The NFL lost a legend this week when football innovator and Raiders owner Al Davis died at 82.
Davis made his Raiders into a cultural icon. The Black and Silver changed the identity of the NFL through the early 90’s as their eye-patched mascot started to appear on celebrities in the California area and across the country.
Pop culture is a trickle-down from the rich-and-famous to the everything-but, and the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “Straight Outta L.A.” would like me to believe that when the hip hop movement embraced the Raider crest, the masses followed.
The sweeping of the nation’s youth by hip hop combined with the B.A. persona of Davis, frequently in legal battles with the league, and the team’s success through hard-nosed, physical and borderline dirty play created the thug stereotype of Raider Nation as the NFL became more and more prominent.
Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, “The massive Raider Nation is beyond doubt the sleaziest and rudest and most sinister mob of thugs and wackos ever assembled.”
The pop culture movement and the rise of ESPN through the early 90’s that increased the influence of the NFL happened right during the heart of the Bills’ Super Bowl years. As Al Davis brought people to the game in California (the Raiders were in Los Angeles from 1982-94) and Chris Berman brought them to the game from Bristol, they would tune in and see Ralph Wilson’s Buffalo Bills dominating the sport.
Wilson and Davis have a lot in common. If it seems like they’ve been involved with the game forever, that’s because they have. Both were involved with the AFL back before the NFL merger in 1970. Al was commissioner of the league for a short period; Ralph, one of its founders. Both went on to own teams in the merged NFL and both would be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Both have brought their teams to four Super Bowls since the merger — Davis’ bunch just happened to win its first three tries.
Another thing the two have in common is that they are both very old. Davis was 82 when he passed away earlier this week. Ralph turns 93 next Monday. He was born in 1918, one month after the Red Sox won their fateful World Series, one month before World War I officially ended. No disrespect to Davis — it’s always sad when a human life is lost — but it’s not like I ever knew the guy. The biggest thing his passing means for us is how it relates to Ralph Wilson.
It’s a fact of life that people die. Everyone you’ve ever met will eventually die and so will you. Accepting that everyone has their time to go doesn’t make losing a loved one any easier, but it might help along the grieving process. Ralph has his time just like everyone else.
Someone came up with the idea that famous people tend to die in threes, which makes no logical sense but somehow seems to be the case a lot of the time. If you’re counting by American innovators, Steve Jobs is one and Al Davis is two. I’m not saying Ralph Wilson’s time is going to come tomorrow, but it’s a possibility fans with a 92-year-old owner need to be prepared for.
People close to Davis said the team will continue to stay in the family. That’s good news for the Raiders. I wish Buffalo could say the same thing. We don’t know what will happen to the team once Ralph’s time comes. The Bills have two years left in their lease with the city, with Ralph or without.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who attended the Bills game this weekend against the Eagles, said he “know[s] the team is already beginning negotiations on a longer-term lease, which is something that we need to get done.”
If that’s sincere or if that’s just commissioner talk, no one can say for certain. Maybe he was throwing something out there to try to avoid questions about if this game would serve as a meter to see if he sent Mike Vick to the right team or not. Who knows. But if it is true, working on a new lease is a step in the right direction for the Bills.
So that’s the good news. The bad new is that Ralph still has no succession plan for the team’s ownership. If his family sells the team to the highest bidder, well, there are other markets hungry for a team, in cities much more attractive than Buffalo.
Buffalo Rising has an interesting report that, if you turn your head and squint a little bit, it looks like former Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett might, kinda-sorta be interested in maybe working on a partnership to potentially buy the Buffalo Bills. Jim Kelly has been linked to a possible group to buy the team before and, more recently, there’s been casual talk that since Terry Pegula owns all the other important things in town (the Sabres), why not just buy the Bills too.
I don’t think Ralph will sell the team during his lifetime. He founded the team in 1959 and has owned it ever since. Only one owner, Bud Adams of the Tennessee Titans, has owned his team as long as Ralph, but Adams moved the team from Houston to Tennessee in the 1990s. Ralph has more money than any soon-to-be 93-year-old who just had hip surgery knows what to do with. Having more money means nothing to him, and he would break a truly impressive streak by selling the team or letting it move. And come on, he won’t even let go of the naming rights to the stadium let alone sell the team.
Trying to say what’s best for the team (and the fans) is tricky. The Bills are looking great this year, but it’s with a lot of no-name players who are stepping up. How far can we go with late-round picks and undrafted free agents? Fred Jackson and Ryan Fitzpatrick are great stories and they fit the underdog, count-us-out-if-you-dare mantra of this city, but how far can team chemistry and a Harvard education take a football team?
The Bills receiving corps is unbelievable to think about. Stevie Johnson was a seventh rounder, and David Nelson, Donald Jones and Naaman Roosevelt were all undrafted. Brad Smith was a fourth round pick by the Jets as a quarterback who could also play receiver. How long can this motley crew play like All-Stars? You have to think the uber-talented will win out in the long run — just ask Bengals rookie A.J. Green, the fourth-overall draft pick who torched the Bills for 118 yards in Cincinnati’s Week 4 victory.
I give plenty of credit to Ralph for putting the people in place who picked our diamonds out of the NCAA rough. The turnaround this team has made is nothing short of amazing. My concern is for the future. We have an extremely high hit-rate on this year’s players, but what about the last 10 years? How much better would we be if we hit on our first-round picks and added some big free agents?
Ralph has never shown a true commitment to winning, to greatness. He doesn’t seem to want to spend that kind of money. There aren’t many teams that can refer to a period as “the Super Bowl years,” but there are many teams who have been in the playoffs on a more consistent basis. One thing Yankee fans can enjoy is that they are a title contender every single year. If they have a need, they will address it. The Yankees don’t rebuild, they reload. Terry Pegula is giving the rest of Buffalo a taste of what that’s like, being able to spend what it takes to aggressively pursue the top talent on the planet, even in a so-called small market.
Ralph hasn’t done that in my lifetime and I have no reason to think he’ll start now. I’m loving the success of this year’s team, but it doesn’t offer a lot of confidence for next year or the year after like it would if we were winning with big talent guys, who would simply be achieving where they should be at 4-1.
In this aspect, a new owner for the team is a positive. Being a little more Pegula-esque certainly wouldn’t hurt. The trouble with a new owner is the possibility of moving the team. I don’t care if the Bills go 16-0 if they are the Los Angeles Bills. None of this matters if the team isn’t in Buffalo. This is ensured to us as long as Ralph is alive.
It’s better to have a losing team that to not have one at all. But we’re not trying to have our cake and eat it too by wanting to win. It’s not out of line for fans to want the best for a team that is a reflection on the city they live in.
Raider Nation will miss Al Davis, but he left his club a lot more secure than Wilson looks to leave his. Whether Ralph’s time comes next month or 10 years from now, Buffalo can only hope he has some kind of plan up his sleeve. Otherwise, we’re going to miss him a lot more than we thought.