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The Raiders Mystery

ALAMEDA, Calif. – He used to be the most fascinating maverick in sports, a man who cared about nothing except success and for so many years had that success.

“Just win, baby,’’ was his mantra, and to hell with how he played the games. Of football. Or of life.

Al Davis owns the Oakland Raiders and in a way owned pro football. He never met a rule he didn’t believe couldn’t be broken.

The more that people, the league, the consultants, told him what couldn’t be done, throwing deep, moving a franchise, the more intent Al was on doing it.

The Raiders were the NFL’s original bad boys, in image not record. If the Dallas Cowboys of the 1970s were America’s Team, the Raiders were Satan’s Team. Davis relished the idea.

“I love to go to a visiting stadium and hear the fans boo us,’’ Davis said, or words to that effect “It is better to be feared than loved. It’s the Raiders mystique.’’

The mystique has ebbed into mystery. And agony.

Nobody fears the Raiders these days. Except their own fans.

As the franchise a couple of days ago was involved in what officially is called an “organized team activity,’’ or off-season workout, Davis was out of sight, upstairs in the headquarters building.

But he never was out of mind.

The Raiders have been losing it. They haven’t had a winning season since 2002, when, they actually went to the Super Bowl, getting crushed by a Tampa Bay team led by Jon Gruden, who the year before had been the Raiders coach.

The question asked too often these days is, has Al Davis lost it?

In a month, the Fourth of July, Davis will be 80. A leg problem has required him to use a walker, making him seem even older. Yet he is very much in control, at least by one definition.

“I am the Raiders,’’ Davis reminds those who want him to relinquish the power. He still calls the shots. He still runs the draft. He still hires the coaches, and thus still fires the coaches. Beginning with 2002, he has hired and fired four coaches and then during last season brought in a fifth, Tom Cable, who hasn’t yet been fired.

Al Davis is a football man. He coached the Raiders in the early 1960s, briefly became commissioner of the AFL before it was merged into the NFL and for more than 40 years has been owner, general manager, dictator, czar and everything else possible.

The Raiders could be described as football incestuous, Davis rarely going outside the organization for a new face or new ideas. Two of the three times he has done so, bringing in Mike Shanahan to coach in the 1980s and Lane Kiffin in 2007, ended up in bitter divorces. Shanahan still claims the Raiders owe him back pay. Kiffin was dispatched “with cause,’’ which is about as nasty as it gets.

A football team is many parts, but the most single most important of those parts, as in any business, is the individual at the top.

Davis knows more football than half the NFL combined. One wonders if his concepts work in 2009. No less significantly, do the players used to employ those concepts meet the standards of 2009?

Two years ago, Oakland made a 6-foot-6., 260-pound quarterback, JaMarcus Russell the No, 1 pick in the 2007 draft. Russell virtually can reach the moon with his throws, the extreme of the Al Davis philosophy of going deep. But he struggles to throw short. To read defenses. To be a leader.

When practice ended the other morning, the media chased after Russell. He’s making a ton of money, which in a way is incidental. All anyone cares is whether he’ll make an impact.

LeBron-like, Russell, refused to wait for an interview. In some ways, he couldn’t be blamed. How often need he respond to the same doubts?

In other ways, he could be blamed. Is JaMarcus learning the offense? Is he, as demanded of the very first man selected in any draft, capable of bringing a team back to glory?

That very question has been asked again and again of Al Davis. His appearance, the Raiders failings the past several seasons give the critics their ammunition. He’s ancient, we’re told. His football style is ancient.

His mind, however, is sharp. That he walks slowly doesn’t mean he can’t think fast. He can remember players and games from the 1970s. He knows systems. He knows schemes. Maybe his own major fault is he doesn’t know how to – or doesn’t want to – delegate authority.

Davis admits mistakes, signing DeAngelo Hall, drafting Robert Gallery, who, despite size and potential, was incapable of becoming the blind-side tackle. But Davis won’t admit he no longer can create a champion.

Some despise Al. I admire him. He won’t give in or give up. Who can’t appreciate staying power, in a team or a man?

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's also honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America. His columns appear in RealClearSports on Wednesdays and Fridays.

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