The call would always come around 10 a.m. Never was there a hello, or small talk, just that distinctive voice saying he had three things to ask me. That's how Al Davis and I started most every day the entire time I worked for the Raiders. Mr. Davis was always prepared, so any straying off his subject matter meant I would hear, "That's not what I asked you."
Those phone conversations were interesting, to put it mildly. I would always call them "Jeopardy" conversations, after the game show, because I would often have to finish asking the question and then give the right answer. For example, he would ask about "that guy, you know that guy," and I would be expected to know "that guy" as well as the right answer to his question. If not, the phone would click -- conversation over. It took me two years before I could figure out that "good-bye" was not a part of the calls -- they just ended.
The man who branded "The Raiders" left us in the autumn -- which is only fitting since "The Autumn Wind" was a Raider. Davis spent his life devoted to the Raiders, devoted to the game of football and devoted to helping his Raiders win.
His impact on the game is well documented. His love of the vertical game and of press corners is widely known. His vision for the game did not change from the 1960s and '70s to today. Change was never something he embraced. He wanted the Raiders to be the biggest and fastest team in the league. He valued speed over everything else and, even though there were times that the fastest players didn't play fast, he never strayed from this belief. For all the talk about passing the ball down the field, Davis loved defense much more than offense. He loved to be involved with the defense and being the defensive coordinator for the Raiders was at times a more difficult challenge than being the head coach.
For me, there are two Al Davises. The first one is the man who taught me a tremendous amount about the entire game of football. From reading every book about his football beliefs then working for him, he taught me about player personnel, how to build a team, what characteristics were important for each position, game management, and, most of all, how to think differently. In Al Davis' world, if everyone was thinking alike, that meant no one was thinking.
When I started my career in the NFL working for the 49ers, Bill Walsh always told me the most football he ever learned was working for the Raiders -- because at the Raiders, everything is football, 24/7. And Coach Walsh was so right. When I had an opportunity to work with Bill Belichick in Cleveland, many of the principles and beliefs we used in the player personnel department were borrowed from Mr. Davis.
Football consumed Mr. Davis' life and he expected it to consume your life. As an employee of the Raiders, you were given every opportunity to learn the game. Being in meetings with Mr. Davis was a glimpse into his incredible memory, his analytical mind and his broad football knowledge. He could discuss all three aspects of the game -- from players to coaches to every team's scheme. He would challenge your football knowledge with questions that he always knew the answer to before asking. He always wanted to know if your convictions were strong enough to stand his intense cross-examination. It was never pretty to watch him destroy someone who did not have the courage to stand by their beliefs. His ability to trap someone with his or her own words was fascinating to watch -- as long it was not being done to you.
My time with the Raiders, from 1999 to 2006, was enjoyable and, at times, frustrating. Working for Mr. Davis required that you knew what was important to him as it related to the upcoming opponent, the league, the draft, or free agency. We would always say around the office, "The jungle is never dangerous, if you know the trails." Knowing what he expected was half the battle. At times, it was also frustrating because no matter how hard you might try to change his mind about one of his pet players, there was no leeway in his convictions.
The second Al Davis, the one I knew from 2006 until my departure from the team in 2007, was not enjoyable. As he got older in life, he trusted even fewer people than normal. Near the end of my tenure, he wanted to do everything and he wanted no one to challenge him. He always had a "Raiders-against-the-world" mentality, but now he was difficult to even the people who wanted to help. He was not himself -- maybe it was the pain from his illness, which he guarded, or maybe he felt he just knew best.
This was not just the way he treated me -- in the past five years, he was difficult for everyone to deal with and people came and went through the organization at a disturbingly fast pace. He made my last two years challenging because the more I disagreed, the wider the divide between us grew. And my leaving was the right thing for him -- there was no one left to stand in his way of doing what he really wanted to do. Those who remained on the football side of the organization were happy to stay quiet and do what he said, complaining to everyone but him.
Davis often called himself the great warrior, and he truly was that. He fought with anyone and everyone, friend and foe alike. He had his beliefs -- some strange, some out of the norm, and many that disrupted his partners in the league. But he was not going to back down from his principles and never shied away from a fight.
Now in autumn, the first Raider is gone. I will remember the man fondly. I will still think of the turbulent times, but only remember and cherish the good times. From the playoff seasons to the Super Bowl appearance to the great opportunity to wear the patch and love the Silver and Black, it was an honor to work for this man. I still miss the phone calls, but most of all, I miss one of his most popular refrains, "Do great, young man."
For a man who loved history, I am often reminded of General Douglas MacArthur's famous farewell address to West Point: "In the evening of my memory, always I come back to West Point. Always there echoes and re-echoes: Duty, Honor, Country." For Al Davis, the man born on the fourth of July, it always came back to football and the Raiders, the Raiders, the Raiders.
Things I loved about Week 5
» I loved that the Raiders won against the Texans for their leader -- and did it with defense late in the game, which would have made him happy. The Raiders won without a running game, a consistent passing game or being able to slow down the Texans' passing game. But they made the run-happy Texans one-dimensional by stopping Arian Foster and intercepting Matt Schaub twice. It was a hard-fought victory that had Al Davis' fingerprints all over it -- from Darrius Heyward-Bey emerging as a receiver to Sebastian Janikowski making three field goals of 50 yards or longer to the defensive line pressuring Schaub. In the past nine years, this was the kind of game the Raiders would normally lose in the last minute. Sunday, they found a way to just win, baby.
» I loved watching Seattle compete on the road and show marked improvement in beating the Giants. The Seahawks stopped the Giants' running game, made it impossible for them to convert third downs and forced New York's mistake-prone passing game to beat them. The Giants turned the ball over five times, including three times in their final five possessions. This was a great win for Seattle and exposed the Giants' flaws.
» I loved that the Bills changed their style of offense, playing more clock-control because they knew they could not get into a track meet with the Eagles. The Bills controlled the ball for more than 33 minutes, came away with touchdowns three out of four times in the red zone and took advantage of every mistake the Eagles made. I always love when teams play a style that best allows them to win, focusing on the key elements that are needed instead of just doing what they do each week.
Things I hated
» I hated watching the Eagles mismanage the end of the first half, failing to score three points despite having the ball at the Bills' 26-yard line. As soon as Michael Vick took the field for one more play with seven seconds left on the clock, everyone who has consistently watched the Eagles knew what would happen next -- Vick overthrew Jeremy Maclin in the end zone and time expired. The Eagles went into the locker room trailing 21-7 instead of 21-10. Philly is not a good team. The Eagles make too many mistakes -- some due to a lack of talent in certain areas, some due to their scheme and some because they never seem to learn from their mistakes.
» I hated watching the Jets' run defense get man-handled at the end of the game when they needed the ball back. If New York wants to play ground and pound, it must be able to control the game with its defense. For all the bravado from coach Rex Ryan, the Jets are not an overly talented in the front seven. The Jets don't have a dominating player up front; their talent is at corner. And the overall depth of the Jets is not good enough. Ryan has had 13 draft picks during his tenure, and eight have been spent on quarterbacks, running backs and receivers.
» I hated watching Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb and the offense play in Minnesota. Arizona was manhandled up front by the Vikings' defensive line, and Kolb was unable to make any plays. In the Cardinals' first five possessions, they did not have a first down. With so much money and draft picks invested in Kolb, I wonder why Arizona did not save its money and picks and sign Matt Hasselbeck. Is it too early to judge Kolb? Maybe, but he looks the same as he did when the Eagles tried to hand him the starting job, but he was unable to deliver.
Things on my mind
» When the Falcons gave up all their draft picks for receiver Julio Jones, I thought they needed to improve defensively, not add skill players. This season has clearly proved their defense is not good enough and needs more talent, especially in the secondary. Sunday night, the Falcons allowed 396 yards passing to Aaron Rodgers, at home.
» Earlier this season, I was down on Chargers running back Ryan Mathews. But lately, he has looked like the big-time runner and receiver who the Chargers thought he would be when they picked him in the first round.
» Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was determined to get his team to play better, putting them in pads twice last week. The Steelers responded with their best game of the year. LaMarr Woodley finally played like himself, and the Steelers dominated the Titans.
» The 49ers are not going to beat themselves this season, and they are 10 times tougher than at any time in the past 10 years. Former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler must be looking down on prize pupil Jim Harbaugh and smiling as Harbaugh is winning with Schembechler's plan -- play tough, run the ball and don't beat yourself.
» The Jets-Patriots game served notice to the rest of the league that if you want to slow down New England's passing game, Bill Belichick is more than willing to pound the ball on the ground. And for all the Jets' efforts to slow down Tom Brady, he still threw for 321 yards.
» Tim Tebow's time is now. I thought it might not happen until Halloween, but the Broncos need to find out exactly what they have with Tebow. One thing I know for sure is they have a tough player who will compete for 60 minutes, something I was never sure Kyle Orton could do.
» Does Cam Newton ever slow down? He played well again Sunday, in spite of losing to the Saints. The Panthers have been in every game this year, and come December they might be one of the hardest teams to play.
» On a final note, my sincere condolences are extended to Al Davis' wonderful wife, Carol, who always was extremely kind to me, and his son, Mark. No one can replace Mr. Davis, but his blueprint for success shall always remain.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi