OAKLAND, Calif. – This can be a ruthless town.
Unlike the tourist attractions, chic shimmer and sophistication across San Francisco Bay, Oakland is known for its unapologetic grime. Oakland produced Clint Eastwood, John Lee Hooker, the Hells Angels, Bruce Lee and the Black Panther Party.
And don’t try to knock Oakland by countering with pop rapper MC Hammer. This is where Tupac Shakur said he got his game.
“You must be a badass in Oakland,” said former Oakland Raiders cornerback and action film star Fred Williamson. “You have to have a mystique, growing up in that area. Otherwise, you’ll get your ass kicked every day.
“It’s about taking respect. That’s why when you came into the Raiders’ stadium, you knew you were going to get beat up.”
Matched perfectly for Oakland, the Raiders personified sports defiance almost from their inception. Al Davis, their coach and eventual owner, established a winning culture with castoffs, partiers, roughnecks and erstwhile malcontents who happened to be great at football.
The Raiders have been to five Super Bowls and won three. They had the best winning percentage in pro sports from 1963 through 1991. They boast 22 Pro Football Hall of Famers, 14 of whom played predominantly as Raiders, by far the most of any AFL or expansion club and more than several NFL clubs that have existed decades longer.
Silver and black meant trouble.
“Oakland was an outlaw team,” said Ron McDole, a defensive lineman on the Buffalo Bills’ back-to-back AFL championship teams. “They were mavericks. They lived like that for a long time.”
Not anymore. The organization the Bills will play Sunday in the Coliseum might be the biggest laughingstock in sports.
The Raiders have failed to produce a winning record since 2002, their last Super Bowl season.
Over those dozen seasons, the Raiders have lost at least 11 games 10 times. They have the NFL’s worst scoring differential, beaten by an average of 7.4 points a game, two points more than the next-closest team. They have the worst yardage differential and have committed the most penalties.
Their turnover ratio in that span is an unthinkable minus-106. The Cleveland Browns are second-worst with a minus-52 ratio.
The Raider mystique is gone. Their motto, “Commitment to Excellence,” is a joke.
“It doesn’t mean a lot,” former Raiders receiver Cliff Branch said Friday night.
Branch played for the Raiders for 14 years. His third Super Bowl ring glistened on his right index finger.
“Commitment to Excellence, to me, meant showing up to training camp, knowing that we were knocking on the door to go to the Super Bowl,” Branch said. “It wasn’t coming into a season trying to make the playoffs or win the division.
“Now we don’t win. So how can you be committed to excellence when you don’t win?”
Born to be a Raider
Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon is Oakland’s oldest bar, the place where Jack London studied as a schoolboy and is said to have written the outlines for classic novels “The Call of the Wild” and “The Sea-Wolf.”
The bar, on the wharf at the foot of Webster Street, was built from the timbers of an old whaling ship and is about the size of an economy apartment. The floor remains buckled from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. There is no TV. Laptops and cellphone conversations aren’t allowed.
About five blocks away, you can see hulking gantry cranes reach over into the Port of Oakland.
That’s where Dave Morrison worked as a longshoreman. Since the Raiders moved back from Los Angeles in 1995, part of his paycheck went to four Raiders season tickets in Section 325.
Could Morrison have imagined his son would grow up to become a Raiders linebacker and captain?
“I always felt destined to play for the Raiders,” Kirk Morrison said as bells clanged at the railroad crossing, and a Union Pacific freight train moaned its horn past Jack London’s old haunt.
Kirk Morrison attended Bishop O’Dowd High here. His grandmother lives on 73rd Avenue. The Coliseum is in view from her yard.
The Raiders drafted him in 2005, a third-rounder from San Diego State. He started immediately and became known as a heart-and-soul player the next five seasons.
Branch shook his head at the recollection of Morrison’s departure in 2010.
“They sold their soul for Rolando McClain,” Branch said of the eighth overall draft pick who lasted three seasons before getting cut.
The Raiders traded Captain Kirk to the Jacksonville Jaguars. And when Oakland visited Jacksonville that season, Dave Morrison wore his son’s Jaguars jersey – but underneath a Raiders coat that he zipped to the neck so as not to betray his allegiance.
So Kirk Morrison can understand a man remaining true to his beliefs, and that’s where the Raiders and Mr. Al Davis – Morrison always calls him Mr. Al Davis – might have derailed the commitment to excellence.
“You almost blame loyalty because Mr. Al Davis was too loyal to his players,” Kirk Morrison said. “Sometimes he put the organization in a bad position when he paid big-money contracts to players past their prime. He thought they fit, but they just didn’t anymore.”
Morrison compared the Raiders’ problems in Davis’ final years to the Bills’ struggles under Ralph Wilson. Davis was 82 when he died in October 2011. Wilson was 95 when died in March.
“The game has changed,” said Morrison, who played two seasons for the Bills before he retired last year. “That’s the hardest part because they were pioneers.
“They thought, ‘This is what won the Super Bowl in 1980. This is how we play football.’ ”
Draft gambles paid off early
There was a time when Davis was considered football’s savviest mind.
“If there’s ever been a more shrewd, driven, successful owner, I don’t know who it would be,” said Bob Kuechenberg, a six-time Pro Bowl guard who played on all five of the Miami Dolphins’ Super Bowl teams.
“Al didn’t come from money. True grit, he wrote the book.”
Davis relished being unorthodox and getting away with it. In his Hall of Fame induction speech, Davis saluted Claude Jones, a fan who robbed 24 banks in 1990-91 to subsidize Raiders tickets and trips to watch them play.
Davis provided a haven for players other teams couldn’t tolerate. He embraced fellow outsiders such as Ken Stabler, Jim Plunkett, Ted Hendricks, Lyle Alzado, John Matuszak and Otis Sistrunk.
Davis just won, baby.
The Raider brand was built on intimidation, speed and the big play.
“It was always a tough game, playing the Raiders,” McDole said. “They would punish you. They were feared.”
Fans who grew up on NFL Films can hear narrator John Facenda deliver the poem: “The autumn wind is a raider, pillaging just for fun; he’ll knock you ’round and upside down, and laugh when he’s conquered and won.”
The Raiders regularly led the NFL in penalties, but many were with a purpose. The Raiders have committed the most penalties 17 times, an NFL record, and have six of the eight most-flagged seasons.
“We brought a physical intimidation,” Branch said. “That always gave us a three-point edge.”
Davis also knew football talent. From 1965 to 1982, he drafted seven future Hall of Famers in the first, second or third rounds.
Davis gambled and won with many draft picks. He took Hall of Fame punter Ray Guy in the first round. He snagged a baseball player named Bo Jackson in the seventh round.
“Al Davis was a renegade in every sense,” Kuechenberg said, “but his players would stand by him come hell or high water and vice versa.”
But, as Kirk Morrison noted, Davis’ methods stopped working as the NFL evolved.
The term “Al Davis draft pick,” once said with gravitas, was followed by laughter throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
“Al Davis was a genius,” Williamson said from his home in Palm Springs, Calif. “He understood the game. He understood the players. He understood schemes it took to defeat an opponent. He was married to the game.
“But Al lost his direction.”
The Raiders were able to bounce back from the likes of quarterback Todd Marinovich and defensive back Patrick Bates, but they haven’t been able to recover from a slew of bad draft decisions this century.
Quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the first overall pick in 2007, is considered the biggest draft failure in NFL history.
The Raiders whiffed with tackle Robert Gallery second overall in 2004, misfired on running back Darren McFadden fourth overall in 2008, reached badly on receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey seventh overall in 2009 and got almost nothing out of the injury-prone McClain.
Davis’ last draft choice was quarterback Terrelle Pryor in the 2011 supplemental draft. Pryor remains unemployed just three years later.
There also were free-agent signings that didn’t work out: punt returner Desmond Howard, running back LaMont Jordan, quarterback Aaron Brooks and receiver Javon Walker. The Raiders made a bad trade for receiver Randy Moss, got little production from him and then were fleeced by the New England Patriots.
In each of the last two seasons the Raiders traded for a quarterback who got beaten out by a tyke: Matt Flynn lost his job to Pryor last year, and Matt Schaub lost his job to rookie Derek Carr this year.
Coaching has been a significant issue, too. Morrison can rattle their names off the top of his head since the last Super Bowl appearance: Bill Callahan, Norv Turner, Art Shell, Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable, Hue Jackson, Dennis Allen (fired after back-to-back 4-12 seasons and a 0-4 start this year) and interim coach Tony Sparano.
If the Raiders don’t keep Sparano, then they will hire their ninth coach in 12 years.
No longer Monday night regular
Amy Trask, the former Raiders CEO and Davis confidante, was known lovingly as The Princess of Darkness.
One of her prized possessions is a T-shirt. On the front: “There are 31 teams.” On the back: “And then there are the Raiders.”
She resigned her position last year and now works as a CBS Sports analyst. Her advice to rekindling the Commitment to Excellence is finding the right coach.
“Look to hire the best person available, of course,” Trask wrote in an email, “but also look to hire someone who wants to be a Raider, someone who wants to embrace Raiders fans, the Raider Nation, someone who believes that being a Raider is a privilege.
“In my view, never again should the organization hire someone who does not want to be a Raider and who does not understand what it means to be a Raider or the legacy of being a Raider.”
Many around the Raiders note that Dennis Allen wasn’t much for upholding any kind of Raider mystique.
Good thing Allen never crossed paths with Williamson, known as The Hammer long before young Oakland rapper Stanley Burrell adopted the name.
Williamson got his nickname because he holds black belts in various martial arts and wouldn’t refrain from karate-chopping an opponent.
“You can see there’s something missing,” Williamson said of the Raiders. “What’s missing is pride of being on the field because win or lose they’re going to get their $2 million check.
“The Raiders back in the day, we played for the pride of winning, the pride of being on the team, the pride of having made it that far.”
The proud franchise, meanwhile, continued to dive into irrelevancy.
The Raiders used to be a “Monday Night Football” staple. They often played on the prime-time stage twice a year and appeared three times each in 1996 and 2003.
But they’ve become unwatchable. They’ve been left off the “Monday Night Football” schedule five times over the last 11 seasons, including this year.
“They beat themselves,” Williamson said. “They make more stupid, bumbling mistakes than most teams. That’s not pride, man.
“You watch the Raiders, they get down a few points and their chins are on their chests. That’s not pride. That’s not the Raider mystique. Get your head off your goddamn chest, and go back in there and fight.”
The Raiders’ mystique has been meek.
Williamson, who played in a Super Bowl for the Kansas City Chiefs, was asked whether he still considers himself an Oakland Raider.
“I’m a Raider,” Williamson said. “I’m a thug.
“I can put on a suit and tie; I’m still a thug.”
Story topics: Aaron Brooks/ Al Davis/ Amy Trask/ Art Shell/ Bill Callahan/ Bo Jackson/ Bob Kuechenberg/ Bruce Lee/ Cliff Branch/ Clint Eastwood/ Darren McFadden/ Darrius Heyward-Bey/ Dennis Allen/ Derek Carr/ Desmond Howard/ Fred Williamson/ Hue Jackson/ JaMarcus Russell/ Javon Walker/ Jim Plunkett/ John Facenda/ John Matuszak/ Ken Stabler/ Khalil Mack/ Kirk Morrison/ LaMont Jordan/ Lane Kiffin/ Lyle Alzado/ Matt Flynn/ Matt Schaub/ Norv Turner/ Otis Sistrunk./ Patrick Bates/ Randy Moss/ Ray Guy/ Robert Gallery/ Rolando McClain/ Ron McDole/ Ted Hendricks/ Terrelle Pryor/ Todd Marinovich/ Tom Cable/ Tony Sparano/ Tupac Shakur