Balance and Harmony
Originally, there was Gilman and his two assistants. Chuck Noll, the defensive assistant, left at the end of the 1965 season, eventually coaching 4 Pittsburgh teams to the Promised Land in the 70’s. Gilman’s other assistant, had left in early 1963 to take a head coaching job with the other AFL team in California. This forever intertwined two franchises that division assignments and geographic location had already made certain would be rivals.
Oakland’s ownership had gained respect for Al Davis prior to the start of the 1962 season for the way he had picked their pocket to get the rights to Lance Alworth. Hiring Davis was smart by the Raiders in the short term. If you can’t beat them, hire the young, talented assistant away from them. In the long term, it cost them dearly.
1960 – 1962 Raiders record; 9-33 (no Playoffs) | Chargers record; 26-16 (2 Playoffs) 6-0 Head to head
The move paid immediate dividends for Oakland as they turned into a winning team. For the Chargers, the loss of Davis was not felt immediately. In 1962, Davis was the understudy to a maestro that was changing how professional football was played. In fact, Gilman later in life grew to despise Davis, as Al began insinuating from the late 1960’s on, that he, not Gilman had designed the offense in San Diego.
1963 – 1965 Raiders; 23-16-3 (no Playoffs) | Chargers 28-10-4 (3 playoffs, 1 AFL Title) 4-2 Head to head
Davis took over as "Head of Football Operations" in 1966 with a 10% ownership stake. The team he was assembling was starting to break through. For San Diego, a downward spiral from the loss of key assistants, declining talent that was not replaced, and a style of play that the rest of the league was catching up with, started to tilt the football success in California to the north. Baron Hilton had parlayed his investment into a nice return and split in 1967. Al was just getting started.
1966 – 1969 Raiders; 45-9-2, (3 playoffs, lost 1967 Super Bowl) | Chargers 32-22-2 (No Playoffs) 2-6 Head to head
1965 was the start of a run for the Raiders that set the bar for consistent winning that no franchise even came close to in the NFL for 30 years. No Raider fan under age 35 has firsthand memory of the franchise’s true glory years (1967 through 1985). In those 19 seasons, the Raiders had one 7-9 season in 1981 and not one other losing season. The team only missed the playoffs 4 times in that run. This was especially pronounced in the early years of the merged NFL.
Off the field, Davis was able to parlay his 10% of the team into majority and then exclusive ownership with bare knuckles business acumen and even some litigation. It is not unfair to assert that Davis pretty much stole an NFL franchise from its founding owners.
The Chargers meanwhile had completely lost their way, slipping into mediocrity and then outright futility through most of the 1970’s. Football ability was heavily weighted to Northern California in those years of the AFC West.
1970 – 1977 Raiders; 82-24-6 (7 Playoffs, won 1976 Super Bowl) | Chargers; 37-70-5 (0 Playoffs) 1-13-2 Head to head
1978 was John Madden’s last year of coaching the Raiders. He coached against Don Coryell once, losing in the Oakland Coliseum to a rebuilt Charger team. This was a sign that the scales were evening. By contrast, the Raiders had begun to get older, slower, and less capable. After missing the playoffs twice in 1978 and 1979, Davis restocked the team.
His primary input, as it had been in the mid 1960’s, was the San Diego Chargers. The difference was that this time he built a team based upon who he had to beat, together with a new version of what he had learned worked. There was (briefly) near balance between the two franchises.
1978 – 1982 Raiders; 44-29 (2 Playoffs, won 1980 Super Bowl) | Chargers; 48-25 (4 Playoffs) 5-6 Head to head
Davis pulled off some truly masterful trades to rebuild his team. He and his staff also were also able to draft some key talent. As Davis moved his team to Los Angeles, his team was able to ride reclamation projects (like Jim Plunkett) and savvy draft choices (like Marcus Allen) to the last burst of consistent domination. In San Diego, poor personnel choices and drafting had eroded the Chargers talent base again, especially on the defensive side of the ball, to reduce them to mediocrity after 1982.
1983 – 1985 Raiders 35-13 (3 Playoffs, won 1983 Super Bowl) | Chargers; 21-27 (0 Playoffs) 1-5 Head to head
Both teams had issues in the late 1980’s. Both were dealing with losing franchise QB’s, coaching changes, the landscape of free agency, and Denver getting its act together. The Raiders, dipping into the risky pool of reclamation projects, did not fall as hard as the Chargers and recovered first, making the playoffs in 1990 and 1991. Then it was the Bolts’ turn. The Chargers had mostly used the draft to rebuild, but did hit pay dirt with a desperation trade with Washington for their 3rd string QB in 1992. The teams spent 6 seasons from 1990 through 1995 years swapping playoff spots and fending off Denver and Kansas City.
1986 – 1995 Raiders; 83-76 (3 Playoffs) | Chargers; 73-86 (3 Playoffs) 9-11 Head to Head
Clinton’s second term was not kind to either team. For the Raiders, real issues in coaching began after the 1994 season; the issues have persisted for TWO DECADES. The Raiders have had one coach since 1995 last for more than 3 seasons. The Chargers in those years also made some disastrous coaching hires and personnel moves. It took them a little longer to recover.
1996 – 1999 Raiders; 27-37 (0 Playoffs) |Chargers 25-39 (0 Playoffs) 3-5 Head to Head
The only brand of football Davis really knew did not look completely outdated n 2000; a QB with good accuracy on deep throws, speedy receivers, power running, and a 4-3 defense. In a game of salary caps and parity that Al never quite adjusted to, the magic returned for 3 last gasp seasons in which "Commitment to Excellence" was not the punchline to an NFL joke.
For the Chargers, they watched the AFL West balance shift back to Oakland as they dealt with Gilbride, Riley, Jones, Leaf and another run of futility that matched the dark days of the early 1970’s. What none us knew watching the Raiders beat the Titans 41-24 in the AFC Championship Game in January 2003, was that the Raiders in 2002 was an NFL analogy to the brilliance a light bulb makes in that split second of burning out.
2000 – 2002 Raiders; 33-15 (3 Playoffs) | Chargers; 14-34 (0 Playoffs) 1-5 Head to head
2003 was not a good season for either team, but the years after 2003 through 2013 have seen the Chargers win the AFC West 5 times. The Raiders have been able to get to .500 twice in 2010 and 2011; every other season has been a loser. The Davis formula, once the blueprint for building an elite NFL team, was a recipe for disaster in 2003. The acumen for identifying talent, the ability to know what man would make a great coach, and the business savvy for running an elite organization was gone. Really, it had been gone since the introduction of the salary cap in the early 1990’s.
2003 – 2014 Raiders; 63-127 (0 Playoffs) | Chargers; 108 – 73 (6 Playoffs) 17-5 Head to head (such good years…)
Payback is a Female Dog
In the age of parity, salary caps, and free-agency, this run of futility is nearly singular and remarkable in its comprehensive and systemic failure.
Bad teams get premium draft choices. Those were squandered, often in attempts to find the next cannon armed QB or 4 flat in a 40 WR. The revolving door of coaches that began after the Art Shell years have ensured that no up and coming coordinators (like McCoy) would take the Oakland job. The wasting of valuable cap space on post-prime free agents provided comic relief through many dark, empty off-season months for more than a decade. The insistence on building a team geared to beat Chuck Noll’s 1974 Steelers and Coryell’s 1980 Chargers was the finest comedic theatre.
It occurs to me sometimes that had my grandfather not passed in 1998 he would have savored every bumble and miscue from the aging Davis, not to mention the pantsing that Gruden and the Bucs gave Oakland in the Super Bowl after the 2002 season.
The re-balancing is not done yet. The sun truly does not shine on the same dog’s butt every day. For every Leaf, there is a Russell. For every Allen, there is a Tomlinson. For every Stabler, there is a Rivers. For every Turner, there is a Turner. For every Unholy Roller, there is a Tuck Rule. For every 20 year stretch of being on top, balance and harmony of the universe demands a 20 year payback of being on the bottom.
Raiders 434-379-11, 3 Super Bowl wins, 25-18 Playoff record (last appearance, 2002)
Chargers 412-402-11, 0 Super Bowl wins, 11-17 Playoff record (last appearance, 2013)
48-58-2 All – Time head to head
Let’s hope the Chargers continue bringing balance back to the AFC West universe this Sunday.