Older and wiser

Al Davis has been and will always be one of the great showmen of our era. With a twist of P.T. Barnum and a dash of Don King, the Raiders owner can work a room with the best of them. Dealing with Davis, they say, can be like dealing with the Devil himself, though that's obviously a bit harsh. After all, the Devil probably could have never worked Irwindale over for $10 million just for a mere visit the way Big Al did lo those many years ago.

Rarely, if ever, has the man been broken. Not by the NFL. Not by his fellow owners. Not even by Superior Court judges.

Yet like all men, Davis has an Achilles Heel, and for him it's his beloved football franchise, which has been kicked in the nether regions three straight years since getting blown out in Super Bowl XXXVII.

Thus when Davis sat at the dais during a press conference introducing Art Shell as the team's 15th head coach, ending the lengthiest hiring process in the league this year, all eyes and ears were waiting to see how the Silver Fox would spin this one.

But a strange thing happened as Davis sat under the lights that afternoon. Instead of spouting about the Raiders' future greatness or one of his other favorite one-liners, Davis looked and sounded like a man who'd been slapped with a cold dose of reality.

In his opening statement, Davis touched on a variety of topics but none more revealing than when he talked about the perception of his team around the rest of the NFL.

"I got the feeling, and it wasn't only a feeling, it was no joke anymore, that the Raiders weren't ready to meet the challenge when they traveled to these other cities,'' Davis said. "Not only from a standpoint of total ability but total desire and the will to win and to realize that what we're playing are people who dislike us intensely. It's a fact. And somehow or other we have to get this back in the Raiders organization, that when we go to Kansas City, when we go to Denver, when we go to San Diego, it's not just a game for a new coach or for new players but it's a game for the Raider organization.''

That was the way it used to be, back when Davis and his team truly were feared — and/or hated — around the league. Now there's no and/or. The Raiders are just hated, not feared, and it's a point Davis finally seems to recognize.

Hiring Shell, Davis believes, is a step — not the step but a step — toward changing that.

Shell, who had a pretty solid stint as the team's head coach more than a decade ago, isn't going to turn the NFL on its collective ear with some newfangled offensive philosophy or system that revolutionizes the game. It's highly unlikely he'll even call a single play. That job, we hear, will probably fall to Ted Walsh, a former Raiders assistant who attended the press conference wearing a team shirt.

What Davis is hoping Shell can bring to the table, though, is respect, something that's been missing for all but a brief time since the team moved back to Oakland. Not just from the rest of the league's 31 teams, but more importantly from within the organization itself.

Neither of the two previous head coaches could get it. Norv Turner is as nice a guy as you'll meet but when it came to getting props from his players, Turner came up only slightly higher on the respect scale than Bill Callahan.

Same went for Mike White, Joe Bugel and even Mike Shanahan, the man whom Davis hired then fired before making Shell the first modern-era African-American head coach back in 1989.

Yet every time he had a chance, especially during the bad years, Davis never let on how bad things had become, even when it was clear to just about everybody else. Remember the old deodorant commercial, the ‘Never-Let-'Em-See-You-Sweat' one? Davis played that role to the hilt.

That's no longer the case.

Maybe it was the clarity brought on by knowing his team has won just 13 games over the last three seasons. Maybe it was a glance at the company books, which continue to show declining revenue and ticket sales. Maybe it was the fact that, despite being one of the NFL's most storied franchises, the Raiders are probably 32nd in desirability among the league's 32 teams when it comes to head coaching jobs.

Whatever the case, it was definitely a different Davis that addressed the assembled media on Feb. 11.

This is not to say that Davis has become soft in his old age. Not by any stretch. While his physical health may not be what it once was, Davis still possesses a very astute and profoundly keen football mind, no matter what some may tell you.

A year ago, when he pulled off the unthinkable and acquired Randy Moss for Napoleon Harris and a draft pick, Davis was lauded for making such a classic and lopsided deal. Even though Moss suffered through a down year by all accounts, he still did enough to confirm the edge on Oakland's behalf of the deal.

But while Davis can still hold his own, he now at least is recognizing — and admitting — he needs help.

"As all of you continually point out, I am getting older,'' Davis said. "I do want some people that I know and I believe in to promote the Raiders and give us that lift that we need.''

Is Shell the answer to it all? Probably not. Oakland has a roster that is in need of help on both sides of the ball and will have to have some upgrading before the Raiders can be taken seriously as a playoff contender.

The good news is that in the modern NFL, teams can turn around their fortunes overnight, or at least from one season to the next. The line between contenders and also-rans is thinner than ever.

Even better news is that Davis is finally looking at his team from a more realistic viewpoint.

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