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Reviewing the Raiders offseason of change

The Autumn wind is a pirate
Blustering in from sea
With a rollicking song he sweeps along
Swaggering boisterously.
His face is weatherbeaten
He wears a hooded sash
With a silver hat about his head
And a bristling black mustache
He growls as he storms the country
A villain big and bold
And the trees all shake and quiver and quake
As he robs them of their gold.
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.

Al Davis memorialThis poem, written by NFL films now-President Steve Sabol in 1974 became the unofficial anthem of the Raiders after Raiders impresario Al Davis heard it. As the story goes, then-President of NFL Films Ed Sabol (Steve’s father) played it for Al Davis before using it on an NFL Films soundtrack. Davis was silent after hearing the recitation before finally telling Sabol that “it epitomized everything that the Raiders stood for.” The poem has since become synonymous with the Raiders.

No more synonymous than Davis, however, who first started coaching the Raiders as an offensive end coach in 1960, became the head coach and general manager by 1963, minority stake owner in 1966 and managing general partner in 1972. From 1972 to mid last season Davis was the top and sometimes only authority for the Raiders. He was involved with every major decision and was one of the most involved owners in the history of the NFL and almost certainly it’s most accomplished having achieved the trifecta of coach, League Commissioner (of the AFL) and owner.

However, with Davis’ passing on October 8th, many things were about to change with the team. To be sure, everything didn’t change overnight. The next week, there was still his stamp all over the team – with a strong-armed quarterback throwing deep balls to some of the fastest players in the league. The defense still lined up in Davis’ preferred man coverage and jammed opposing receivers off the line. There was still predominately 4 man pressure from the defensive line. However, change was coming to Oakland after having been rebuffed for many years.

Over the next few weeks the Raiders blitzed more than at any time in recent memory. Jason Campbell injured his collarbone and Davis’ handpicked coach Hue Jackson traded for Carson Palmer. The team started to look a little different.

Of course not everything changed. Penalties, for example, remained high. So high that the team set a record for the most penalized team in the history of the league. The defense seemed to still be unable to stop opposing offenses.

Once the season ended, however, the change really kicked into high gear. First, Mark Davis hired a General Manager. Al Davis had had GMs before – Ron Wolf and Bruce Allen for example – but none recently. And none of the GMs had the control that Mark was expected to yield to his selection. Mark chose former Raiders LB turned front office guru Reggie McKenzie from Green Bay.

McKenzie subsequently fired Hue Jackson after just one season as a head coach and hired up-and-coming defensive coach Dennis Allen from the rival Broncos. Together, Allen and McKenzie combed the roster of many of the overpriced, unwieldy contracts that had become more of the norm in Davis’ last seasons. They restructured some players and cut others. The coaching staff almost completely changed.

Further in the off-season, after the draft, McKenzie cleared out a number of very tenured scouts and administrators in the scouting department and brought in scouts with which he was more comfortable.

Davis, so long leading the Raiders, was at once the teams greatest asset and worst enemy. His early years were some of the best in the NFL and his guidance won the team their three Lombardi trophies. However, Davis refused to allow change to come to Oakland and his quirks become the biggest hurdle for the team to over come in later years.

When Davis fired Lane Kiffin “for cause” he rolled out an old-school slide projector. This was in 2008, the age of Power Point or other presentation programs.

Further, when McKenzie came to Oakland and started to prepare for the upcoming draft he had to make it a priority to make the scouting department more electronic. Prior, much of the work had continued to be done with paper files.

Davis had an adversarial relationship with the media. In the day and age of online news, Twitter and other social media, Davis failed to realize the power of the press. Nothing can be gained by being adversarial with the media – they are, in so many ways, the mouthpiece that reaches the greatest majority of fans. If the press bashes the team, the fans listen. Davis could have used the power of the press to help build his beloved brand. Instead, he did what he could to shut the press out. The media is already restricted in what they say to fans – not being able to talk too much about certain formations, alignments, trick plays, etc. Keeping them at arms length accomplished nothing but to frustrate fans who’s appetite for new angles and Raiders-related news is almost insatiable.

Secrecy is a big part of the NFL, these days. Disguising formations or alignments is commonplace. And yet Davis insisted on his coordinators play the games the way he had when he took over the team in 1963. Davis still preferred a deep, Air Coryell offensive system. He still preferred a man coverage defensive alignment, eschewing zone coverages and blitzes. Davis misunderstood where secrecy needs to be applied and where it should not. Instead of playing only one defensive of offensive style, the team should be ready to change from week to week so as to catch their opponent off-guard. The team should be prepared to share with the beat writers – they are the way to reach the fans and the fans, after all, are why the games are played in the first place.

All of these seem likely to be changing, most for the good. Gone is the “penalty box” in OTAs and, presumeably, in training camp. The media guide is in color for the first time ever this season. The scouting department is now using and archiving on computers. The Raiders are still not fully open but their Twitter feed, @Raiders, announces trades, signings and tweets pictures of happenings at the camps. McKenzie has done a great deal of work on the roster and contract situations and the Raiders are likely to be in a much better salary cap situation moving forward. It’s too early to determine if the penalties will decrease or the defense will be significantly improved but there is a lot to like about this off-season of change.

The Autumn Wind may be a Raider but the winds the Raiders have needed more than any other have finally arrived: the winds of change.


For more Raiders news and analysis, follow me on Twitter @AsherMathews