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Editor, The Konformist
Davis wants to win
just not on the field
By Michael Silver, Yahoo! Sports
September 19, 2008
The three-word mantra is as ironic as it is iconic, a simple mission
statement in which the connotation is now opposite its literal
Just win, baby.
As Al Davis prepares to fire another coach today, at halftime of
the Oakland Raiders' game Sunday against the Bills, or whenever his
lawyers tell him he's suitably positioned to try to withhold the
money he contractually owes the loyal denizens of Raider Nation
are being asked to believe, as always, that this is about an owner's
obsession with victory.
It is, kind of, only the winning that Davis wants so desperately has
nothing to do with what happens on the football field. He wants to
beat Lane Kiffin, the young man he unearthed 20 months ago as some
sort of boy-wonder-savior, in a game of wills. He wants to beat down
all his enemies: The city of Oakland, the county of Alameda, the NFL
establishment that conspires against him, the officials, the media
and the employees who dare do anything but kiss his aging butt.
He wants to win a never-ending game of Feel My Power; in this case,
even if he has to sacrifice an entire football season to do it.
We know this because Davis, 79, has a different way of doing
business than everyone in professional sports. That used to be a
good thing, at least in terms of the bottom line, as Davis' teams
had consistent success for nearly four decades. But since Oakland
got plastered in Super Bowl XXXVII by the Buccaneers and Jon Gruden,
another coach with whom he couldn't coexist, the Raiders have been
the least victorious team in the NFL.
Over the last five-plus seasons, Oakland is a league-worst 20-62.
That's six defeats more than the next two most futile franchises
during that stretch: the 49ers and Lions.
It's not being a "hater" to point this out; it's stating the
The Raiders are awful. The way they do business is laughable. Their
corporate culture is cancerous. And all of this can be traced to one
man and his never-ending mission to show everyone who's boss.
This is not a new thing. Twelve years ago, I wrote an article for
Sports Illustrated that detailed Davis' destructive leadership
approach, right down to his practice of dropping a towel and making
a team employee wipe his shoes.
How would you like to work in such an environment?
Bringing this back to the present: How would you like to be the head
coach of an NFL team, having just completed your first season one
in which most of your players felt there had been signs of progress
despite a 4-12 record and one day you show up to work and, on your
desk, there is a letter drafted by your boss: "I, Lane Kiffin,
That's what happened to Kiffin back in January. He had two years
left on his contract, and by resigning he would have forfeited $4
million. So he decided not to quit, figuring that if Davis wanted
him gone that badly, the owner could cut him a check and move on to
the next victim. He acted out by spending a week as the coach of the
North team in the Senior Bowl without wearing any clothes containing
the Raiders' logo and waited for the axe to fall.
At the time, I tried to give Davis the benefit of the doubt in terms
of his evaluation of Kiffin. From my vantage point, things had
improved considerably from the previous year, when Art Shell's
second stint as the Raiders' coach proceeded in disastrous fashion.
I also found it odd that Davis, the only person in the world who
viewed Kiffin as a viable NFL head coaching candidate at the time
the hire was made, had reversed his opinion so abruptly.
But hey, I figured, it's his team, and if he wants to cut his
losses, so be it.
Sources said Davis blamed Kiffin for impelling him to trade wideout
Randy Moss to the Patriots for a fourth-round draft pick, chafing as
the Raider washout set an NFL record with 23 touchdown receptions.
The owner groused about Kiffin's decision to start Josh McCown over
Daunte Culpepper at quarterback. He was also angered by reports that
Kiffin had sought the Arkansas job before it was filled in December.
The final sin came when Kiffin told Davis he wanted to replace
defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. At that moment the owner apparently
decided he'd rather replace Kiffin. Yet he didn't have the foresight
or guts to do it the traditional way.
It was around that time that Kiffin got his predrafted resignation
letter, as well as a directive from Davis stating that the owner
would have control over Kiffin's staff and over all personnel
decisions. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Kiffin was also
informed that he and his closest ally in the organization, director
of football development Mark Jackson, wouldn't be involved in the
scouting, planning or selecting of players in the draft.
Shortly thereafter Davis hired James Lofton as receivers coach
without having Kiffin speak to the former Hall of Fame wideout.
Yet Davis still wouldn't fire his coach. A source told me Kiffin
could have been bought out for as little as $1.7 million. But even
if he'd had to pay the full $4 million, that shouldn't have caused
Davis to pause. Having sold 20 percent of the team to a group of
venture capitalists a few months earlier, he had all the cash he
This was obvious as Davis doled out serious helpings of guaranteed
money to free agents Gibril Wilson ($16 million), Javon Walker ($16
million) and Tommy Kelly ($18.125 million) and trade acquisition
DeAngelo Hall ($24.55 million), among others.
Of course, Davis' reluctance to fire Kiffin had nothing to do with
money. It was about not giving the insolent employee the
satisfaction of leaving on his own terms. It was about torturing him
until he caved and reminding him and everyone else that Davis rules
the Raider Universe.
In other words, it was about everything but winning football games
How did Davis suppose his franchise would perform under such an
arrangement? The owner wanted to fire the coach, who wanted to fire
the defensive coordinator yet here they were after a toxic
offseason, and everyone was supposed to pretend it was all good?
Apply this model to any business, and imagine what it might do to
workplace morale. The players aren't stupid if they know that the
head coach has been emasculated, that the owner's pets will enjoy
what amounts to unquestioned job security, some of them will have a
very different reaction to the coach's authority (or lack thereof)
than they would in a more conventional situation.
That's why Davis' bitterness over Moss' departure is so ludicrous,
for the owner completely misses the point: In a dysfunctional
situation like the one in Oakland, he would always have been a
checked-out underachiever. Only in a stable situation like New
England's, with a culture of professionalism and veteran leaders
(and a strong head coach) to enforce it, could Moss maximize his
The fact that Davis allowed a coach he wanted gone to stay on the
job through September is absurd enough. Even worse, Davis and his
minions are now hell-bent on undermining what's left of Kiffin's
credibility again, at the expense of the team's ability to prepare
for those ancillary events that take place on Sundays.
I'm not saying Kiffin has handled all of this in the best possible
manner. After the Raiders' embarrassing, 41-14 defeat to the Broncos
in their season opener, he probably shouldn't have answered a
reporter's question about defensive strategy by saying, essentially,
that such matters are between Ryan and Davis. But Kiffin is young,
and he's clearly under a lot of day-to-day stress. And, most of all,
he's a coach who probably wants to get fired as soon as possible, so
he can cash out and get on with his coaching life.
Determined not to let Kiffin get his way, Davis is doing everything
in his power to derail that plan.
First he reportedly ordered Ryan to rebut Kiffin's comments about
the defensive strategy, which resulted in an 18-minute, profanity-
laced tirade. (A source said Davis wasn't thrilled with Ryan's
performance because the defensive coordinator forgot one of the key
talking points: That a specific defense endorsed by Kiffin had been
particularly ineffective against the Broncos. Incredible, and only
Then Davis, through his subordinates, floated media reports last
week that Kiffin was about to be fired. The Raiders' 23-8 upset of
the Chiefs in Kansas City on Sunday and/or the owner's whims
staved off the inevitable.
On Wednesday, according to reports, senior executive John Herrera
went around the press room at the team's Alameda training facility
distributing copies of an espn.com column critical of Kiffin. A
source says the team's public relations director, Mike Taylor, has
also taken an active role in advocating for Davis' position, at the
head coach's expense.
Think about how preposterous that is at least two team officials
are essentially engaged in a campaign to turn public opinion against
a man who is theoretically the most important employee on the
football side of the organization.
Gee, I wonder why this team loses so much.
If Davis can't get Kiffin to quit, sources say, he's trying to build
a case against having to pay him the balance of his contract, on the
grounds of insubordination. I suspect that at this point, the best
Kiffin can hope for is that Davis will fire him and withhold the
remainder of the cash he's owed. Kiffin can then file a grievance
that probably won't get resolved, one way or another, for a year or
If Kiffin has to wait for his buyout or if it never comes Davis
will undoubtedly feel a sick sense of satisfaction. It'll be another
victory for a man who long ago started caring more about winning the
petty wars he creates in his paranoid world than the games his fan
base actually cares about, and Lofton or Ryan or Tom Rathman or
Denny Green (if Davis is lucky) will be heralded as the next savior
who'll help restore the greatness of the Raiders.
It's a sad state of affairs for a once-proud franchise, one which, I
feel, deserves a new motto in line with the times. So I took the
liberty of creating one.
It's not quite as snappy as the current, three-word staple, but it's
a lot less disingenuous:
Just feel my power, and cave under the onslaught of pressure I
unleash until you commit enough acts that my lawyers decree are
That's a very strange way to run a business, but hey, he's the boss.