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For Mark Davis, firing Dennis Allen was a matter of feel. The Oakland Raiders not only weren’t winning, they weren’t winning in a consistently depressing fashion. They didn’t, well, “look” right.
That’s why the Raiders’ owner wouldn’t talk about coaching deficiencies or playing deficiencies or even organizational deficiencies as he handled the postgame show in the Tony Sparano-Is-Our-New-Temp-Coach press conference. He talked about “schemes,” as though it was formations and play structures and run-pass philosophies . . . and as though he was the guy to explain them.
He never did, of course, because he isn’t the football mind in the operation. His father Al handled all that, and by all accounts passed very little of it down to the next generation. Mark Davis has said that often – his expertise, he would tell anyone asked, was the business side.
But when shove came to chop block, he still wanted to be a football idea guy. It was the family legacy, and though he has worked hard to let general manager Reggie McKenzie make most of the hard decisions, he weighs in, sometimes forcefully.
And despite his protestations, he weighed in often on his disapproval of Allen’s work, and finally, of Allen himself. McKenzie went to great lengths Tuesday to say that the Allen firing and the selection of Sparano were both his decisions, but people believe only the second one. Davis weighed in, you may rest assured he did, because general managers don’t fire coaches four games into a season. They may make the phone call, but the decision has owner written all over it.
And so it is with Dennis Allen. His 8-28 record gave him no legs to stand on, to be sure, and you will have to travel far to find a coach with that record who lasted as long as he did. Of the 477 NFL head coaches in history, only five coached as many games as he did and had a lower winning percentage. They are:
1. Phil Handler 4-34 .105
2. Mike Nixon 6-30-2 .167
3. Bert Bell 10-46-2 .179
4. Rod Marinelli 10-38 .208
5. Steve Spagnuolo 10-38 .208
Of those five, Marinelli (Detroit) and Spagnuolo (St. Louis) were, like Allen, promising contemporary assistants who went to bad teams and could not turn them around. Handler coached in the 40s and Nixon in the ‘60s with the undisputed worst teams of their era, and Handler was a co-coach in three of his five seasons. Bell ended up the commissioner of the NFL, so maybe Allen can replace Ginger Tin-Ears when the time comes.
In short, Allen got what was coming to him. But he got that when he took the job, and unless Sparano can reach this thoroughly dispirited team and organization and make them all believe that Oakland ought to be a destination team after all the people who were here when he arrived have seen, McKenzie will almost surely follow.
Davis was strident in claiming that firing Allen was McKenzie’s decision, just as Allen’s hiring was his decision, just as the roster and the assistants and the rest of the staff and the remake of the entire football side of the building was McKenzie’s decision.
But like Allen, McKenzie must own the 28 losses with the eight wins, and if the Raiders end up stringing together a third 4-12 season, or something similar, then McKenzie will join Allen as Mark Davis’ second head on the wall. The Raiders are used to rebuilding from ashes to soot, and this is just one more test of that construction style.
Thus, a lot rests on Tony Sparano’s head – to win games, to make players want to believe him, to make the Raiders “look” like games and seasons matter. It would be a dramatic departure from the 12-year norm, and earn him and McKenzie the right to continue building from scratch.
But right now, scratch is all the Raiders know. For the 12th consecutive year, and the eighth consecutive coach. Because it doesn’t “look” good.