The Raiders have been in a freefall for the last seven years after having once been a consistently elite team. There was a time when the Raiders considered the playoff tournament and a Super Bowl bid a birthright. But those days now seen like just a distant memory. This is part two in the Rise and Fall of the Oakland Raiders empire, and it focuses on their fall after reaching the very top of the football world.
This is a three part series that chronicles the rise and fall of the Oakland Raiders: The rise, the fall, and the future. Tonight’s entry chronicles the fall of the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders from 1984, the season following their final Super Bowl win through the present day. The first entry told the story of their rise to the top of the football world from 1960-1983. The third and final installment will be a look at the future of the Oakland Raiders, from both a football and an ownership perspective.
It has been said that those who don’t learn from their past are doomed to repeat it. It is also true that it is imperative to understand how the situation came about. It took many years for the Raiders to fall to the lows they have reached in these last few years, so it is important to take the events in a much larger context than just these past seven years. In fact, the issues go back decades.
The Rise and fall of the Raider Empire: Part II the Fall
The beginnings of the end
To examine what has led to the state of the Raiders today, it is important to look at the landscape of the NFL at the time that the Raiders were on top. I will categorize the era of maximum Raider Dominance as 1976-83. That is the period between the first and last Super Bowl wins. The NFL of that era consisted of 26 teams rather than the current 32. There was no free agency or salary cap. If a team was to sign a cast off of another team, they had to surrender compensation in the form of draft picks. Players were basically ‘owned’ by the team that drafted them, and could not change teams except via trade or by being cut.
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- Changes in free agency explained
- 2010 Free Agent wish list offense
All of the above factors are important in understanding the way that the Raiders of the 70s and early 80′s were built. Al Davis was considered a maverick in that he would actively recruit the players that were cut loose from other teams. Many of them were cut loose not because of a lack of talent, but because they didn’t fit in with the rigid rules that most teams had in place at the time. The Raiders were the team of free spirits because they didn’t have to have short hair, wear suits while traveling, or conform to any rules except for Madden’s three basic rules. John Matuszak, Ted Hendricks, & Lyle Alzado are prime examples of the players that Davis picked up that fit into the renegade mold. The other types of players Davis took a chance on that no one else would were those players near the end of their rope or had talent but seemed to fail in other systems. Jim Plunkett was a classic example of one such pick up. In those years, Al had no competition for signing these types of players.
There is one other factor that lit the fuse for the eventual decline of the Raider Empire. It took place between the 1976 and 1977 seasons. Against the backdrop of the Raiders being the defending world champions for the first time, the NFL made two significant rule changes that would forever hamper defenses. They liberalized the offensive lines’ use of their hands and severely limited the contact that defenders could make with receivers. Prior to the 1977 season, defensive backs could molest receivers all the way downfield until the pass was in the air. After the 1977 season, defensive backs could only touch receivers within five yards of the line of scrimmage. The Raiders had always had a great pride in the physicality of their defensive backs, but that took the Raider D-backs out of their game. Even years later, you can stille see the residual effects of this rule with the great number of pass interference/ illegal contact flags the Raiders endure year in and year out. Granted, other than the change in institutional philosophy this rule change brought about, it is a rather minimal factor. It did, however, begin to reduce the importance of cornerbacks in the grand scheme of things, but Davis’s infatuation with the cornerback position would continue unabated for decades.
If that rule change lit the fuse, the event that prepared the explosion was the move from Oakland to Los Angeles in 1981. The early years of the LA Raiders saw a large number of victories, but those early teams were made up primarily of holdovers from the Oakland years.
Part one of this series closed by discussing the symbiosis of the fans in the city of Oakland with the team that is the Raiders. Oakland fans were loud and rowdy, but even more so, they were intensely loyal to the Raiders. The players and fans were known to party together during training camp. There really was no dividing line between the players and the fans. It was one great big happy dysfunctional family. The Raiders were more than a team, they were an extension of the city itself. Then Davis moved the team. And for many of the once Raider faithful, the love they felt for the team turned to bitter hatred. A very strong bitterness ran through the fans. It was not necessarily directed at the team, but at Davis.
However, many of the Oakland faithful would follow the team to LA. The team would also pick up a legion of new fans in Southern California; but that synergy was lost. The Raiders and the city of Oakland had a shared idendity as being tough and blue-collar while LA has a different culture altogether. With the move, the Raiders suddenly became more known for their image off the field, with their colors and logos becoming synonymous with the ‘gangsta rap’ movement and gang culture. When the Raiders moved back to Oakland in 1995, the change in perception that occured during their 13 years in LA combined with those fans who felt betrayed by the team, played a major role in initially sluggish ticket sales. The negative stereotypes it created in regards to the Raider fan base continues to this day.
As the 1980s crawled to a close, there was a shifting of the earth under the NFL that would remake the path to prominence of many teams. This was the beginning of the free agency era. No longer could teams automatically hold on to their players. The players could go to the highest bidder. Al was successful in the beginning of the free agency era; bringing on players such as Ronnie Lott who led the league in interceptions in his first year with the Raiders. Although these players never reached the promised land of the Super Bowl with the Raiders, they kept the team at or near the top of the AFC West.
The earliest years of the Free Agency era were a complete free for all in which teams could just go out and spend bundles of money and stockpile superstars. (For a perfect example of this look at the 49er teams of the early to mid 90s.) The NFL, in its ever present quest for parity, could not let the league be divided into ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, so they instituted the salary cap.
The free agency era brought a seismic shift in the NFL, not just because teams could suddenly go out and improve overnight, but also because it was the death knell for the team spirit that was once so prevalent. The players became more about looking out for themselves and getting the fat contract than looking to improve their team. Also, with the advent of free agency, many other teams would take up Davis’s method of signing players that would make an impact right away. It became the rule, rather than the exception to bring in players off of other teams. These players were no longer considered tainted. Increasingly, other teams would take on the role of signing those players considered misfits, and the advantages the Raiders once held had become relics of a bygone era.
The Salary Cap, Parity and the Modern NFL
The old Raider philosphy from the ’60s though the ’80s of stockpiling the best talent is no longer impossible. Nowadays, every team has a set amount that they can spend every year in player salaries (at least prior to the 2010 uncapped year that is). This has been used so that no team can dominate the league, the way that the Steelers, Raiders, Dolphins, Packers, Niners and Cowboys did for so many years.
The cap is the crown jewel in the late commissioner Pete Rozelle’s plan for parity. His vision of the league was one that precluded dynasties, because all teams were created equal. There are no truly great teams any more. The one thing about the Patriots winning era is not that they are a great team, but Belichick has gotten them to play as a team, which is something that is lacking in much of today’s NFL culture. The continued success of the Patriots even in Tom Brady’s injury absence showed that they were a team built on a strong system with interchangeable parts.
Parity is the one aspect of the NFL Al Davis has had the most trouble adjusting to. He thinks that by acquiring the likes of a Randy Moss, a Warren Sapp or any other superstar they will automatically put the Raiders back over the top as they may have at one time. The problem is that the talent gap between a team like the Saints and a team like the Rams is quite slim. It is a matter of having a coach that can bring the team together to play as a unit and getting the players to forgo their own egos for the sake of their team. This is the area where coaches like Sean Payton and Bill Belichick have created their success. It is the quality that made the Jon Gruden years so successful in Oakland. However, the Raiders have not had that esprit de corps since Rich Gannon’s MVP season back in 2002.
Al Davis also still looks for the malcontents, which was a staple of his success back when. The problem is that the ‘malcontents’ that he brought in back in the day loved playing football and wanted to win. They were considered malcontents because they either chafed under the petty rules of their previous teams or had gotten into some trouble off the field. Today’s malcontents are known as such because they are not about winning. They are more about their contract or their playing time to make sure they get the big shoe deal from Nike. The Raiders are not a team of last resort as they once were, either. It was widely believed, once upon a time, that the Raiders were a players’ final chance to stay in the NFL. In today’s NFL, most teams will take on a player with ‘baggage’ so long as he has talent (Mike Vick).
The Raiders have never been a strong drafting team. During the domination period it didn’t matter as much because they didn’t have many first round picks anyway. Those picks were usually surrendered because they had signed players away from other teams. This lack of draft prowess was covered up by the players that Al brought in. In today’s era of parity, strong drafting is much more essential. And the miserable first round drafting that has taken place after the Gruden years, has destroyed this teams’ chances of succeeding. In the last ten years Nnamdi Asomugha is the only first round selection that has met or exceeded expectations.
In the mid ’90s Mr. Davis brought the Raiders home. The move seemed like a no-brainer solution. Oakland loves the Raiders so there would be a continuation of the sell-outs of the ’70s right? Wrong. The deal ended up going down as a perfect example of what not to do. The effects of this debacle still hang over the Raiders like a storm cloud. It is the very reason that the team has had so many blackouts since returning for their second Oakland stint.
First miss-step was the PSL debacle. The Raiders were selling seat licenses that would guarantee the right to buy a seat. This idea did not go over well with the fans. They felt that they were being charged twice for their tickets. The worst part of it was that as fans lined up to buy their PSLs, many were turned away after being told that tickets were all sold out, despite the actual number being sold not even coming close to sold out. This inflamed many long resentments toward Davis from the fans.
This morass can be laid at the feet of the now non-existent Oakland Football Marketing Association. They could not sell ice-water to someone stuck in the desert.
At the base of all this lies the history. The Oakland Raider fans of old were beyond loyal to the team. They had a waiting list for season tickets that was 10 years long. In those days, the fans kept the Coliseum as one of the loudest places to play. They loved their Raiders with all their hearts. Al Davis broke those hearts by taking their team to LA. The fans felt hurt and betrayed. And those feelings were not easily glossed over by a return home. Not to mention, it is hard to continue with the same fierce loyalty while worrying that Davis could decide to move the team again. Adding to these worries and speculation, were almost immediate flurry of lawsuits that started between the Raiders and the city and county. This kept many fans away for fear of being duped yet again.
The final slide
After the AFC Championship season of 2002, the Raiders fell off the table and have yet to get back up. The last seven years have been an unmitigated disaster for the team wearing the Silver and Black. They are having not only the worst run in their history, but one of the worst runs in the history of the NFL. How could a team fall that far that fast?
The easy answer would be that Jon Gruden was no longer stalking the sidelines. I do believe that has something to do with it. Granted, it was his successor Bill Callahan who guided the team to Super Bowl XXVII. But losing Gruden, the architect of the rebirth of the Raider franchise, hurt the Raiders badly. Then the age and injuries of a team that dominated for the first few years of the 21st century caught up with them in 2003, and the slide began.
During the previous Super Bowl run, there was no future development being done so there were no young players ready to step up and take the reigns of aging veterans such Rich Gannon, Tim Brown, Jerry Rice and Lincoln Kennedy. All of these players either went down injured or retired in short succession, which left the team without the necessary veteran leadership. The aforementioned lack of drafting prowess would further diminish the talent pool on this team. The young players that were supposed to make up the next generation of Raiders have, almost without exception, failed to develop.
It hasn’t helped that there wasn’t a firm commitment to a rebuilding plan. Instead the emphasis was on signing high priced free agents such as Kerry Collins and Randy Moss to fill holes and feed into the false expectation that the team would be able to simply pick up where it left off in 2002. Which we can all see now, was a foolish notion.
It also hasn’t helped that the team has changed coaches on a near-yearly basis since 2002. If Tom Cable survives the season, he will be the longest tenured coach since Gruden, and the second longest tenured coach since the return to Oakland in 1995. No team can build and develop any kind of rhythm when changing coaches with this level of regularity. The changes in coaching and instability undoubtedly play a role in the lack of player development. All of which has deepened the seemingly bottomless chasm of which the Raider Empire has fallen.
Rise and Fall of the Oakland Raiders Empire to be contined
- Part I: The Rise
- Part III: The Future Monday 22 February 2010
(Article re-dited from an article posted on TFDS in February 2006)