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Tuesday, November 5, 2002
Updated: November 6, 1:45 PM ET
Understanding Madden, Part 1

By Pat Toomay
Special to Page 2

John Madden
John Madden proved he wasn't a puppet for Al Davis.
When I met John Madden on my first day of Raiders training camp, in July 1977, I was struck by his ease and affability, but I was most impressed by his thoughtfulness. Before arriving in Santa Rosa, I'd driven from Dallas to Tampa and back, flown cross-country, taken a "physical" and driven another 60 miles to camp headquarters at the El Rancho Tropicana Motel. Remarkably, Madden was not only aware of my extensive traveling, but he was willing to alter camp routine to accommodate it. I was exhausted and he knew it. "Take the rest of the afternoon off," he'd said. In all my years in the league, I'd never encountered such flexibility in a head coach; I never knew such leadership existed.

In the days and weeks that followed, other qualities surfaced that differentiated Madden from his peers. Idiosyncratic behavior by players that would have driven other coaches nuts was greeted with a shrug and a chuckle. During film sessions, which many coaches regarded as an opportunity to humiliate or shame, Madden kept criticism generic, rarely naming names. Under no circumstances would he publicly condemn a player's character. That didn't mean he wouldn't chew somebody out for making a mistake in practice, because he would. But even those outbursts would be tempered by a wink and a nudge, as if the whole thing were a kind of joke. Who was this guy? I began to wonder. What experiences could have forged such a humane perspective?

My cynical friends thought I was being sentimental. Echoing hardline Raider critics, they thought Madden had no choice but to deal with his players in the way he did because it was a constraint of his job. After all, they'd argue, Madden was only 31 when Al Davis hired him as linebackers coach; he was only 33 when he took over the team. So he was just a kid. Moreover, he was a big, unsophisticated lug of a kid, who had no pedigree and no real head coaching experience. Thus, he was a perfect candidate for the manipulative Davis. He was mere putty in Davis' hands. What else could he have been?

My cynical friends would admit that Madden knew football, that he was no dummy by any stretch. But they maintained that if Madden wanted the Raiders head coaching job, he had to play ball with Davis. It was as simple as that. Madden had to implement Davis' philosophy at every turn. Was it Madden who loved wild-card players? No, it was Davis who loved 'em, because Davis was a wild card. So Madden had no choice but to be the good father to those nutcases. He was the way he was because he had to be. And there was a cost. Where did I think those ulcers came from that drove him out of the game?

Al knows football, the rules, the ticket situation, the radio contracts, the advertising. He'd have a mood for each one -- he would create his own moods. A mood for drafting, a mood for trading, a mood for negotiating. One mood just kicks right into another. You can simplify a simple person. You can't simplify Al Davis.
John Madden

For a while, this argument snagged me because I knew at least part of it was true, and some of my own experiences on the team made me wonder about the other part. Madden's youth and inexperience were indisputable. Insiders had it that, at first, Madden sat in awe as Davis taught him. Madden's expression was, "What better counsel can I get than Al Davis?" Later, Madden would describe the relationship in language that both flattered and distanced Al. "If I had an idea, I had to sell it," Madden would say. "But it's the same with Al. He didn't tell me, he sold me."

This didn't exactly slam the door on the issue. In an interview with Inside Sports after he retired, Madden exhibited the kind of sensitivity one is forced to develop when working for a powerful, unpredictable superior. Said Madden: "Al knows the football, the rules, the ticket situation, the radio contracts, the advertising. He'd have a mood for each one -- he would create his own moods. A mood for drafting, a mood for trading, a mood for negotiating. One mood just kicks right into another. You can simplify a simple person. You can't simplify Al Davis."

Madden also observed that Davis didn't have "the tools that are visible to people to show feelings. Once," Madden said, "we won a big game and my son Mike was in the locker room. He was in fifth or sixth grade. Al said to him, 'What do you want? Name anything. A business? A motorcycle? A store?' That's how he would try to show it."

Were the cynics right? Was Madden's underlying attitude of patience, caring and understanding a kind of pretense? A mere act necessitated by a lack of control?

Of course, the answer to this question would end up being a resounding NO, but enough contradictory information was floating around at the time to create doubt in anyone who was interested in the issue. For example, when John Matuszak showed up wasted for the '77 AFC championship game and was allowed to play even though he was struggling, many wondered how Madden would have responded had the club's power equation been different. A related incident involved popular defensive coordinator and former Baltimore Colts great Don Shinnick, who was vociferous in lobbying for a hardline response to such incidents as Matuszak's flop. Shinnick's lobbying -- on this and other matters -- was done privately, behind closed doors, but Shinnick's input was largely ignored. Eventually, Shinnick rebelled.

Al Davis
Davis was tolerant of nutcases but not rebellion by coaches.
I suppose it was how Shinnick rebelled that did him in, because Don was inspired in the mode he chose to express himself, appropriating Raider insouciance to make his point. It happened during games. Rebuffed in his efforts to effect things, coordinator Shinnick, rather than staying focused on the game, as most coordinators would, retreated to the bench after calling defensive signals. There, flipping his hat backward hip-hop style, Shinnick would dig out of his pocket a hot dog or a bag of peanuts. Grinning, he would munch away until somebody called him for the next series. Man, these Raiders are something, I thought the first time I saw this, but of course I was ignorant of the underlying politics. Inevitably, it all ended badly. Asked by Davis to resign at the end of the '77 season, Shinnick refused, saying we'd had a great year and he'd done nothing wrong. Davis responded by firing him. Sadly, Shinnick was unable to land another NFL job.

My own interest in this drama was blunted by distance, as I was at home in Dallas, enjoying the offseason, when Shinnick was dismissed. My interest sharpened, however, when Davis replaced Shinnick with former Denver defensive coordinator Myrel Moore. Moore was an exponent of the 3-4 defense and was considered an architect of Denver's vaunted "Orange Crush." Being a purist, however, Moore did not include in his scheme rushing four down linemen in passing situations. This meant that our designated rusher strategy, which had yielded 17 sacks from my position the previous season, was going out the window. Needless to say, this made me a little nuts. It also scared me because, despite the year I'd had, suddenly my job was in jeopardy, as I was the antithesis of a 3-4 lineman.

In a 3-4 alignment, defensive linemen play nose up on their offensive counterparts. Assigned a "two-gap" responsibility, their job is to neutralize the offensive player and be prepared to slide off to either side and make a tackle. Physically, the ideal 3-4 lineman is a fireplug like Warren Sapp, with incredible strength and leverage. A 4-3 end, on the other hand, can be quicker, lighter and more agile, since he only has to control a shoulder of an offensive tackle. For me, playing nose up on the likes of Art Shell, Leon Gray or John Hannah was more than a challenge. Giving away 50 or 60 pounds, as I routinely did, it was a fate worse than death. I simply couldn't sustain the head-up pounding meted out by these much larger players.

Of course, this radical shift in strategy was not explicitly announced, but as we got into training camp, it quickly became obvious what was going to happen. Startled by what I felt was the absurdity of chucking a proven defense, I went to Madden. After explaining my confusion over what our owner intended by making this switch, I blurted out the question that was haunting me: "What in the hell does he expect from me?"

"You'd better worry about what I expect from you," Madden replied.

He was right, of course. If this was the situation, then I'd better adjust to it or I would be out of a job. Still, the whole thing struck me as absurd, so I began to reconsider the arguments of my cynical friends, or at least to re-evaluate my notion of the club's power structure, so that I would be better equipped to understand who I needed to please. Where did Madden stand on Shinnick's dismissal? I wondered. Could he really be in favor of chucking our defense?

Such was the state of things as we opened the '78 preseason. On a certain level, the club was reeling. A blown call by an official during the '77 AFC championship game had cost us a second consecutive appearance in the Super Bowl, a game that we would have won, I believed, since historically Dallas had difficulty matching up with the Raiders. As if that wasn't enough, a popular coach had been replaced by an enemy turncoat who, with Davis' blessing, was intent on changing everything. Adding fuel to the fire was the rumor that Madden, during a May minicamp, had been hospitalized with ulcers.

Ted Hendricks
Ted Hendricks had a typically Raiders-esque response to new defensive coordinator Myrel Moore's instructions.
Compromising one's principles -- and being forced to live with that compromise -- can take a toll on one's health, and this was the cynics' take on Madden's condition: He was buckling under the stress of working for a megalomaniacal boss. In reflecting on his situation later, Madden would be less specific in his assessment, attributing his persistent pain simply to "coaching." In a memoir written after he retired, Madden admitted that he started thinking about quitting after winning Super Bowl XI. At that point, he said, he had only one more ambition -- to win 100 games in his first 10 years. After the '77 season, when he had 94 regular-season victories, he realized that no coach in the NFL or AFL had ever done that, especially with the same team. As it developed, he won 103, but during that final '78 season, as Madden put it, "I began to burn out."

At the time, you could tell something was wrong. No longer the blustering, confident "Pinky" of yore, Madden seemed agitated and fretful. During practice, he would chew on towels and would frequently produce a brown bottle from which he would gulp a chalky white substance that would leave residue on his lips. In the locker room, on planes, in the office, spasms of vomiting became routine.

In the vacuum of Madden's distraction, the new coach, Myrel Moore, began to assert himself and one player, Ted Hendricks, took offense. Mocking Moore's emphasis on weight training, Hendricks had his own weight rack constructed and erected on the practice field. With empty cans for dumbbells and with strategically placed beverage holders, the contraption was a hilarious addition to the other equipment arrayed there, but it was also a biting reminder of the old Raider spirit that Moore had been hired to vanquish.

Of course, it was tempting to view all of this as petty squabbling among twisted royals. After all, we were among the league's elite, a success by any standard -- why couldn't we get a grip? Perspective was what was required, but nobody could have anticipated the incident that would restore it nor the devastation it would leave in its wake. For those of us directly involved, life in pro football would never be the same.

Coming Attractions: In Part 2 of his look at what makes John Madden tick, Pat Toomay talks about Madden's response to Darryl Stingley's paralyzing injury and the former Raider coach's famous fear of flying ... and explains the powerful and humanizing connection between the two.

Former NFL defensive end Pat Toomay played in the league for 10 years (1970-79) with the Cowboys, Bills, Bucs and Raiders. He is the author of two books, The Crunch and the novel On Any Given Sunday. You can e-mail him at pat_toomay@hotmail.com.