Raiders head in new direction without Al Davis

8:13 AM, Aug 15, 2012   |    comments
Oakland Raiders head coach Dennis Allen.
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NAPA, CA - Pretty much everyone who has put in a few years with the Oakland Raiders can tell you a story about Al Davis.

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Tommy Kelly, the ninth-year defensive tackle who broke into the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Raiders, recalls how he used to avoid impromptu contact with the late, iconic team owner because he suspected it would turn into an on-the-spot critique session.

"You'd see the old man coming - you could always smell him first - and it's like, 'Oh (crap), let me hide,' " Kelly said after a training camp practice session last week.

Kelly said that he and special teams ace Tim Johnson were coming out of the shower during his second season when they spotted Davis, who had recently gotten his walker. Davis saw them and stopped them in their tracks to scold Johnson.

"He said, 'Tim Johnson, if you get outside your lane one more time, I'm going to have someone kill you,' " Kelly said, imitating Davis' raspy voice. "I'm like, 'Wow.' That's how the old man was. If he had something to say to you, he told you, especially if you had messed up."

Davis and his autocratic style of running the franchise are gone. After Davis died at 82 in October, his son, Mark, assumed ownership. He has turned over the football operations to new general manager Reggie McKenzie and new coach Dennis Allen.

There's a distinct freshness in Raiders camp, the first in 50 years without Davis' huge shadow cast over it, that reflects a transformation throughout the organization. The front office structure is redefined. There is a new computer system for scouting, and there are new marketing initiatives in place.

And there are significant changes on the field under Allen, the seventh coach since the franchise's last winning season in 2002. Allen, who had no previous Raiders ties, has installed a defense that is unlike Davis' longtime philosophy of man-to-man coverage and limited blitzing. The offense, coordinated by Greg Knapp, will bank on a Carson Palmer-armed passing game with West Coast principles and timing routes that contrasts with the traditional Raiders reputation of heavy reliance on a deep passing game.

"You respect the tradition, but we were hired to do a job," said Allen, 39, previously the Denver Broncos' defensive coordinator. "We're going to do it our way, and we expect a lot of results."

Even so, remnants of Davis' presence remain.

McKenzie, who worked his way up the personnel ranks during 18 years with the Green Bay Packers, is back home. The former linebacker spent his first four NFL seasons with the franchise he is charged with restoring. The Raiders were 8-8 last season under Hue Jackson, the same under Tom Cable in 2010.

"A lot of work and a lot of history lessons," McKenzie said, sitting in his camp office. "Not a day goes by that there's not a reference to Mr. Davis."

The laid-back GM has a few Davis stories, like the time during his rookie year when former Raiders linebacker Dan Conners, then a team scout, pulled him aside to offer pointers on technique - as Davis instructed.

McKenzie maintained friendships with many people in the Raiders organization while he was with the Packers, he says, and he carries on some of Davis' philosophies in his blood.

"I like all the stuff Mr. Davis liked, from a size, speed and explosion standpoint," McKenzie said. "That can be intimidating. But I also like, 'I'm smarter, and I'm tougher.' "

That the Raiders even have a general manager is striking, considering how Davis balked at a chain-of-command structure. Allen says the Raiders job was attractive because McKenzie has freedom to make the personnel decisions while giving Allen the authority to run the team.

"It's definitely different," Kelly said. "But the old man had been running it his way for so long, how were you going to get him to stop? It was never as drastic as people said it was. He wasn't in meetings or calling down to the sideline. But we've got a chain of command now."

Defensive tackle Richard Seymour says Allen has gained respect as a no-nonsense coach who is emphasizing details and also for tapping veteran players for input on team matters and feeling the pulse of the team.

That was evident last week when Allen surprised his players by switching a 2½-hour practice that was scheduled for full pads to a non-padded session.

"You can gain more from that," Allen said, "than to just keep pounding."

Then there was that other surprise. As a mid-week practice began, 300 fans primarily clad in black flowed through the gates to watch. They were invited as part of a booster club.

The Raiders have long staged closed training camp practices, unlike most NFL teams that afford fans a glimpse of summer workouts. The Raiders have had booster clubs attend camp before, but the team never in recent memory opened up practices, as it did for three days this summer for 1,000 fans a session. Fans won their tickets through a team promotion.

Yes, it's a new day.

"Al's always going to be respected here," said Seymour, whom Davis acquired from the New England Patriots in a 2009 trade. "The stories about Al will never go away. His mystique is still here. He's an icon.

"But this is the NFL. Change is always a part of the equation."

In Raiders camp, though, change has been a long time coming.

By Jarrett Bell

USA Today

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