The Raiders are known as a franchise that is run, generally and to the minutest detail, by the owner Al Davis. Davis was once the heroic, anti-establishment renegade of professional football. He built the organization from scratch and was a tremendous innovator as a head coach. Al Davis has done it all. He is the classic entrepreneur who is suffering from a bad case of Founder’s Disease. If the Raiders were “having sexual relations”, their ties would have been deemed fatally incestuous decades ago. After all, prior to this most recent debacle, the Raiders have played in the biggest game twice since 1980.
Enter Art Shell. This is his second run as head coach of the Raiders. He had a distinguished career as an offensive guard. He is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, along side Gene Upshaw. These two were, perhaps, the definitive safety net of the 1970’s. A fully-funded welfare program couldn’t have provided more security. Shell also had a successful first stint as head coach. His tenure ended, however, because his Raiders had no answer to the K-Gun and the quick strike offense of Jim Kelley and the Buffalo Bills. The Raiders were smoked, 51-3. Shell disappeared for about a decade. His return now – to oversee a franchise in shambles – is compelling for several reasons.
The Raiders lack discipline and pride. Much was made of the renegade image of the Raiders in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Those teams won 3 Super Bowls and competed at the highest level in the league for more than two decades. These players may have been renegades, but many of them were intelligent, charismatic, fundamentally sound football players. When you think back on the Raiders teams under the leadership of John Madden and Tom Flores, many of the players were known for their solid technique – as well as their antics. Consider the Stanford-educated Jim Plunkett, the scholar-come-lately Howie Long (with glasses, published book titles and Villanova degree), Colgate-educated Mark Van Eeghen, USC’s Marcus Allen, leader of the NFL player’s union Gene Upshaw, defensive freak and innovator Ted Hendricks, wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff (sage user of stickum), all-time TV smart-ass Todd Christensen, master technician Willie Brown, Lester Hayes, Mike Haynes, and on and on. Those teams kicked ass – but they understood the game and used their reputations to intimidate other teams, coaches, and referees. And it worked.
Today’s Raiders are not good football players. Moreover, very few Raiders are recognized for their mastery of the technical aspects of the game. Warren Sapp is probably the most technically sound player on the team. What did the Raiders do with Sapp when he first came to the Raiders? They changed the scheme he played in for years as a dominant defensive tackle in Tampa Bay. Randy Moss is tremendously talented, but his technique leaves a good deal to be desired. The same may be said of Aaron Brooks, Lamont Jordan, Alvis Whitted, Jerry Porter and most of the other players who are expected to have something to do with the Raiders eventually winning football games. These men are not seeking mastery. It is evident in all public comments – and it is evident in the boxscores. These Raiders get false starts on 3rd and 1, then fail to convert on 3rd and 6. The old Raiders didn’t do that. The old Raiders took personal foul penalties on first down for yanking a face mask or kicking the crap out of some guy at the bottom of a pile up. They handled their business and made you play their game. This team reflects an incestuous blindness within the Raider organization.
The cataracts clouding the vision of management have led to an infatuation with performers blessed with speed, strength and other tangible qualities. This team is bereft of those intangible qualities that clearly separated the Raiders from their competition of days gone by. For Art Shell, the challenge is to rebuild the Raiders from this poor facsimile of a “team.” I believe he understand and sees, more clearly than anyone, that this work will take time. Art Shell sees that this work requires putting physically gifted players in their place – or better, putting them in perspective.
Take the cases of Doug Gabriel and Jerry Porter. The Raiders appear to need offense. Gabriel and Porter appear to offer the size, speed and promise that should be utilized to great effect by the Raiders. As the Raiders enter Week 6, Gabriel has been traded to the New England Patriots and Jerry Porter has been suspended for four games. I won’t presume to know why Coach Shell has chosen to make examples of these players – and he has done just that. There is no mistaking his focus here. I know that Art Shell has a tremendous track record in this league – and I also know that many men with track records have been passed by. This game is not static. But, I will reserve my judgment (in favor of the coach) because I believe that as an offensive lineman, as a safety net and security blanket, as a protector of the most valuable assets of the franchise, Art Shell (more than Al Davis and anyone else) sees the value of restoring pride and discipline and technique and intelligence and character to everything that the Raiders do.
It’s been a long time. This change will not happen over night. Just as lineman are seldom recognized unless they’re holding, Art Shell’s greatest work may be holding this batch of Raiders together long enough for his lessons to sink in.