Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese Communist Party decided to settle the question of Mao’s legacy by declaring that the Great Helmsman had been 70 percent good and 30 percent bad. So how did Al Davis compare to his role model? The Raiders had 28 winning seasons in the 48-year span after Davis became head coach in 1963. That’s a 58 percent success rate.
True, that success was heavily front-loaded; 21 of those winning seasons came in the first half of Davis’ career. Mao didn’t handle his own end game especially well, either. And it’s a rare sports owner (or other autocrat) who doesn’t succumb to ego and caprice eventually. Thus we get the Boston Red Sox’s John Henry, champion of data-driven rational decision-making, dumping a two-time championship manager because a team projected to win 94 games won only 90—and then injuring himself falling down on his yacht.
Al Davis’ greatest triumph went beyond mere wins and losses. Like Mao and Steve Jobs, the Raiders boss was a master of iconography. The spare, intimidating uniform he designed for the team in 1963 is not just on the short list—along with the Colts and maybe the Bears—of ideal football uniforms. It might be the most influential outfit in sports history.
It was oddly appropriate that in the Raiders’ first game after Davis’ death, they took the field on the road, wearing their white jerseys. Outlawry personified! Clean, snowy jerseys, with gleaming silver pants and helmets.
The reputed darkness of the Raiders was a clever feat of misdirection, one that sent one team after another blundering down the dim byways of low-contrast design, vainly trying to follow the example of Davis’ menacing legions—or what they believed the example to be. Scientists have affirmed that teams in dark colors are seen as more scary and aggressive. And the Raiders, with their N.W.A.-approved silver and black scheme, are the most famously menacing franchise in the league.
So there on the other side of the ball Sunday were the Houston Texans, in their muddy combination of navy blue (officially “Deep Steel Blue“) and deep red, the somber colors of a politician’s suit and tie. This is how teams have chosen to dress, in the shadow of the Raiders’ mythology.
After hip-hop culture began to demonstrate how powerful and lucrative the Raiders’ brand halo—or brand penumbra—could be, the NFL uniform catalog added, along with the Texans, the black-helmeted Baltimore Ravens and the black-helmeted Jacksonville Jaguars. The Carolina Panthers chose silver helmets, but paired them with black jerseys, drawing a short-lived lawsuit from Davis.
And those were just the expansion and relocation teams. Among established teams, the Atlanta Falcons switched from red helmets to black. The Seahawks, Rams, Eagles, and Buccaneers all darkened their color schemes. Teams like the Lions, Eagles, and Cardinals, who had never worn black, brought out black alternate jerseys. Even teams that never wore black jerseys on the field started selling them as souvenirs.
Nor did it stop with the NFL. Ask New York Mets fans. Or Oakland A’s fans. Or Boston Celtics fans—not even the most successful and distinctive team in the NBA could resist the lure of adding black to its green-and-white scheme. See the Ohio University football team hollering and falling to the floor in ecstasy at the chance to finally, finally, finally wear a jersey that’s not in their school colors.
Yet the more that teams have striven to look like the Raiders, the less they’ve resembled their would-be role models. Part of it is that in their desire to look tough, they forget the all-important silver, the flash to balance out the darkness.
The other part is that after Davis switched the road jerseys from silver numerals to black ones, so the numbers would show up on film, the Raiders never messed with their own uniform. Beyond a little outline on the numbers and an adjustment of the shading of the logo, the simple design they wore in the mid-’60s is the design they wear today. That’s why the road whites have the aura of the home blacks, and it’s why it still seems possible that Jason Campbell might turn into Jim Plunkett. Even when his franchise had lost touch with Excellence, Davis understood the power of Commitment.
So there’s something to be said for Davis’ enduring mythology, however hollow, over the evanescent story lines the league deals in. The Raiders’ Commitment to Excellence was good for a quarter of a century. The Eagles’$2 2011 Dream Team didn’t even survive a quarter of a season.
The rest of the league, if it wants to sell jerseys, is better off focusing on Davis’ commandment to “Just win, baby.” Enough with history and symbolism, Brian: What did you see this weekend that explained the on-field winners?