Al Davis always relished being the man the NFL loved to hate.
Being the leader of the marauding Silver and Black drove Davis until his death Saturday at age 82. For Davis and his team, it has always been us against the world. He wouldn’t want it any other way.
However, a day after his death, Davis’ Raiders are far from the most hated team in sports. Whether or not Davis would approve of the outside support, the Raiders are the feel-good story of the sports world.
The emotional scene on the Oakland sideline following an ugly and perhaps unlikely -- Just win, baby -- victory in Houston on Sunday has to be the most memorable moment of the NFL season to date, and the Raiders’ 25-20 win is arguably the most emotional regular-season victory in the history of the storied franchise Davis ran from 1963 until his death.
As soon as Houston quarterback Matt Schaub inexplicably threw a pass right into the hands of Oakland safety Michael Huff instead of walking into the end zone from inside Oakland’s 5-yard line on the game’s final play -- a sign that the football gods were shining on one of the game’s premier innovators -- Oakland’s sideline broke out in raw emotion.
First-year Raiders coach Hue Jackson -- who respectfully referred to his boss as “Coach Davis” -- immediately embraced defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan and the two clung onto each other tightly for several moments. Jackson then fell to his knees and put his head in his hands, clearly overcome with emotion.
It had been an incredibly trying 24-plus hours for the Raiders, who traveled without their owner from Oakland on Friday night. The Raiders’ players awoke Saturday to a team meeting in which Jackson informed them of Davis’ death.
The Raiders spent the rest of the weekend processing the news and trying to prepare to face Houston. Prior to the game, Jackson told his players that the Raiders were Davis’ life, that the team was what Davis lived for. With a sticker honoring Davis on the backs of their helmets, the Raiders fought their way to a victory that had to put a smile on the face of anyone who knows the history of the NFL and Davis’ place as one of the modern game’s most influential people.
This joyful story might last a while. Coming out of a difficult stretch in which they played the Jets, Patriots and Texans, the Raiders are 3-2 and heading into an easy stretch of their season. Oakland has three consecutive home games, all very winnable -- it hosts Cleveland and Kansas City before the bye week, then hosts Denver. There is no reason why Oakland shouldn’t head into the second half of the season very much in the playoff mix -- a mix from which the Raiders have been absent for nine seasons.
The Raiders sold out for this win. They overcame major penalties; they relied on trick plays and bent but didn’t break on defense. It was so fitting that two of Davis’ most questioned first-round picks in recent memory -- kicker Sebastian Janikowski and receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey -- were factors.
As the Raiders fly home from this game and prepare for a likely memorial service, they can rejoice, knowing they would have made Davis proud.
The Davis story will continue. There will be questions of leadership. Raiders CEO Amy Trask said the team will remain in the Davis family, as Davis’ widow, Carol, and son, Mark (who was in attendance Sunday), will run the team. It has been reported that the family probably will hire a general manager down the road, leaving Mark Davis and Jackson to make personnel decision for now. Speculation that former coach John Madden may help the team move away from the Al Davis era has already surfaced. There a lot of questions in Oakland. On Sunday, though, all that mattered was that the Raiders won. In Al Davis’ world, that’s all that ever mattered.