ALAMEDA, Calif. -- What’s past is prologue, right?
Particularly when it comes to the apparent tempest brewing in Houston, with tension mounting around the possibility of Roger Goodell having to present Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft a Lombardi Trophy if the New England Patriots beat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5.
It's a growing storyline in the wake of the Deflategate scandal and Goodell slapping Brady with a four-game suspension, which the quarterback fought at length before serving this season.
“That’s nothing new,” former Oakland Raiders coach Tom Flores said this week. “This happened before.”
Yes, an NFL commissioner having to surrender the game’s Holy Grail to his most fervent rival at the height of a nasty feud.
“When Pete Rozelle presented Al Davis with the Super Bowl trophy,” said Cliff Branch, a former Raiders receiver.
Indeed, Davis versus Rozelle remains one of the most bitter feuds in NFL history, one that perhaps began with the AFL-NFL signing wars of the 1960s. The feud took on another life with the merger of 1970 and reached a crescendo with Davis wanting to move his team from Oakland to Los Angeles in 1980.
Rozelle, who said he initially thought of Davis as a “charming rogue,” saw his opinion of the Raiders' owner change with Davis’ plans on relocation.
“He said to me, ‘I am seriously thinking about moving to Los Angeles,’” Rozelle told reporters at the time. “And I said, ‘Well, if you are, if you decide you want to pursue it further, let me know and I’ll schedule a league meeting and it will be reviewed.’
“He said, ‘If I decide to to move, I do not intend to ask for a league vote.’ And I said, ‘That clearly ... was against the [NFL] constitution and that would put us on opposite sides.’”
The week of Super Bowl XV, Rozelle told NBC's Bryant Gumbel that Davis was now more “outlaw than charming rogue” because of his stated desire to move without approval of 21 of the league’s then-28 owners.
NBC’s Pete Axthelm said Davis was “committing acts that some people say will bring anarchy to the National Football League” during Super Bowl week.
And Gumbel asked Rozelle what he might do if he had to face Davis in the trophy presentation.
“I feel that this Oakland team has done a tremendous job,” Rozelle said. “Al has played his role in putting these parts together; he’s done a tremendous job in doing it. Tom Flores has done a great job in coaching. And that team, where they go on defense and Ray Guy through much of the year, [Jim] Plunkett’s courageous scrambling for key first downs to help win some close games, and then the further development of their offense as the season went on. I have nothing but great respect for what they’ve achieved.
“So as far as I’m concerned, if the Raiders win it and I present that trophy to Al, I will have no problem because I will be presenting it on the basis that I just gave you.”
Then in the aftermath of the Raiders’ 27-10 win over the Philadelphia Eagles at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans on Jan. 25, 1981, Rozelle and Davis came face to face, with Gumbel in the middle and Flores on Davis’ left.
Tension? Not from the Raiders’ perspective.
And not, according to Branch, with the players reveling more in the revenge factor after losing to the Eagles two months prior.
“That was between Al and Pete,” said Branch, who had two touchdown catches in Super Bowl XV. “He told us, ‘Let me take care of that part and you guys focus on the game.’”
Besides, Branch was dealing with his own Davis mini-drama as Al Davis’ son Mark (yes, that Mark Davis) had crossed his father by serving as Branch’s agent.
“I got kicked out of the house,” the younger Davis told me for my book "100 Things Raiders Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die."
“[My dad] wasn’t too happy. Then, Cliff gets two touchdowns in the Super Bowl and all of a sudden I was back in the family.”
Flores said Al Davis shielded the team from his legal issues, though the coach would speak with the owner on the topic.
“We had things to do and that’s the way it was,” Flores said. “Even when we were moving to L.A. [in 1982].”
And no, Davis’ beef with Rozelle did not come up before they came face to face.
“We were so happy we won,” Flores said. “We were giddy as hell, acting like a fool. We were like a little kid on Christmas morning.”
Said Branch: “Al was very gracious. He looked [Rozelle] in the eye and gave him that Al Davis look.”
Neither Rozelle nor Davis let his apparent disdain for the other show after the Raiders became the first wild-card team to win the Super Bowl.
“I think it’s a tremendous compliment to the organization because you had to win four postseason games,” Rozelle told Davis. “I think it’s a great credit to you, for putting this team together; you’ve earned it. Congratulations.”
Davis accepted the trophy.
“Thanks very much, commissioner,” Davis replied. “This was our finest hour; this was the finest hour in the history of the Oakland Raiders. To Tom Flores, the coaches and the great athletes, you were magnificent out there today, you really were. And we want to welcome back the hostages for the United States. And [to the team], take pride and be proud, your commitment to excellence and your will to win will endure forever. You were magnificent.”
Yes, this all went down with a giant, yellow ribbon circling the Superdome to commemorate American hostages who returned days earlier from Iran after 444 days in captivity.
“I knew Al would treat it with respect,” Flores said. “They both loved the game too much to mar it.”
Three years later, they'd do it again after the Raiders beat Washington 38-9 in Super Bowl XVIII.
Flores sees a similar non-story unfolding in Houston next weekend should the Patriots win.
“We’ll see how it plays out,” Flores said. “But I don’t see it as big a story as others, I guess.
“Roger and Brady and the coach, they all respect the game too much to ruin it.”