp, cool autumn wind sets in each year, sometimes in full-form, other times more prominent in past than in present, but always a defining trait of the season. The Raiders, though faint in recent years, ride on the coattails of a gloried past, a legacy built by Al Davis that is an undeniably inextricable part of the NFL.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, the Raiders currently lead the league in penalties. Wherever he is now, Al Davis couldn’t care less. The Raiders are off to their best start since 2002, the year they last appeared in the Super Bowl.

On that note, let’s take a look at some of the emerging teams in this 92nd season of National Football League play.

Texans at Ravens (-7.5)

The Ravens are at home coming off a bye. The Texans are traveling a long ways after a deflating loss to the Raiders. Look for Ed Reed and the Ravens to keep up the ball-hawking against the Texans, who are without Andre Johnson and Mario Williams.

Ravens by 7.

Bills at Giants (-3)

This one will be tight all game long. The Bills took care of business last week against a low-flying Eagles team. Ryan Fitzpatrick didn’t have his best game, but Fred Jackson made up for it. The Giants stumbled against the Seahawks, and Eli Manning looked shaky in crunch time despite throwing for a career-best 420 yards. Look for the Giants’ hiccups to continue against the Bills, who squeak by late.

Bills by 3.

49ers at Lions (-4)

Ain’t no Mentum like Mo-Mentum, and these teams have plenty of it. The Lions’ impressive victory against the Bears on Monday night was a huge step in transitioning from pretender to contender. Coming off a 48-3 shellacking of the Bucs, the 4-1 49ers look equally impressive. Look for Alex Smith to have a pedestrian game against a stout Lions defense.

Lions by 4.

Original Author: Paul Picinich