Remember When the Raiders Used to Win?

The Raiders' continued struggles date back to the last days of Al Davis, and prove that there is no divine right to NFL victory.

by Pete Beatty
Nov 24 2014, 1:23pm

Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The word dynasty started with just the one meaning—a family of rulers who control a nation or empire for a long time. The second meaning, the one we mostly use now, is for families or groups who are successful over a long period of time. This is because we don't have kings and queens any more. Power doesn't travel down bloodlines. It travels through success.

Outside of Bushes and Clintons and ducks, the home of the American dynasty is sports. For the first 34 years following the AFL-NFL merger, the Oakland Raiders were unquestionably dynastic. They made the playoffs more often than not, collected three Super Bowl trophies, and won games at a .600 clip, scoring 1,448 points more than their opponents over those three decades and change.

In the last dozen years, the Raiders have been outscored by 1,338 points. Ever since getting out-pirated by the NFL's other nautical-crime-themed franchise in 2002's Super Bowl XXXVII, the Raiders have gone 54-133. This past Thursday, the Raiders won their first contest in a calendar year, at least their first contest that wasn't a wage-theft lawsuit brought by their cheerleaders. They are now 1-10.

The Raiders, under Al Davis, were NFL bluebloods, in the new, success-based sense of dynasty. Davis beefed incessantly with the league, with coaches, with players, but his mantra of "Just Win, Baby" was hardly aspirational. The Raiders did just win, a lot. Al Davis didn't exit the scene with any surplus of grace. He outlived his own expertise as a football GM, but stayed in the job. The Tracksuit Zombie years made many forget just how good his Raider teams were.

And anyone still cherishing the memory of the old, good Raiders at the time of Davis's death two years ago would likely have been convinced of his demise as a boss by their recent year-long ohfer. Reggie McKenzie, the GM hired by Mark Davis, Al's heir and the majority owner of the team, has been digging out from under the mess Tracksuit Zombie Al made in his failed quest to take one more Super Bowl ring to the afterlife. The Raiders—befitting the only NFL team to share a stadium and a dirt playing surface with a baseball team—will be a brownfield reclamation project for the near future.

So what does the fall of the Raiders have to do with the two meanings of dynasty?

There's a reason that football, and government, have developed professional classes. Putting the control of armies—or companies—into the hands of a hereditary elite is crazy nonsense from an older, weirder world, much older and weirder than the mid-century America where Al Davis bought the Raiders. Even football, proudly atavistic in lots of ways, knows that the divine right of kings doesn't hold water. Pro football has evolved into a kind of constitutional monarchy, where owners keep (most of) the money and front-office parliamentarians call the shots. The aristocrats in the owners' suites mostly focus on not embarrassing themselves, with mixed results. The only thing that matters is making money. The NFL does its level best to make damn sure every team makes shitloads, but the best way to guarantee profits is to win on the field.

Al Davis was the last of the owner-operators (Jerry Jones can claim that role, but he has never won without a roster assembled by Jimmy Johnson). In the old, weird, cheaper America, Al Davis bought 10 percent of the Raiders franchise for $18,500—a stake worth close to $100 million today—and then cobbled together close to two-thirds control of the team, which has been valued at nearly $1 billion. Davis was a second-wave NFL founder, earning a place next to the Halases, Maras, and Rooneys. Those first-gen NFL magnates were much closer to hustlers than CEOs. They were as comfortable at the dog track as in a board room.

The new breed of NFL owner doesn't draft players. They definitely don't call plays. They make fortunes elsewhere: in real-estate deals, selling things to Enron, telemarketing, building shopping malls, racketeering. And then they buy football teams. (You could make an argument that the brain injuries and endemic violence of football are actually a step up morally for some owners.) Ironically, the sheer snowballing gravity of NFL money has turned the carny bloodlines of the league's old school into actual, hereditary elites. Dan Rooney, the son of a handicapper, did a stint as the U.S. ambassador to Ireland.

Al Davis was too scabrous, figuratively, to be an ambassador. He pissed too many people off. Ambassadors can't wear tracksuits everywhere. But the biggest reason he would never have shuffled off into moneyed respectability is that he was too busy running his football team, right up to the very end.

The demise of Davis and the dynasty he built isn't a happy story. Watching the Raiders go winless for a year plunged Oakland fans into a hole that isn't any more comfortable for being fairly familiar. But even the ruins of dynasty have grandeur. More than the Jacksonville Jaguars, anyway.