Good Luck, Art Shell
by Glenn Dickey
Feb 13, 2006

ART SHELL did Al Davis a big favor by accepting the Raiders head coaching job. There was no other way for Davis to go, after the candidate for whom he’d so obviously been waiting, Ken Whisenhunt, spurned him after one day of interviewing.

So, he fell back on Shell, who had long been eager to get another shot at an NFL job. He didn’t because he was regarded through the league as Davis’s puppet, which was unfair. Art Shell has never been a puppet for anybody.

I covered Shell as a player, because he came to the Raiders when I was on the beat. He was a Hall of Fame offensive linemen, of course. I remember fondly how he “pitched a shutout” in the Raiders first Super Bowl win in January of 1977, keeping Minnesota defensive end Jim Marshall from ever touching Raider quarterback Ken Stabler.

Shell was known as a quiet man, mostly because his locker was right next to Gene Upshaw, who was willing to talk at length on any subject. Writers naturally gravitate to players like that, and I’m no exception, because it’s an easy way to get the quotes editors love.

I did have one memorable moment with the two. When the Raiders were beaten by the Kansas City Chiefs in a 1971 game, I criticized Shell and Upshaw for their pass protection. What I didn’t know at the time was that the pass protection schemes were more complicated, and Shell and Upshaw were not the main culprits. They confronted me after practice the next week and detailed their unhappiness with my story. I said I understood Shell’s unhappiness because that was the first time I’d written anything about him, but I had written many, many stories of praise for Upshaw. “This one story wipes all that out,” Upshaw said. The Athlete’s Creed.

I have little first-hand knowledge of Shell as a coach because the Raiders were in Los Angeles by then. I did have one brief experience, when I went to L.A. for a week in 1990 to research my history book on the team, “Just Win, Baby.” In my interviews with players and Raider executives, two points were clear about Shell: (1) He was not a big Xs-and-Os guy, leaving it mostly to his coordinators to draw up game plans; (2) He had everybody’s respect. There is a dignity about the man that is impressive.

As a practical matter, that makes him nearly perfect for the current Raiders. It won’t bother Shell that Davis will want to have input in the game plan. More important, he’ll be able to get the respect of the players and perhaps get back that toughness the team had in their earlier years in Oakland.

THE RAIDERS were definitely a tough team in those early years. When you think of the Raiders of that day, you think of Ben Davidson smashing quarterbacks to the ground, of Jack Tatum and George Atkinson punishing receivers. Even offensively, the Raiders were tough. Linemen like Shell, Upshaw, Jim Otto and Bob Brown – all Hall of Famers – punished the defensive linemen who were unfortunate enough to face them. Their top runners, Marv Hubbard and Mark van Eeghen, were hard runners, not elusive ones.

The fans were an important part, too, very loud and partisan. As John Madden noted last week, teams were afraid to come into Oakland in those days.

Everything changed when they moved to L. A. When I talked to former players while researching my book, they felt that the team had “gone Hollywood”, bemused by the beautiful women and parties, a common problem with professional teams in the Los Angeles basin. Though the Raiders had won a Super Bowl after the 1983 season and had strong teams the next two years, they had gone into a decline after that. Shell arrested that decline to some extent, but in 1990, they would be humiliated in a 51-3 drubbing by Buffalo in the AFC Championship game.

And, of course, the fan base changed, too. The hooligan element first emerged in Los Angeles, and it has continued here. These guys scare away ordinary fans but they don’t frighten opponents, mostly because they will turn on their own team as much as on the visiting team.

The one constant in Davis’s career is that his actions have always been taken in what he perceived to be his best interests.

Early on, he was very surefooted, moving from an assistant coach with the USC Trojans to a coaching role with the San Diego Chargers, the head coaching job with the Raiders, the AFL commissionership and then back to the Raiders as the managing general partner. In that role, he successfully schemed to get rid of Wayne Valley, who had brought him back as a general partner, and became the unchallenged boss of the Raiders for more than 30 years and counting. His early trades and drafts were brilliant, as he built up a team which had once lost 19 straight games into an NFL powerhouse.

Starting with the move to Los Angeles, though, Davis seems to have lost his way, caught up in a swarm of lawsuits which has only recently been reduced. Instead of doing something to bring in fans, he obliquely threatens them with another move. He puts together a Fantasy Football team and brooks no disagreement within the Raiders building.

Since Tom Flores left after the 1987 season, Davis has hired seven coaches. Only two of them, Shell and Jon Gruden, have had winning records, and he fired Shell, just before the team moved back to Oakland.

NOW, SHELL gets a second chance, but he may soon wish he had kept his job in the NFL office.

There are several physical problems with the Raiders. The most important: They do not have a reliable quarterback. Davis seems determined to bring back Kerry Collins, who has the strong arm Davis values but a tin heart. In Shell’s last time as coach, he had Jay Schroeder, who was the same type of quarterback. How does one coach get so lucky?

The offensive line is a mess. One change that should be made immediately: Move Robert Gallery to left tackle, the position he played in college – and played so well, the Raiders made him the No. 2 pick in the draft. Raider coaches, who saw an ability in Barry Sims that was not noticeable to anybody else, put Sims at left tackle and moved Gallery. Shell, who obviously knows good offensive line play, should put Gallery where he belongs.

The defense needs an overall improvement. The offense has never been as much as the sum of its individual parts.

Mostly, though, as both Davis and Shell have acknowledged, the Raiders need to get back to playing tough football. That will be Shell’s main job. Wish him luck.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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