Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Davis wants to win … just not on the field


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 meaning.

Just win, baby.

Yeah, right.

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 obvious.

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, hereby resign … "

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 needed.

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 potential.

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 in Raiderland.)

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 more.

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 insubordinate, baby.

That's a very strange way to run a business, but hey, he's the boss.

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