The months have dwindled to weeks, which have faded to days, and Mark Davis is sitting in a Palm Desert restaurant last week when his cell phone rings. The unveiling of the New Oakland Raiders is at hand, and the caller poses a simple question to the rookie owner:
Are you nervous?
"No, I'm not nervous," Davis tells me. "I'm down here getting my cars registered. I'm excited about things, looking forward to it. I hope we're ready, but I'm not nervous."
Understand, though, any anxiety is justifiable. The Raiders open the season on the prime-time national TV stage that is Monday night football, facing AFC West rival San Diego at the Coliseum.
That, however, is only the initial, and most basic, of challenges facing the Raiders. For not only is Davis completing his first offseason as owner, but also in his first season is general manager Reggie McKenzie, the man Davis hired in January. Also new to the job is Dennis Allen, the head coach hired by McKenzie.
These three men, in positions they've never held at the start of a season, march together into a new era. At no time since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 has a non-expansion team entered a year with such inexperience atop its organizational chart. It's bold. It's risky. It's daunting.
This might explain why 84 minutes after our initial conversation Davis is phoning me.
"Hey, I changed my mind,'' he says. "I am nervous. I was watching TV here, and they're talking about
If anyone in the NFL has reason to be fidgety this season, it is Mark Davis. He is symbolically stepping into the void created by the death of his legendary father, Al Davis, last October. Al Davis for nearly 50 years was a towering figure, and he personified the uniquely identifiable brand that is the Raiders.
Yet McKenzie might have more reason to be concerned, as Davis has been very open about maintaining distance from the football operation, leaving the details to Reggie. He effectively replaces Al Davis as franchise boss, selecting the roster, coordinating scouting/personnel and serving as architect.
McKenzie, however, insists he is less nervous than excited as the countdown continues. And, yes, he insists he grasps the magnitude of this undertaking.
"Absolutely,'' he responds by text message. "But it's my nature to see things in the simplicity and not be wowed by its magnitude. I do understand and embrace what all of this means. But it's still football, and ain't nothing like this game of football.''
For so long, though, the Raiders transcended football. They represented a culture, a force beyond the confines of the field. They were perennial contenders with a distinctive identity, much of which was created by the commanding presence of Al Davis, an acknowledged maverick whose bellicose tactics formed the baseline attitude of the organization. That began changing shortly after the team left Oakland for Los Angeles in 1982, and by the time the Raiders returned to the East Bay in 1995, they were in need of resurrection. After winning three world championships from the 1976 through the 1983 seasons, the Raiders over the past 28 years have appeared in only one Super Bowl. They were routed by Tampa Bay in January 2003.
As a 1985 Raiders draft pick, McKenzie joined a club featuring the likes of Howie Long, Marcus Allen, Mike Haynes, Jim Plunkett and Rod Martin. Those Raiders were feared and known by fans around the globe. They were more than a football team.
Here in 2012, McKenzie's goal is to build something successful enough to engage a generation that knows mostly of despair and mediocrity, thus perceiving the Raiders as no more relevant than the Bengals or Vikings or Titans.
He's trying to do it beneath a rookie owner who is not equipped to talk strategy or personnel and is determined to stay out of the football discussion.
He's trying to do it with a rookie coach who can see the big picture while focusing on daily minutia.
"We're taking this thing day by day,'' Allen says. "I know that's a cliché, but it's really true. We talk to the players about not concerning themselves with the end result but concerning themselves with the process of getting better every day. That's what we have to do as individuals. That's what we have to do as an organization.''
It's a new day in Oakland, beginning with a late night. The Raiders are pulling back the curtain on the post-Al era. It's foreign. It's unfamiliar. Maybe that's why Mark Davis changed his mind.
Chargers at Raiders, 7:15 p.m. KPIX, ESPN
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