Ron Agostini

With Raiders, it's still all about Al Davis

The Oakland Raiders' news conference revealed the bizarro-world conduct of everyday business there and offered a warning about Al Davis:

Don't let his age (79) or health (poor) fool you. Davis, one of the most powerful men in NFL history, does not lose knife fights. He will be canning coaches and ordering lawsuits on his deathbed. It's easier to wrestle gators in the swamp than jump into the mud with Davis.

There are reasons why he loves the word "dominate." To him, it's a combo job description and mission statement. When he's crossed, he delights -- I mean it makes his day -- to get even, to slice some flesh, to bury any poor sap who dares to stand up to him.

That's why it wasn't his duty to just fire coach Lane Kiffin "for cause." He sought to destroy Kiffin's reputation and turn his résumé into fireplace ashes. You don't call a man a "flat-out liar" without having an agenda.

Why was Davis so vengeful, you ask? Two theories:

1. He felt seriously wronged.

2. He was mad at himself for hiring Kiffin.

Experience tells us we didn't hear the total truth from Davis. Meanness aside, he can still spin the issue with the finesse of any political surrogate. Nor was Kiffin a saint. Kiffin pressed Davis' buttons too many times for someone who hoped to stay with the Raiders longer than, say, 20 games.

The truth, we understand, is located in the demilitarized zone between these men. To be continued later, no doubt in a court of law.

What we prefer to deal with are the facts as we know them. Regardless of how you feel -- Kiffin back-stabbed his boss, or Davis undercut his coach -- there is no argument about the current state of the Raiders.

They are the worst-run organization in professional sports. Good coaches avoid them. Competent executives flee with their pants on fire. The product on the field reflects it all.

What's especially troubling is Davis himself. Aside from the red eyelids and the strain of about 5,000 NFL wars showing on his face, Davis appeared sharp and in charge. All things Raiders still begin at his desk.

Simply, Davis' dilemma is that he's wrong too often these days. He whiffs on pricey free agents and either can't select a capable coach or, when he stumbles onto a good hire (Jon Gruden), he can't let the man do his job.

The well-journeyed Tom Cable became the Raiders' fifth coach in six years and the eighth coach since their return to Oakland in 1995. This is the definition of insanity -- to repeat behavior while expecting a different result. The most incredible thing is that, while the revolving door accelerated, the Raiders squeezed in a Super Bowl appearance six years ago.

Make no mistake, Davis' Hall-of-Fame legacy is not tarnished. It's his final act that is so regrettable. It is his performance, not Kiffin's, that casts harsh light on the Raiders' 20-64 record -- worst in the NFL -- since the start of 2003.

Good NFL franchises display fundamentally sound approaches -- stability at the top, shrewd planning in the front office, leadership on the sidelines and balanced talent between the hash marks. These days, the Raiders possess none of these. Twenty-five years have rolled by since their third and last Super Bowl victory. If Davis continues to blunder, they have no shot at returning to the top.

This week's developments were not about Kiffin and the latest coaches' feud in Raiderland. It's all about the aging leader, which means business as usual.

Davis presided over a smoking carcass of a franchise at that news conference. It was more important to him to deny Kiffin his salary than address his organization's long-term problems. When he repeated, "The Raiders will win," he should have corrected himself.

He meant, "I will win."

Until he discovers the difference, his team is doomed.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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