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Oakland Raiders head coach Tom Cable, left, and owner Al Davis share a laugh before the start of a press conference Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2009, in Alameda, Calif. Davis officially announced Cable as the team's head coach at the press conference. (Anda Chu/Staff)

IF THE TASK were as simple as retaining or dismissing a football coach, a decision would have been made by now.

Tom Cable would have been given another year or told to turn in his keys.

Given the state of the Raiders in 2010, though, there is infinitely more to consider. Al Davis has a franchise to save — and a legacy to protect.

To fail now might mean never again succeeding.

Never have the Raiders had so few answers for such competitive and financial distress. Never has Al's patented swagger been so badly fractured. At the same time, never has he been so deeply engaged in battling age and health and vitality. After nearly 50 years and countless lawsuits and two relocations, the man forever identified with the Raiders must confront one of the most critical offseasons of his ownership.

There is, of course, the serial losing, seven consecutive seasons in which Oakland has lost at least 11 games, an NFL record in the category Davis detests most.

There is the dizzying series of miscalculations and regrettable decisions behind the losing. The skeletal by design and ineffectual front office, the questionable coaching hires, the poor draft picks and the abysmal free agent signings.

There is the naturally dwindling interest in what the Raiders do, who they are and what they mean. Ticket sales are down, local TV nonexistent. Home crowds at the Oakland Coliseum, where the team's lease runs through 2013, are smaller and more tightly wound.

And there is the fact that Davis, 54 when he last won a Super Bowl, is 80. How many more chances will he have?


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If his greatest desire is to bring the Raiders back to relevance and, eventually, prominence, how can these factors not play on his mind?

At the very least, then, we should understand the indefinite deliberations as the team's one-man judge and jury weighs his options. Davis is on his own clock. No matter the rumors about his state of mind, he probably realizes it is more important to move prudently than quickly.

The rumor that Davis is willing to sell at least part of the team makes sense. Nearly all of the original partners have either died or been bought out, leaving the shares to their heirs, while others buy in, such as the three investors who delivered an influx of fresh money after the 2007 season.

That touched off an unprecedented spending spree, with Davis shelling out large, ill-advised contracts to the likes of Tommy Kelly, DeAngelo Hall, Javon Walker, Gibril Wilson and Kwame Harris. The Raiders used the No. 4 overall pick in the 2008 draft on running back Darren McFadden and signed him relatively quickly.

That there has been no appreciable improvement has fans tuning out. The 2009 Raiders were last in the NFL in home attendance (44,284) and in percentage of tickets sold (70.3). Having brought them back from Los Angeles in 1995 in part because the Coliseum had been a reliable home-field advantage, what must Davis think?

How does he reconcile his brilliant ideas that fail miserably? Is it possible that Al, for the first time, is questioning his competency?

The first step toward addressing the problem is acknowledgment, and Davis has tried to do that; he realizes he needs bigger brains and bolder souls at his side. The next step, taking action, is much harder — and comes only after unflinching self-deliberation.

Davis so far has shown no indication of self-doubt. And nobody at 1220 Harbor Bay Parkway has the credibility and courage and job security to suggest he should. It is, after all, exceedingly difficult to tell someone who has been a vibrant, functioning legend that perhaps it is time to settle for being a legend.

Does Davis know what can happen when somebody clings too closely to their mystique? We do. We have seen magicians who stay too long on stage, never doubting their ability to summon another moment of singular, signature magic.

They become tragic victims of their unchecked vanity. They become Muhammad Ali, the greatest sports magician of our time, ignoring symptoms of vulnerability only to have them graphically confirmed by a very good fighter named Larry Holmes.

Ali expected to win, because he was Ali.

Maybe Al still expects to win, because he's Al.

More likely, though, he's not sure.

So allow the man his deliberation. This is his most important decision in at least 15 years. Deciding Cable's fate is not so urgent when a franchise is adrift and a legacy is ablaze.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.