The Raiders are next for Hue Jackson.
Al Davis died.
If you're looking for a reason why Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is no longer the head coach of the Oakland Raiders, you can begin and end there. If you want to know why Jackson's return to Oakland for Sunday's opener (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) is an emotional maelstrom and intense rallying point, you just have to talk to Al Saunders.
"Hue was the right man at the right time for that organization," Saunders recalled this week. "Al Davis hired Hue. That organization was going in the right direction. If he had stayed there, they would have had a great deal of success at this point."
A visual look at the Bengals final 53-man roster.
If anybody knows, it would be Saunders. And not just because Jackson hired Saunders as offensive coordinator when Davis made him the Raider' head coach in 2011. Saunders grew up in the Bay Area and was a ball boy for Davis back when he was the head coach in the days Lyndon Johnson took over for John F. Kennedy, just before Joe Namath took over the AFL and made it the NFL.
"Hue Jackson, of all the coaches that had preceded him in the recent time there, nobody had the pulse of that community like Hue Jackson," Saunders said. "Nobody had had the pulse of that locker room like Hue."
Jackson showed all the qualities of relating to players and motivating them when he was here the first time. Ten years ago he had one of the great runs of any Bengals position coach when he oversaw the ascension of Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Chris Henry to one of the NFL's best wide receiving corps.
After he moved on to become a coordinator, Bengals president Mike Brown recommended Jackson to Davis to become not only his offensive coordinator in 2010, but his head coach the next season even though Jackson was just 45 and had never been a head coach
Saunders knew exactly why. He had already seen it happen twice in the span of a decade a long time ago in 1969 and 1979 and each time he saw it end up in a Super Bowl title.
"Al saw an offensive innovative coach," Saunders said. "He saw a coach that had tremendous loyalty to what Al Davis' vison for a football team was. He saw a young coach with a great upside. Al had a history of hiring offensive coaches that were fairly young and certainly this was their first chance to be a head coach. John Madden. Tom Flores. I think Al saw in Hue that ability as a coach who could take the team where he would like to take it. Unfortunately, Al passed away and never saw the ending results of what Hue could have done there."
The ending is embedded in Raiders lore like John Facenda's autumn wind.
After Davis died in mid-season, Oakland lost in the last straggling minutes of the final game of the 2011 season, denying them a 9-7 record and their first play-off berth since 2002. What followed was an emotional news conference in which Jackson vowed to fix it and the new owner, Mark Davis, and his new general manager, Reggie McKenzie, made the move a few days later.
"At the end of the day, ownership made a decision they wanted to do something different," Jackson said. "Everybody keeps saying it's because of the press conference. I don't believe that"
Neither does Saunders.
"When organizations change, people want to bring in their own people. That's what happed in Oakland," Saunders said. "I have no doubts that Hue Jackson is a future head coach in the National Football League."
Jackson says Sunday is just another game, just another opener. But if he's asked Saunders and Lewis, they would tell him no. Fired as coach of the Chargers in the late '80s, Saunders came back as an assistant for the Chiefs.
Lewis still remembers Dec. 7, 2003, the first time he went back to Baltimore as Bengals head coach to play the Ravens.
Lewis laughed when asked if he has seen a change in Jackson this week.
"I'm waiting for it. Lock him behind the door or in the cage. It'll be a special moment, there's no doubt," Lewis said. "I remember going back to Baltimore, and I left on different terms. I would expect that. That's the way it is. Just like when I went from Pittsburgh to Baltimore. It's different when you walk back in the stadium on the other side. . . . He's doing a good job. He's got to keep doing a good job of managing it. Hell, this game means a lot. It means a lot to him."
Jackson admitted this week that he didn't get over the move for a year. Not even after the Bengals crunched Oakland in Cincinnati, 34-10, that following season. Jackson was even on the Bengals sidelines and it still didn't help.
But in the big picture, that year as an assistant under defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer did help immeasurably. What was more shocking? The firing or not hooking on anywhere else as an offensive coordinator?
Brown made sure there was room on the coaching staff for Jackson even if all the offensive jobs were filled. When he was here the first time, Jackson had evolved into a kind of chief of staff for Lewis, and Jackson and Zimmer are tight enough that everyone knew it would work.
"From Mike Brown to Marvin to Mike Zimmer to Katie and Troy (Blackburn), they helped me understand it's bigger than that," Jackson said. "That it's still coaching football. It was OK. It gave me a chance to step back and decompress a little bit from all that happened and evaluate why it happened. Because you never want that to happen to you again if you're fortunate enough to get another chance.
"A lot of people wouldn't have given me the opportunity to come back to a place where I was and kind of start over."
It's been a beneficial two-way street. In that 2012 season, first-round cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick went to Jackson often for support and advice. "He talked to me like a father," Kirkpatrick said. Jackson can be often seen talking to cornerback Adam Jones about routes and life.
"These guys want to win for Hue," said Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham. "I hope they don't get too pumped up. . . .But that's why I don't have a worry they'll come out flat like they did in Tampa."
Lewis has certainly benefitted from having Jackson back. They go way back and if anything, like most things older, it's easier and better. The chief of staff is right down the hall.
"I can go in and ask Hue a question, or look at something critically, and he doesn't take offense," Lewis said. "He knows what I'm doing it. It doesn't impede him from moving forward. Or he can come in say, 'Why can't we have more of this or less of that?' Or whatever it may be. I know he's looking at it from the big picture and not just one-sided. That's a good perspective to have. When you gain that kind of experience, I'd be foolish not to listen to it."
The 68-year-old Saunders just spent a month with the Bengals during training camp, invited as Jackson's special assistant in Cincinnati. He saw a better coach than the one in 2011.
"It gave him a chance to work with special teams, work on defense and now he's the coordinator of what will be a productive and dynamic offense," Saunders said.
If anyone knows what Sunday means, it is Al Davis' old ball boy.
"It's always emotional when you go back and play an organization you've been with," Saunders said. "But knowing Hue, the first thing is the Cincinnati Bengals and what they do."