Monday, August 25, 2008

Snake & Freddy B vs Zorn & Largent in the 70's

The Seattle Seahawks entered the NFL as an expansion franchise in 1976. Few people remember they actually played in the NFC West their first season and switched to the AFC West in '77. They fit right in. Even their uniforms and logo seemed like it had always been there. Not surprisingly they became instant rivals with Oakland, who were natural rivals with most teams they played. Though in the case of the Seahawks, there was an alternate universe mirror effect. The Seahawks were the nice guys, new kids in town. The Raiders (we know who they were in the 70's) welcomed them to the neighborhood with a sock to the kisser. A new era was born.

Unlike their counterpart expansion team, the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seattle had some guys who could play. Of particular note was Jim Zorn. Not only was he a wily, strong armed, accurate passer, he had a mojo that made him truly a team leader in the eyes of his teammates. Seattle won some games and when they were outmatched, they were generally not a pushover. Though to be fair, the Seahawks were not a really good team out of the gate. At worst, the Seahawks were generic, sometimes hot, sometimes cold. The only real identity for a stretch was the Zorn to Steve Largent connection which was uncanny and spectacular even in losing efforts.

I never got a chance to see them live or on TV, only on NFL highlights. Say what you will about the NFL but everyone has to admit NFL films rocks most of the time, ya know?

There's a simpatico QBs tend to have with certain receivers. It's either there or it isn't. What is odd is how alike Steve Largent and Jim Zorn are as people. Both are very religious family men, milk and cookies types. By total chance, both arrive to play pro ball for an expansion team and the result is simpatico.

It's hard to imagine a more different set of opposite numbers than the Ken Stabler/Fred Biletnikoff connection in Oakland. As personalities they are alternate universe reflections of Zorn/Largent. Because they were big names in important roles on their respective teams, they were considered "arch rivals" at the time yet throughout their history of playing against each other there was never any animosity at all. In fact there was no real opinion of each other expressed besides normal platitudes when one or the other wins or plays well.

Freddy B was a serious shitkicker type with the Raiders though he did not come into the league that way. That was a gradual process as the Raider mystique morphed him from a clean cut 1960's Florida State man to a 1970's freewheeler as he and fellow shitkicker from the south, Ken Stabler, raised hell off the field while Zorn and Largent were tucking their kids in to bed.

It may be true we are all products of our environment. Thanks to Freddy and Snake and Tooz etc, we know what it was like to be an Oakland Raider and what forces may change the individual once he is part of the team but what does that say about the Seahakws image in those early days?

milk & cookies vs whiskey & beef jerky

men of religion vs men of...whatever the #@&!

Both sets of men were perfect for their respective teams and perfect for each other as teammates. Not only did they rack up gaudy passing numbers, they became a part of the soul of their team, like living legends. All of these guys knew exactly how to help their team win games.

There are some amazing highlights lost to time in the NFL films archive. Having lived through it as a kid, I am still amazed these teams developed the way they did and fate brought them together for some great games in the 70's.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Some observations on the Raiders offensive strategy

In case you missed it, the Arizona Cardinals handed the Oakland Raiders their hats 24-0 in both team's third pre-season game last night. Not that there's any reason for Raider fans to panic. Of course, pre-season you are not showing your complete hand anyway so the score is meaningless. BUT, I had a case of pre-deja vu, sort of. I was reminded of the inconsistency of the Jim Mora Jr. era Atlanta Falcons from 2003-2006.

Greg Knapp was Mora's offensive coordinator. This is the same role he is in now with the Raiders. If you recall, the Falcons played a run-first offense with Vick required to be a pocket passer in a west coast system (with a few wrinkles but not many). Any gadget plays aside, there is very little that is not transparent to other team coaching staffs when you are run-first supplemented by a methodical, controlled passing game. Defensive coaches have been game planning against it for years now. For what it's worth, between last year and this year, I'm not getting the impression there is much west coast offense innovation going in Knapp's toolbox.

Knapp knows the QB position. He has a sound grasp of football in all it's phases. The issue that I see is a lack of "sophistication" in adapting his game plan to the adjustments of a given defense. Look back on last season and only a few times did the Raiders offense find a rhythm. Obviously, different QBs were in the role at the time, my point is the play calling has not been dynamic enough to fool anyone. It is rare to get any big plays or long sustained drives resulting in points. It happens but just not as much as it could and now that the team has such a diminished aerial threat thus far in the pre-season, defenses will certainly key in on and exploit weak spots.

Could we be seeing the same pattern unfold in Oakland as it occurred in Atlanta? People forget the boo birds in Atlanta. In 2006 there was speculation defensive coordinator Ed Donatell clashed with Greg Knapp, complaining that the offensive coordinator's one dimensional play calling was resulting in too many 3 and outs, keeping the defense on the field too much. That 2006 season the Falcons lead the NFL in rushing yet ranked 32nd in passing.

I know they are vastly different type players but Jamarcus Russell reminded me of when Mike Vick was told to stay in the pocket but had no choice but to run for his life. This occurred just last night at McAfee Coliseum where the Raiders offense looked very good for a series or two only to to erode into multiple sacks and hurried throws as the defense adapted to what the Raiders were doing. So while everyone has a short memory, what we saw last night amounted to more of the same from last season.

The clues in this case are a pattern of a) a good opening series by the Raiders offense, b)the next series the defense throws something at them to disrupt and they swim upstream from there on out. Things move, but not at the pace needed to be effective enough to win.

I'm not saying Knapp is entirely ineffective. He is a solid offensive coach, no question, he understands how to put a playbook together. What I really like about him is his unheralded yet storied career as a QB at Sacramento State. He was a walk-on which is even more impressive. You don't hear much about the Sac State Hornets but Knapp was big man on campus in his day racking up over 3,000 yards in the passing game. He remained a Hornet in varying roles on the coaching staff for nine years after his playing career ended.

But how good is he in the NFL? Well, he did achieve success climbing the ladder in the 49ers organization. He became offensive coordinator under Steve Mariucci in '01. Before that Knapp served three seasons as San Francisco’s quarterbacks coach and is widely credited with helping turn Jeff Garcia from a journeyman backup to a Pro-Bowler. Though, his other four year project/student was Tim Rattay which speaks for itself. Personally, I think Garcia knew what his talents were long before he became a 49er and student of Knapp. He manufactures yards with his feet and smarts. He was an all-pro in the CFL before coming to San Francisco. That means he was all about stretching the field which is amazingly still Garcia's game in his late 30's.

Knapp has an important quality Al Davis likes in his coaches which is strong emphasis on teaching. If you look at it fundamentally, high school football coaches and even Pop Warner league, all break it down to somehow teaching a kid the right way to play the game and he goes out and executes by design, leading to all important victory. If you do that truly successfully then you are qualified to move up the ladder, which Knapp has.

Bottom line is will Greg Knapp's capabilities as offensive coordinator win games for the Raiders? That is a big question mark.

Michael Vick told Cris Carter on HBO's Inside the NFL in 2005 that he wanted to pass more. He also appeared to discredit Knapp when he said that when Dan Reeves was the Falcons' coach, he threw for close to 3,000 yards.

"You've got to throw the ball sometimes," Vick said. "You can't just line up and run the ball every time on first and second downs. Teams key in on that, and they have coaches, too. We're going to have to throw it more. ... Coach is going to have to trust in me to get it done."

Carter didn't ask Vick about the fact that the Falcons tried to turn him into a pocket passer and when that didn't work, they decided to let him move out of the pocket more. If you recall, Vick took a pounding from defenses when he did scramble. In one game, the New York Giants sacked him seven times.

Obviously Jamarcus Russell is a better pocket passer than Vick was.  (edit a few years later, hard to believe I said that!) Though, Knapp's pattern of play calling should be of concern to Raider fans or will be unless the rushing game truly sustains the offense throughout the season.

For the sake of argument, let's just say the Raiders did bomb out like they did against the Cardinals and served up a goose egg in the regular season. Typically the offensive coordinator should take blame when play calling fails to achieve your goals. It's proof your game preparation was not near sound enough to carry the team to victory. Though I have to wonder if Lane Kiffin will suffer the repercussions of a stagnant Raiders offense instead of Greg Knapp. As head coach you are the point man and thus the man to receive the axe as well.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Walk on the Sordid Side

Originally published in Sports Illustrated August 01, 1977
A Walk On The Sordid Side
The trial of Raider George Atkinson's $2 million slander suit against Steeler Coach Chuck Noll turned into a lurid spitting match that did nothing to help the game of pro football
by William Oscar Johnson

It was a spectacle so bizarre, so beyond the realm of common sense and ordinary imagination that it might have been the creation of some mad comic producer—a cross, say, between Mel Brooks and the Marquis de Sade . But there it was: in the clean well-lighted environs of a U.S. district courtroom in San Francisco the National Football League , that most august and shining symbol of American morality, excellence and all-round exemplary life style, was on display with a full line of dirty laundry. The subject was mayhem, and judge and jury listened with fascination as all manner of lurid language was applied to the grand old game—"wanton violence," "gang warfare," "criminal acts," "happiness at pain," "love of blood."

It was not as if the bleak affair involved some of the more tawdry properties or anonymous personalities of the NFL . No, this conflict maligned none but the best: it pitted the gleaming black machine of the Oakland Raiders , Super Bowl champions of '77, against the ancient and venerable organization of the Pittsburgh Steelers , the champions of '75 and '76. The game's most luminous figures were dragged through the muck. The Rooney dynasty of time immemorial in Pittsburgh was there, and so was Al Davis , the maverick mastermind of the Raiders . The Steelers ' remarkably successful coach, Chuck Noll , straight as an arrow, was there, and so was John Madden , the hulking but equally talented mentor of Oakland . Some of the game's most renowned performers came to lend their weight to the absurd affair—Terry Bradshaw , Franco Harris , Rocky Bleier , Lynn Swann , Ken Stabler , Jim Otto , among others. In the end, no one was spared. The commissioner himself, Alvin R. Rozelle, flew out from New York to take the stand, suave and tanned dark as an NFL game ball, to deny under oath that his game was fraught with criminal players and brutal plays.

How did this all come to pass? The genesis occurred late in the first half of the first game of the 1976 season, on the afternoon of Sept. 12, when the Raiders and Steelers met in Oakland . Lynn Swann , the splendid wide receiver of the Steelers , ran a pattern down the right side of the field, then cut to the middle. He was covered by George Atkinson , a tough but hitherto unheralded defensive back for the Raiders . As the play unwound, Terry Bradshaw was forced to scramble, eventually firing a pass to Franco Harris , who thundered downfield. As Harris caught the ball, some 15 yards away Atkinson rushed up behind the unsuspecting Swann and cracked him with a forearm at the base of the helmet. Swann dropped as if he were shot. He suffered a concussion and missed the next two games. No official saw Atkinson 's blow, no penalty was levied.

What followed thereafter was a series of actions and reactions, some logical and routine, some fraught with foolishness and anger. The day after the game Noll rose before a luncheon press conference in Pittsburgh and spoke coldly of "a criminal element" in the NFL . He said that players like Atkinson should be "kicked out of the league." The game had been the first nationally televised contest of the season and had drawn a huge audience; the NFL office was swamped with calls and letters about Atkinson 's hit.

A week later, after viewing films and NBC tapes of the play, Pete Rozelle fired off a letter to Atkinson : "In sixteen years in this office I do not recall a more flagrant foul than your clubbing the back of Swann 's head totally away from the play.... Our sport obviously involves intense physical contact, but it requires of all players discipline and control and remaining within the rules. Every player deserves protection from the kind of unnecessary roughness that could end his career." Rozelle also levied a $1,500 fine on Atkinson .

Rozelle then wrote a "Dear John and Chuck" letter to Madden and Noll : "A full review of the available films and television tapes of your Sept. 12 game indicates that your 'intense rivalry' of recent years could be on the verge of erupting into something approaching pure violence. There is, of course, no place for that in professional football and you both know it.... Aside from the specific incidents of flagrant action, there are any number of plays in which the actions of many of your players can be questioned. No action was taken in these instances because reasonable doubt exists in my mind as to the intent and motivation of the individuals involved...."

Rozelle sent another letter to Noll concerning his remarks about the NFL 's "criminal element." He pointed out that Noll had violated a constitutional bylaw of the league by publicly criticizing another team or player. The commissioner fined the coach $1,000. This letter drew an angry reply from Dan Rooney , president of the Steelers . He charged there had been "direct, premeditated, unemotional efforts by the Oakland Raiders to seriously injure Lynn Swann " and went on to say, "I believe it is a cowardly act to hit someone from behind with his back turned. I also believe, because of the number of Oakland Raider players making such attacks on Lynn, the Raiders must have an opinion that Lynn is vulnerable and can be forced out of the game, which makes such acts premeditated and involves the Raiders ' coaching staff as well as the players." Rooney sent along a film clip to prove exactly how brutal the Raiders had been in their assaults on Swann .

Now, ordinarily all of this smoking correspondence would have vanished into the filing cabinets of the NFL office in Manhattan , and the world would never have been the wiser. However, Atkinson decided that Noll 's use of the term "criminal element" was a slander against his good name. He filed suit against Noll and the Steelers for $2 million in damages. And that was how the embarrassed moguls of the NFL came to be sitting the last two weeks in Judge Samuel Conti's Courtroom No. 3 in the San Francisco federal building with some of their most private missives blown up in copies eight feet high.

A full and costly cast of six attorneys was there, three for each side. Leading the Steelers ' defense was a lion-maned lawyer named James Martin MacInnis, one of northern California 's premier defense attorneys; indeed, he had been the Hearst family's first choice to defend Patty after her arrest two years ago. MacInnis, an unctuous but clever orator, told the court in his opening statement when the trial began July 11, "One of the morals of this case is that, in real life, Mr. Atkinson may be a charming young man. You may safely invite him to your drawing room, to your home. But you may not with equal safety encounter him past the line of scrimmage on a football field, particularly if your name is Lynn Swann and your back is turned.... Professional football, as outlined this afternoon, may appear as a primitive game to those who do not follow it. It may appear as gang warfare conducted in uniform, and it may be a lure to all that is violent within any one of us. But there are rules, and without those rules in football the strong would devour the weak and professional football would destroy itself within a short period of time."

Leading Atkinson's legal team was the dapper and flamboyant Willie Brown , a well-known California legislator who has aspirations to run for the U.S. Senate . In his opening statement Brown declared that the Steelers were "the leading cheap-shot artists in pro football," that the Steelers were "simply trying their best to destroy Mr. Atkinson's career," that they were being aided and abetted in this mission by Pete Rozelle himself and that "the league office has deliberately lied on behalf of the Pittsburgh Steelers ." Brown concluded ominously, "I think when we finally finish, the question of pro football—as we know it—continuing to be played may very well be in doubt."

Later, out of the courtroom, Brown spoke in even more sweeping terms: "This is opening pro football's Watergate," he said. "Pro football is on trial here. If the jury rules that Atkinson is not slandered by being called part of 'a criminal element' then the term 'criminal' has been judicially certified as a viable, proper, accurate definition of the game. After this, every time a player is injured in a play where there is an intentional foul, he could bring a criminal suit for assault. Hell, you could bring a class action suit against showing the 'criminal' violence of football on TV. Pro football could be X-rated. I did my best to convince the NFL to settle out of court, but they wouldn't pull out."

Indeed, the Steelers ' insurance company had tried desperately to convince the club to settle with Atkinson for $50,000. The club refused. Dan Rooney , wan and grim throughout the trial, said, "We were never interested in making a settlement. The wrong people were being sued. If we settled, every player would be suing every time he was criticized. We felt we had to go to court to save the game."

If there were cosmic implications in the case, they were soon lost in a nasty spitting contest that seemed, at times, to be aimed mainly at proving in court whether the Steelers or the Raiders were the dirtiest team in football. Another element of the absurd in the affair was the fact that the jury—four women and two elderly men—were almost utterly ignorant of even the most elementary information about the game of football. Time and again the court was treated to painstaking and lengthy definitions of such arcane terms as "linebacker," "punt returner," "line of scrimmage" and "downs." The jury gasped as films of explicit and intentional violence were shown over and over and over again. Indeed, the trial came to be something of a media carnival. So many reruns of TV tapes and film were shown that one afternoon, as the courtroom lights were dimmed for perhaps the 10th showing of a football film clip, one attorney grumped, "I'm not gonna look at one more of those things unless it's got some majorettes in it."

In one of the more telling episodes of the trial, an excitable young attorney for Atkinson, Daniel S. Mason, confronted the cool and taciturn Noll , who had once spent three years as a law school student himself. As he began, young Mason wheeled a large green blackboard before the court and scrawled in chalk: NOLL'S NFL CRIMINALS. Beneath it he wrote George Atkinson 's name. Then he began hammering away at Noll to admit that if there was a criminal element among the 1,200 players of the NFL , certainly Atkinson couldn't be the sole member of it. During some eight hours of tough and often sarcastic exchanges, punctuated with endless films of Steelers committing acts of violence on the field. Mason finally led Noll to expand his "criminal" blackboard list until it included the Raiders ' Jack Tatum—and Mel Blount , Mean Joe Greene , Ernie Holmes and Glen Edwards, all prominent members of Noll 's own team. Subsequently, Blount filed suit for $5 million in damages as a result of being labeled a "criminal" and declared he would not play for Noll again.

When Defense Attorney MacInnis began to cross-examine Noll , he attempted to introduce a copy of Webster's dictionary so all of the various definitions of "criminal" could be included as evidence. Judge Conti whimsically ruled that the dictionary was hearsay and unless Noah Webster himself appeared to testify it was not allowable evidence. Ultimately, Noll explained that in his mind the term "criminal" had applied only to the rules of the NFL , not to penal law. "If I had meant that," he said, "I probably would have said 'thrown in jail' instead of 'kicked out of the league.' "

Atkinson insisted he had been irreparably damaged by the label. He said, "A cheap-shot artist or a dirty ballplayer—I mean, how many guys are not called that sometime in their career? But to be called an Assassin or the Enforcer or someone that plays with the intention to maim—because of one play, one incident in the nine years I played football, I'm labeled for the rest of my life, you know?" When MacInnis inquired if the great amount of publicity he had received might not be beneficial to a football player, Atkinson replied that he had received many threatening letters and that he habitually wore a warm-up jacket over his uniform during pregame workouts so fans would not throw things at him. He added, "There are two types of publicity. Charles Manson received publicity. Sirhan Sirhan received publicity. The publicity I'm receiving is a direct result of the statements of Coach Chuck Noll ."

When Swann testified, he was asked what the state of his mind was after he was felled by Atkinson 's blow. He replied coolly, "I had no great desire to play further football. I thought other teams would now come after my head even more than before. I felt that those conditions would not be conducive to my good health."

Raider Managing Partner Al Davis , usually the most casual of dressers, appeared on the witness stand in a white shirt, gray tie and a dead-black suit that MacInnis dubbed his "sincere suit." Davis defended Atkinson , saying, "Anytime anybody steps on the football playing field, there is an element of risk. Every player assumes that. It's part of his contract." He also pointed out that possible injury lurks in every kind of play—legal or illegal. He said, "In every game that I've ever observed we have the paradox—the hypocritical thing—that there are some things that are legal that are more violent than things that are illegal. Our problem is to confront this."

The NFL office had been ordered by Rozelle to cooperate fully in giving out any documents or films requested by either side in the case. This may or may not have been done equally, but when it came to testifying there was no doubt that all the massive power of the league came down squarely on the side of the Steelers . The NFL supervisor of officials, Arthur McNally, was flown into San Francisco and offered damning testimony about Atkinson . Rapidly snapping a switch on a movie projector so Atkinson 's shot to Swann's head was repeated—forward and backward, forward and backward—perhaps 30 times for the jury, McNally said briskly of the blow, "It was most unusual, totally unnecessary. It was deliberate. He measured his man."

Rozelle himself came as a witness for the Steelers , too. Although he had already given a lengthy deposition last month in New York , the commissioner had decided that his and the league's reputations were at stake, largely because Atkinson 's legal team had focused sharply on the contention that there was a conspiracy on the part of the Rozelle-Rooney Establishment to get the outcast upstart Oakland crowd led by Al Davis . In fact, Willie Brown recalled that he had gone so far as to write a long letter of alarm to Davis before the trial, warning him that " Rozelle and Rooney want to dismantle your team. Every official works for Rozelle and every discretionary play from now on could go against you."

The crux of this Establishment vs. Oakland theory is the longtime feud between Rozelle and Davis , who had been commissioner of the old American Football League when it merged with the NFL in 1966. Davis has long complained about Rozelle 's powers, his contract, his handling of the NFL 's myriad lawsuits. When league owners voted a lucrative new contract for Rozelle this winter, the vote was 27-1—and few people doubted that Davis was the lone dissenter.

James Cox , a steely whippet of a man who once played for the San Francisco 49ers , was the third member of Atkinson 's legal team, and it was he who tried through harsh cross-examination to irk Rozelle and make him reveal some conspiratorial acts between himself and the Steelers . Sarcastically, Cox referred to the NFL office as a "castle on Park Avenue," and when the tanned and immaculate commissioner took the witness stand, Cox inquired snappishly if he had just flown in from the Greek isles. Though Rozelle readily admitted that he had been on the phone with Dan Rooney six or eight times since the trial had begun, he steadfastly denied he had done anything unusual or unfair in handling the Atkinson fine. And when Cox pressed relentlessly to tie Rozelle and Rooney together as cohorts and cronies, the commissioner would not even admit they were "friends." Rozelle said, "We are close acquaintances.... I have never had a meal in Mr. Rooney 's home." Cox got Rozelle to say that he had had 14 or 18 phone conversations with Rooney since last fall and that he had had none with Al Davis , but when the attorney asked him why that was the case, Rozelle calmly replied, "I have more communication with Pittsburgh than with Oakland because I get the impression the Oakland organization isn't interested in having much contact with the league office."

The commissioner was unflappable, a strong and tranquil speaker whom Cox later described as "a professional witness." When the attorney asked him flatly if there was a criminal element in the NFL , Rozelle said smoothly, "The way I view the word, as you phrase it, I don't think there is a criminal element—[that is] people who should be convicted by society." When Cox asked Rozelle if he thought Atkinson 's value had been diminished because of Noll 's statement, the commissioner said, "No. If the Raiders traded George today, I think the incident would have no bearing. He's an outstanding defensive back." Rozelle added that it was indeed possible that Atkinson 's worth and career might actually be enhanced through his new notoriety, and he recalled the name of a former Oakland defensive lineman, Ben Davidson , saying, " Davidson , who was a good football player, not a great one, now is into commercials and making movies. He was in a rough tackle, I recall, on Joe Namath ."

The attorneys' final summations—by Brown and MacInnis—were fiery, spellbinding and filled with the same semi-hysterical hyperbole that had characterized much of the proceedings. Brown called Atkinson a "pawn" in the case, "a rag-tag kid brawling with the Establishment." Brown declared that the NFL was like a nation unto itself with untold powers of enforcement and mass communication at its beck and call, an American force "second only to the U.S. government in terms of power, scope and potential," and he cried out to the jury, "Make Rooney and Noll atone for their sins just as George Atkinson has had to atone for his sins. Call him what you will, a dirty player, a cheap shot, but not the criminal element. This young man has been labeled for life!"

MacInnis then delivered a stunning fusillade of low blows in his summation, emphasizing previous troubles Atkinson has had with the law—carrying a concealed weapon, charges (but no convictions) of embezzlement and threats to castrate a man. "I'm not saying these charges are true, but to point out what Atkinson 's reputation has been. Did Atkinson have a good reputation?" MacInnis demanded of the jury. "Did he have a bad reputation? Since injury to reputation is the gist of slander, a bad reputation must be considered by you." MacInnis then noted that the Oakland crowd had cheered when Atkinson struck Swann, and the attorney said, "I think that's a sad commentary on the motives of our generation.... It's sadistic, this secret love of violence, the spectacle of liking to see others hurt, happiness at pain, enthralled by the love of blood. That's the America of George Atkinson ."

With that vicious barrage ringing in their ears, the jurors were sent to deliberate the case. After four hours the six returned their verdict: no slander, no malice, no damages for Atkinson . The 10-day trial was over. But the ugliness of it had stained everything and everyone involved, and may well continue to smear the NFL for a long time to come. As Dan Rooney , the winner, said, "This trial has been the most depressing thing I have ever done."

Playing Al's game won't win Kiff the battle of attrition

Knockdown slugfests between Al Davis and his head coaches is normal. It is to be expected actually. It's always been that way with the exception of Tom Flores and John Madden (though we can presume Madden was his own man more so than Tom). The public usually does not have visibility into the specifics of these types of disputes. However, as a result of Kiff speaking his mind to the media, Al now has the advantage.

Give Al credit for being so good at what he does (hiding the truth) that most of the Raider Nation (in addition to anyone else following the action) is still having a hard time digesting the fact that not only does the rift between Kiff and Al actually exist, it is a severe problem poised to embroil the franchise in even further turmoil.

"Oh no", say the Raider Nation and all of the random pundits, ignorant bloggers and forum participants, "how can this be? Kiff is doing good stuff. Why give the guy the boot after just two seasons? We're showing improvement"

The blind, obedient Raider Nation would rather try and come up with an alternative explanation or anticipated outcome to the drama.

Here's a reality check - a Raiders head coach has very little authority. Can it be stated any more clearly? It would take an exceptional situation for this pattern to change so drastically from the way Al has handled it to date.

So, Kiff does very little as head coach but not for lack of wanting to be a bigger part of orchestrating team affairs. It has been speculated by beat writers that he is actually alienated from Al's meetings with his coaching staff. Wow, can it get any more demeaning? That would be proof the rumors are true. Al is really his own head coach and always has been. Come on, does anyone really believe Tom Flores had the right stuff to guide the franchise to two super bowls? You know there's a good reason he's not in the Hall of Fame don't you? Everyone who votes for Hall of Fame candidates knows how things work in Raiderland. Tom is a great guy but he's not a great head coach. Kind of hard to disguise that fact, sorry to say. He's a minion and has been since 1963 (though Tom was a Raider before Al was).

The head coach in our case right now, Kiff, amounts to shouting on the field to his players and being a mouthpiece to the media. It's also obvious he is not handling the latter role too well. His frustrations are showing and when that happens, it's all over. Tom Flores and John Madden had exceptional diplomacy, patience and tact which is how they survived. The other coaches along the Raider head coaching treadmill were skilled at coachspeak as explained elsewhere on these pages.

You may think this is all Al bashing but I'm just looking at his personal playbook in reminding people, Al's strategy has been perfectly clear all along. He is a master at setting people up to fail if they don't toe the company line in his empire. People in positions of authority often have the option of either dismissing undesirable employees or keeping them around, "giving them enough rope" so to speak. Some authority figures have a unique knack for getting the most out of their employees. Al does have that skill so believe it or not, he is willing to let guys learn on the job, which is one reason why he hired Kiff. He was willing to let the guy grow into the role while accepting there would be a learning curve.

However, when a minion rebels or questions the state of affairs, Al turns nasty. But like any great cartoon villain, he chooses to gloat over his victim, making sure they know who the man is, selectively picking the right moment to strike back. It would not surprise me if Kiff was fired and saddled with a lawsuit of whatever variety. In this dreaded scenario, Kiff's salary may not be paid and he has to hire attorneys to do battle with Al's attorneys.

That is a worst case scenario. Is Al that mean? Oh hell yes. His hatred leaves no stone unturned in his desire to teach others the lengths he will go to preserve his mystique. There are countless examples of Al's legal wrath. Kiff may soon become an afterthought buried in bills if Al feels like doing that to him.

It's Kiff's fault of course for being impudent to begin with. He had no idea what he was getting himself into when he took the job. He really did not know how to play ball with a guy like Al. Kiff's too nice a guy and he may not have experienced a brush with this type of arrogance before. He'll come through this experience much wiser and hopefully, not poorer. If history is an indication, Al has already forged ahead with identifying loopholes to stall or eliminate Kiff's due salary. That is purely speculation. If it doesn't unfold that way it is because Al did not want a spotlight on the situation any more than there is already. He also knows Kiff is a much more likable personality than he is. Perhaps Al's intelligence will override his wrath in this case. A lawsuit pitting the evil old man against his fresh faced, bratty head coach stands a chance at rubbing the beleaguered Raider Nation the wrong way. Image means a lot to Al so there you go Raider Nation, another bone tossed in your general direction. Kiff may get to walk away with his dignity intact.

It is also likely Kiff and Al are not on speaking terms or if they are, the conversations don't last long. Al's patience wears thin with bratty minions. If Kiff was comfortable with his line of communication to the boss he would not have spouted off to the media about his frustrations with the roster and whatever else. Usually, a head coach will bring his concerns to the boss and they will review all of that in private. In this case, Kiff has nowhere to turn. His coaching staff are all guys installed by Al. Can you name a single member of the coaching staff that is in Kiff's camp? None exist. The man is alone, drifting and understandably, not enjoying himself.

The unfortunate aspects to this are Al watched and waited for Kiff to trip up. On hiring Kiff, he knew he would be able to control this type of situation should it occur. Like a well-written script, Al remains distant from the fray while his reluctant puppet twists in the wind.

The current situation perfectly illustrates how Al thrives on seeing others try to swim through the muck. Kiff would rather do what coaches are supposed to do, be a factor in developing game plans, developing the talent on your roster and so forth.

No such luck.

Tommy bucks up and speaks

For as long as he's been an Oakland Raider, Tommy Kelly has shunned the media. He has refused to make any comments, even when sharing an elevator with a reporter by chance. He has been polite but stand-offish at all times.

Not that Tommy Kelly is important. He's not. He's just another defensive tackle. Though, occasionally a quote would be appropriate. For instance, after making a block on a field goal to win the game (which he has done). Tommy is silent on the matter.

Does he have a stuttering problem? Is he really shy? Maybe he had a bad experience in the past being quoted out of context. Maybe he doesn't really care.

A mature man would say something. A mature man would acknowledge the Raider Nation. Ok, you don't like speaking through the media, that's fine. How about hiring a public relations person - of which there are many, especially in the bay area, who would be happy to take on the task of issuing a press release with a simple statement. Maybe "I know I haven't said much during my time as an Oakland Raider and that has created some misunderstandings with the press. The truth is I wanted to thank Raider fans for their support and welcoming me as a Raider for the years I have been here. It means a lot to me."

Or say anything simple and a little informative to show fans and the media that the guy actually cares.

How about stepping up and being a pro - regardless of his wallet, the circumference of his legs or neck - he was clearly showing he was not.

That was of course until he received his massive new contract and reported to training camp. Apparently someone in the building (sorry, I had to borrow that one ;-) advised him he needed to say something to the media. His big contract demanded it. With money comes responsibility. Mr. Kelly is now a team leader, for lack of better qualified candidates.

People wanted to know the man who hasn't really earned the sort of all-pro status Al had assigned him prematurely. Finally, we catch a glimpse.

Surprisingly, Tommy was cordial, open and informative in his one and only chat with Raider reporters thus far. See, that wasn't so bad was it Tommy? Isn't that better than giving the impression you have no regard for anyone but yourself. Is it too much to ask players to show a little courtesy to the fans? With a stand-offish attitude you sure don't seem like a team guy. It looks like you are your own guy - an Al guy.

One question he was not asked but would be interesting to hear his reaction to is, do you think Derrick Burgess is pissed?

Burgess is the guy who earned the salary package awarded to Kelly and that has to create friction or at least underlying resentment.

We'll see in the regular how tight this defensive line is and how well they play as a team.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Raider kickers are always in the sweet spot

What's the safest job on the Raiders right now as far as a special teams roster spot? Jarrod Cooper? All-pro punter Shane Lechler? You'd have a good case for Shane even though his work habits are not very good, case in point would be pulling a quad in camp. Sure, that could happen at any time but let's be real. Shane plays golf in the off season. He doesn't work out. When you don't work out and prepare yourself, you get injured. This is especially true with kickers. Same with his buddy Sebastian Janikowski. YET, as the kicker, Jano is probably in the safest spot there is to make the team even though a guy filling in for him in pre-season nailed a 50 something yarder.

So Jano lames out in pre-season, costing the team a valuable roster spot to backfill while he "rehabs" a hammy.

Isn't that unusual. A kicker with bad training habits gets a free ride sitting on his duff. Jano is untouchable and a multi millionaire as a result of him just simply hanging around since 2000. Occasionally he'll nail a few field goals, blowing a hefty share of others. Jano accumulates points out of longevity but what he is really all about is playing golf, pulling muscles, getting arrested, being socially awkward while fending off haters in public, shunning the media so he doesn't come off as a jackass, tripping over himself and making pathetic attempts at tackling, missing most field goals other kickers typically make and who maintain higher percentages in the 40-50 yard range, standing around doing nothing in training camp and standing around useless in general. Yea, that about sums him up or maybe not. I'm too lazy to google his full rap sheet.

In no way does Jano measure up to being a professional kicker except in leg strength.

A professional athlete understands the value of preparation. It's not there for Jano. Case closed. Al sacrifices the kicking game for his own reasons, whatever they may be.

Interestingly enough, Jano is not the first kicker to get a free ride. I'm sure there were others but who stands out to me most is Errol Mann. Who is Errol Mann you ask? Let's put it this way; Errol Mann played in an era (60's, 70's) when missing several extra points per season was "acceptable" apparently because few GMs at the time cared to go out and find someone better for the job. Especially so since soccer style kicking had not yet affirmed itself. They just rolled the dice with guys like Mann (who played for other teams than the Raiders). Why Al would want a kicker who was reliable only in the 20-25 yard range is a mystery. Errol stood almost exactly behind the ball. No "wind up" or anything. Just stand there and swing the leg. In looking at the tapes, there's no technique involved (apparently). Yea, it took a while for the kicking game to evolve in pro football.

When the Raiders beat the Colts in the 1977 playoffs (in Baltimore), Mann was the FIRST guy off the sidelines celebrating the offense's overtime heroics. Meaning, he was more grateful than anyone because he was not put on the hot seat to make a field goal.

So the question is what value was there for having a kicker if he was not dependable for most field goals? Don't you want a good kicker on the team who can win games for you? Not Al Davis apparently. And John Madden must have concurred since they took him along to Super Bowl XI with them.

Do you think George Blanda would have stuck around so long if he had missed the majority of his field goals and extra points? The answer is YES. Of course he would have. That's how Al manages his special teams. Though if you look at Blanda's stats, he did have some horrible seasons as an Oiler as well as a Raider. Still, there is something to be said for sticking with the guy you issued your faith in to do the job. Besides his versatility on the field, Blanda was a personality Al saw as essential for the well being of the team. I don't see equivalent value in Mann or Jano in that regard though.

Through it all, Jano is aloof. His legal troubles with booze or fighting some tough guy public drunk, that's no big deal. It doesn't reflect well on him but it comes with the territory of being a Raider. It's obvious Jano likes to party and mingle with the ladies and why not, he's entitled to it just like anyone else is. Go Jano you stud.

How about Cole Ford? He was a winner too huh. What did he do again, fired gunshots at Siegfried and Roy's love castle? Turns out Ford really had lost his marbles and is forever in some deluded state.

Go team go, just kick it baby.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

If only Gallery wasn't a bust...

...would the Raiders offensive line still be as bad shape as it is today? He was supposed to be the cornerstone of a new vision for the O-line yet not much has changed (except the coaching) since this Peter King Sports Illustrated article was published May 23, 2004.


On the five-cent tour of his offices last Friday, 15 hours before the start of the NFL draft, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis paused to point out four large TVs arranged in a diamond configuration on one wall. In this room Davis watches football and other games—lots of other games. "Basketball, women's basketball, baseball," said Davis , 74. "All the sports."

"Women's basketball?" a visitor said. "O.K., what team took Diana Taurasi with the first pick of the WNBA draft?"

"Oh, come on," Davis replied disdainfully. "That's easy. Phoenix ."

Davis , who was holding the second pick in the NFL draft, prides himself on being a quick study of players in all sports. But last Saturday the Man in Black could have made his team's first-round choice blindfolded: Robert Gallery , the 6'7", 323-pound Iowa tackle who's solid as a rock on and off the field. Says special-projects executive Jim Otto , the former Oakland center, "He's got what we need—a little kick-ass streak."

In trying to toughen a team that had gone soft, Davis drafted two more hard hitters in the next two rounds: 303-pound center Jake Grove of Virginia Tech and head-hunting safety Stuart Schweigert of Purdue . Add three free agents—guard Ron Stone and defensive tackles Warren Sapp and Ted Washington—and, assuming the veteran newcomers stay healthy, Davis has addressed most of the faults that were exposed during a crash-and-burn season. In going 4-12 last year the Raiders ' offensive line allowed 43 sacks, tied for fourth most in the league, and the defense surrendered 156.9 rushing yards per game to rank last. Gallery and Grove should push Barry Sims and Barret Robbins . respectively, for starting jobs next fall.

Davis has always come off as an intimidating sort to outsiders, but Gallery says he felt comfortable during his visit to the team's training complex two weeks before the draft. "I love football, and I enjoy young people," Davis said. "Listening to their dreams. Listening to people from different parts of the country talk about their lives."

A few hours after he became a Raider on Saturday, Gallery recalled his meeting with Davis . While showing Gallery the room in which portraits of Oakland 's Hall of Famers were hung, Davis had suddenly asked whether he knew someone named John Fry. Gallery gave him a quizzical look and said no. "Then [ Davis ] said, That's Hayden Fry !" Gallery recounted. "He knew I'd know Hayden Fry , because he's the former Iowa coach. It was pretty amazing that he knew Fry by his real first name. After my visit, I thought, This is a place I'd really like to be. They play a tough, aggressive style, which I like."

The recently acquired players won't be the only new faces surrounding Davis . Veteran scout Mike Lombardi has succeeded senior assistant Bruce Allen , who left to become the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ' G.M.; Norv Turner has replaced fired coach Bill Callahan ; and 10 of Turner's 17 assistants weren't on the staff last year. "Everybody has left," Davis said. "We've got to pick up the pieces."

The marriage between Davis and Turner has been stress-free so far. "He and Jimmy Johnson are the two best listeners I've been around," said Turner, who was an offensive coordinator on Johnson 's Dallas staff in the early 1990s. "He really wants to know what you think." Sounds like Turner's still enjoying his honeymoon, but let's see who's talking and who's listening on, say, a Monday in November after three straight losses.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Javon Walker is this year's training camp head case

Raider Nation, it's no secret, when Emperor Al Davis went looking for a wide receiver to compensate for losing an unmotivated, clearly contemptuous Randy Moss or Jerry Porter, he replaced one head case for another.

Javon Walker has had some success in the NFL and certainly, anyone can see the upside. When healthy, he brings potential for big plays. The problem is, like so many of Al's rehabilitation projects, Javon Walker was nowhere near where he needed to be mentally or physically to fulfill the role he was hired to do. As current training camp drama suggests, if not for his large contract, it is questionable if Javon would even make the team as the pre-season looms ahead this week.

The signing of Javon Walker for huge double digit millions is a clear indication that Al believed Javon would be a home run downfield threat. One can imagine Emperor Al watching a Javon highlight reel, probably wondering how in the world Denver would give up on him. The reality is you would have to be deluded to think a guy with a surgically repaired knee, an unproven commitment to rehab (which would at least tell us he takes his profession seriously), who is still reeling from off the field issues (his close friend Darrent Williams' death) could possibly fulfill the role of downfield threat.

It has been said by many, Javon Walker has LOST his speed due to the knee problems. Can a guy come back from a knee injury and be just as fast as he was? Maybe but usually, no. Can a guy overcome psychological issues and still be effective? Sure, EXCEPT if the guy is too immature to learn from his mistakes so he goes out and repeats them! This time with physical and more emotional impacts to himself. Javon was misled into a robbery where his bling was lifted and he was left sprawled on the Vegas pavement. If that is not an indication of where this guy's life is at, I don't know what is.

Javon wants to retire and that might be the best decision for the guy right now. At least sit the year out and get his act together. Why subject himself to a downward spiral? He is financially loaded for life as a result of previous contracts. He even offered to give Al back his bonus money.

Al refused. To Al, this is about business. To those that want to kiss Al's keister, they can claim Al played the role of good-hearted mentor or of supplicant father/brother/family friend. Al the good samaritan to the rescue takes Javon under his wing and convinces him to continue his playing career - as a Raider. The greatness of the Raiders is its future. Anyone worth a heap can see that's true so long as you are wearing rose colored glasses.

The fact of the matter is Al is concerned with avoiding egg on his face. He can't let a top signing simply vanish without some type of salvage operation. Granted, it is a softer, guiding hand back to the huddle rather than the rough treatment he usually does for players who balk at living up to their contracts. Unfortunately, the facts cannot hide for every one successful rehabilitation project he claims off waivers or signs to double digit millions, there are 10 embarrassing bad ones. The washouts rarely stick with us but fans tend to remember the ones that worked out. If not for Jim Plunkett's success one has to wonder if Al himself would actually believe he is smarter than the odds have proven over the years.

The right thing to do is let the guy go, reclaim the bonus money and move on. Al won't do that. So when they guy plays poorly because the Emperor wants Javon in the game, it will be yet another smoking gun of Al's ineptitude as self-appointed GM and another reason why his team will not be successful. Keep stocking up on that baggage you so much enjoy big guy. At least your ship is evenly balanced so you sink straight to the bottom.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The secret circus - where everyone except you is invited to Raiders training camp

Have you noticed that the Raiders are the only NFL team that does not have at least one training camp practice open to the public? I've noticed that for many years. With other teams you can see it on ESPN or NFL Network where there are bleachers or surrounding grass areas with fans thrilled to take the day off work to sit in the summer sun and watch their team practice. It's not all that interesting really but if you are a football junkie, it can be a slice of heaven.

The Raiders don't allow the general public into their training camp facility. They do not even allow season ticket holders in either. The only way you are getting in is if you are invited (it's all who you know). Journalists are mercifully allowed in or we would never know what's going on.

Isn't that ridiculous that every franchise except the Raiders has a relationship with their fans where they invite you in to their training camp. In the minds of the Raider Nation, they believe the "Celebration" pep rally in early August makes up for this slight. To me, the Raider Nation Celebration is a way to throw the fans a bone, give them a dog and pony show. Some may be satisfied with this but I'd rather have a ticket to one day of training camp as a perk to say thanks for being a season ticket holder. That is the way to show us you actually value our patronage, not a hokey pep rally.

Sure, there are many logisitcal problems with allowing the public into your training camp. We understand the vast amount of work involved just getting everything done the way it is now. We also know that in one day you spend more on catering than you would on renting portable bleachers. Raiders HQ, we know you have money to burn. You just don't want to do it. Nah, let's be real. Al does not want to do it. To him that would be like breaking a secret society oath (where he is the only member).

In looking at the other possible reasons for this blunt denial of good relations with the season ticket paying fans, it makes excellent business sense. It's much less details to be concerned with. It reduces the need for extra personnel. It reduces the window for possible problems such as fan misbehavior or something else, some guy stubs his toe and sues the Raiders and the Marriott. Anything is possible so maybe the fact that the Marriott owns the property, legal and insurance reasons prevent them from having the public attend camp. Whatever the reasons, I've never heard an explanation from Raiders HQ why this is. That is how the Raiders do business. It's only an issue if they raise it as an issue.

Perhaps this was addressed and I missed it. Perhaps Raiders HQ has already explained this slap in the face the Raider Nation is oblivious to.

It must be the spies. Al does not want any spies at the facility so by shutting everyone off that solves the problem. You just know other NFL teams really need to see the Raiders practices in July so they can formulate a detailed scouting report for November.

Still, the Raider Nation respects Al's no spies policy. If this is what helps the team win games and make Al happy then that's what the Raider Nation will do. Brother, do you have $5 so I can buy a ticket to the celebration coming up?

Tom Walsh - how could Al not have known?

Just a quick question for Al since his judgement is held in such high esteem by the Raider Nation, how could you not have known Tom Walsh would be so thoroughly out of his depth? The reason I ask this question several years after the fact is because I just flipped through an Andrew Walter interview by Jerry McDonald of the Contra Costa Times where Walter lays the blame for his failures on poor ol' Tom's offensive system.

Not to say Walter's performance as a starter in 2005 did not suffer as a result of playing in Tom Walsh's system but he needs to own up to his failures. It hasn't all been a downward spiral for him but more or less, he has bombed as a pro - thus far. That's the reality of his situation. He has shown us less than stellar consistency at QB so if he gets in the game this upcoming season, he needs to show us a little something or get out of dodge.

Oh right, here comes the offensive line argument. Yea, the O-line has been worse than bad and yes, it is no small task to fend off an NFL defensive rush. It can cause confidence to implode. You can't do much if you are being sacked though ideally, great players find ways to make great plays. Though he has shown some flashes of something special Andrew Walter's overall mediocrity as an Oakland Raider just stares us in the face so if you miss that reality then you need to watch the games again.

The problem is it's hard not to be offended a little bit by Walter's smug arrogance in general. He had the same demeanor at Arizona State where he could do no wrong. Everything was somebody else's fault. Even when he was outplayed by the opposition, Andrew Walter walked on water - according to him.

As for Tom Walsh, yea, that would seem to be the smoking gun. Al Davis has no clue what he is doing any more than a fifth grader playing Fantasy Football does. You have to be kidding if Walsh's hiring as Offensive Coordinator was anything less than a no-brainer train wreck from the very notion of rousing Tom from retirement. Yea, I know this is old news by now but it's bad karma for the franchise that sticks with it (we are in California so we can talk about karma), adding to the black cloud, obscuring the silver lining (how about that for psuedo-poetic drivel?).

You can't just figure Al trusted Art Shell's judgement on this episode. Al does not work that way. Al hires his own coaches or if a head coach wants a specific guy in a role then Al will make that call. So this brings us to the elephant in the living room. If Al is so particular and such a control freak then how in hell did he miss that one so badly? That failure has driven the franchise into such a deep hole, recovery has been extraordinarily difficult ever since - to put it gently.