AL DAVIS hasalways loved speed. The Raiders owner once signed a Jett (first name: James)and negotiated with a Rocket (last name: Ismail) in the same off-season. Andhis rosters have included college sprint champions and Olympic gold medalists.¬∂ Still, it's doubtful that any of them ever displayed the kind of separationDavis has attempted this off-season. In trying to put a fifth consecutivelosing season behind him as quickly as possible, he has handed out contractsworth more than $300 million—$296 million of that spread among seven players.More noteworthy, the deals for those seven include nearly $120 million inguarantees and first-year salaries.
The Raiders saythis is evidence that Davis plans to be aggressive in remaking the roster.Others wonder if it's an example of recklessness, pointing out that $36 millionin guarantees and first-year salaries is going to three players coming off kneesurgery: defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who has never been to the Pro Bowl andhas just 13 sacks in 49 career games with Oakland; former Broncos wide receiverJavon Walker, who has had three knee operations in as many years and has playedonly one full season during that time; and running back Justin Fargas, whoseseven starts last season matched his career total for his previous four yearsas a Raider.
"There's a lotof risk involved," coach Lane Kiffin said last week at the team's minicamp."But I don't have anything to do with the money. I just give my evaluationof players. That's Al's deal. He paid them what he paid them, and we've got toget the most out of them."
Davis's objectiveis to restore the luster to his once-powerful franchise, which had only sixlosing seasons from 1965 to 2002 but is 19--61 since reaching Super Bowl XXXVIIin '03. The team has lost at least 11 games in each of the last five yearsafter going more than four decades without back-to-back seasons of double-digitdefeats.
When DeAngelo Hallmet with Davis two months ago while Oakland was finalizing a trade for theFalcons' two-time Pro Bowl cornerback, he came away convinced that Davis,buoyed by a cash influx from three new silent partners, was going to make aplay to win now. "He said, 'I'm mad I even let things get that bad,'?"recalls Hall, who signed a seven-year, $70 million contract ($24.5 millionguaranteed) after being traded to the Raiders.
Hall of Famereceiver Fred Biletnikoff, who spent 14 years as a player and 18 as anassistant coach in the Oakland organization, said in a recent radio interviewthat the team's biggest problem is its personnel—a matter upon which Davis hasfinal say. "There isn't quality," Biletnikoff told KHTK. "You canstumble around for words and say whatever you want, [but] the quality is sopoor."
Davis, whodeclined to be interviewed, is attempting to change that by retaining coreplayers such as Kelly and Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, and bringing inproven performers such as Hall, Walker and former Giants safety Gibril Wilson,who received a six-year deal worth a potential $39 million. Davis also signedbig-play running back Darren McFadden of Arkansas, the fourth pick in thisyear's draft, to a six-year contract worth a potential $60 million.
"I suggestthat every player go up there and talk to Al before the season starts because Iguarantee you they'll play with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder,"Hall says. "That guy really cares about his players, and he'll do anythingfor us. That's the kind of guy you want to play for and win for. It ain't aboutus or anybody else. It's really about him."
ONLY AT SI.COMPeter King's Monday Morning Quarterback.
One of the more perplexing realities of the off-seasonis that quarterbacks such as Brock Berlin (Rams), David Carr (Giants), BrianGriese (Bucs) and Joey Harrington (Falcons) have jobs, but Byron Leftwich andDaunte Culpepper do not. Leftwich (right) and Culpepper are former top 12 draftpicks who enjoyed success early in their careers, only to be slowed in recentseasons by injuries. Both claim to be healthy now, but teams have not shownserious interest. The cold shoulder is puzzling given that NFL teams aredesperate for experienced quarterbacks. Leftwich or Culpepper might not be themissing piece to a team's puzzle—or even an ideal backup—but it's curious thatat age 28 and 31, respectively, they aren't even considered worthy campfodder.
BRAD MANGIN (WALKER)
SILVER OF HOPE Walker (left) and Fargas (below) cashed in big; now they have to change Oakland's fortunes.
KIRBY LEE/US PRESSWIRE (FARGAS)
[See caption above]
FERNANDO MEDINA/US PRESSWIRE (LEFTWICH)