"We were going to stretch the field vertically. When we came out of the huddle, we weren't looking for first downs. We didn't want to move the chains. We wanted touchdowns. We wanted the big play, the quick strike." -- Al Davis, explaining his offensive philosophy to NFL Films.
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Yes, the late Al Davis was enamored with speed. Speed and power. Having grown up in Brooklyn, Davis was influenced by the speed and derring-do of the Jackie Robinson Dodgers, the power and might of the Mickey Mantle New York Yankees. So Davis infused his Raiders roster with as many of those qualities as possible. As often as possible.
Especially that speed part on offense.
From Art Powell to Warren Wells to Cliff Branch, Davis had a formula and spent the last quarter-century of his life trying to find the next Branch. Davis' motto of "Speed kills" was equal parts braggadocio and warning.
Yeah, drafting the fastest guy at the combine became a Davis special in his later years, even if the likes of Stanford Routt, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jacoby Ford and DeMarcus Van Dyke didn't pan out the way the Raiders hoped.
No wonder Davis' son Mark, the current Raiders owner, winked knowingly at general manager Mike Mayock and coach Jon Gruden after they pulled, well, a fast one during last month's NFL draft. Because with all of the consensus top three wide receivers available to the Raiders when their first pick came up, they chose the fastest one. Henry Ruggs III had blazed his way to a 4.27-second 40 time in Indianapolis, the fourth-fastest time ever recorded at the combine and just five-hundredths of a second off the record.
It was, Mark Davis told Mayock and Gruden, as if his "father was looking down and smiling" at the Raiders' atypical, but totally on-brand pick.
No pressure, kid. And none, apparently, felt.
"I bring an explosive playmaker, a great receiver, a great all-around receiver [to the Raiders]," Ruggs said the night of the draft. "A guy that can make a positive impact ... I can help the offense stretch out and be able to do different things."
He credits good genes, and his mom, Nataki, for his wheels. She was a high school track athlete in Junction City, Kansas, who claims she once ran a 4.23 40.
"She was a little speed star on the track, too," Ruggs said of his mother. "We always used to race in the street and parking lots from stores to the car, and I guess I just got my speed from her and built on it and eventually got faster than her."
"It's No. 1 to say you want to do that. It's No. 2 to say that you have the players to do it. But it's No. 3 to do it." -- Al Davis, on executing his vision of the vertical passing game.
The Raiders never got over the failed Antonio Brown experiment last year. Ruggs is expected to fill that gap as the wideout expected to take the top off the defense, as well as operate in space, as 13 of his 40 receptions last season came behind the line of scrimmage.
Consider: Raiders WRs had the third-fewest receptions (145) and fourth-fewest receiving yards (1,858) as a group in the NFL last season. Quarterback Derek Carr averaged a league-low 6.2 air yards per attempt, and his 275 passes thrown to running backs and tight ends last season were the third-most such attempts.
Enter the efficient Ruggs, who converted 24 of his 98 career catches into touchdowns. That 24.5% reception/TD percentage is the highest such career mark in the SEC over the past 20 seasons.
But again, saying you want to be explosive and saying you have the players to be explosive is different from actually, you know, being explosive.
Ruggs caught four slant passes for Alabama last fall, with three going to the house and Ruggs averaging 31.8 yards after the catch on those plays. Yeah, that's explosive, and Gruden needs it to translate to the NFL.
Because remember, slants are a hallmark of Gruden's offense. And now visions of Tim Brown and Jerry Rice coming across the middle at the start of the century are dancing in your head. Expect more jet sweeps and screens, too.
"To do it on first down of any football game, for that defense that you're playing against. For those cornerbacks who play out there on the corners to know that the Raiders are coming at you. They're coming at you on top, and they've got the speed to do it and they will do it. It's like having the bomb and being willing to drop it." -- Davis, on the threat of speed at wideout.
Gruden likes to tell a story from his first go-round with Raiders. It was during a practice and the aptly named James Jett was running go-routes down the sideline, in front of Gruden and the omnipresent Al Davis.
"Did you feel that?" Davis asked Gruden, his Brooklyn accent dripping, as Jett blew by. "Did you feel that?"
Not, "Did you see that?" or even, "Did you hear that?"
"Did you feel that?"
That's what Ruggs is supposed to bring to the rebranded Las Vegas Raiders, an answer to the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs' Tyreek Hill, rather than a Jett or a Carlos Francis or a Heyward-Bey.
Ruggs had six catches on go-routes in 2019; three went for a touchdown.
Dropping the bomb on 'em? No wonder ESPN analytics gave Ruggs an 8% chance of becoming a Pro Bowl player, the highest of any receiver in this rookie class.
Ruggs has worked with another Davis favorite, Randy Moss, on harnessing his speed.
"Just always giving the image that I'm going 100 miles per hour," Ruggs said. "It's not that easy moving at that speed to change directions, but it's also something to give that illusion that you are moving at top speed."
"The adage that goes around in professional football, and I hear everyone say it, 'Take what they give you.' That all sounds good to everybody, but I always went the other way -- we're going to take what we want." -- Davis, on his team imparting its will.
Raiders fans would be thrilled for the 6-foot, 190-pound Ruggs to be a Jett with better hands, or a bigger, more physical Branch.
Ruggs had just one drop on 55 targets (44 catchable targets) in 2019 and his 1.8% drop rate was tied for the fourth best in the SEC. Sure hands are a way to gain the trust of Carr, who has endured his share of drops from the likes of Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, Seth Roberts and Tyrell Williams in recent years. Ruggs has just four drops total in three seasons.
But it comes back to speed. As it should for the Raiders and the legacy Ruggs is joining.
Remember that 4.27 40 Ruggs ran in February? Ruggs had a 1.43-second 10-yard split, the best acceleration in the class. He has also hit 23 mph at Alabama on the Catapult tracking system, faster than any pro player ran at any point during the 2019 season, per NFL Next Gen Stats.
"Of course, my tape speaks for myself," he said, "but when I get out on the field, I can show that I can do more than just run."
The Raiders hope their opponents feel that.