Raiders Need Change — And Shell

By Mark Purdy
Updated: December 27, 2006

OAKLAND — Finally. On Sunday afternoon, the Raiders’ nightmare of 2006 will mercifully be over. They conclude their season against the New York Jets in East Rutherford, within easy sniffing distance of New Jersey’s many famous toxic smells.

Fitting. And if you believe the NFL’s gurgling gossip fountain, Raiders Coach Art Shell will then be fired, just one season into his return engagement. Not fitting.

Shell deserves at least another chance. Granted, in the next few months, he must do some radical surgery on his coaching staff. And after being handed a roster full of dysfunctional offensive parts, he must work with owner Al Davis to revamp the machinery.

But make no mistake. A decision to dump Shell at this point — and then hire the fifth Raiders coach in seven seasons — would hardly be a boon to the franchise.

I will concede that some of this is personal. I do not abandon my people. In January, I wrote a column that suggested Shell should be named Raiders coach, mostly because he was one of the few candidates who “got” the team’s culture. I knew he brought dignity and respect to the table. I also knew Shell could work for Davis and put up with his quirks.

Thus, when Davis introduced his new head coach a few weeks later as “the great Arthur Shell,” I proclaimed it to be the best possible move the Raiders could make.

Subsequent events have brought my judgment into question. For good reason.

Shortly after his hiring, Shell disappointed many people when he put loyalty over common sense by hiring Tom Walsh as offensive coordinator. Walsh was Shell’s good friend and had been the Raiders offensive coordinator in Shell’s first stint with the team in 1989-94.

But as Shell then moved on to various coaching and administrative jobs, Walsh did some radio work, dabbled in college coaching and ran an Idaho guest ranch. He was away from the NFL for 11 years.

Now, I admire loyalty in a person. I can even understand why Shell, wanting someone he could trust at his side, would bring a reliable pal aboard as an assistant coach.

But naming Walsh as offensive coordinator? One of the two most important positions on the staff? After he had been away from pro football’s sophisticated schemes for more than a decade?

Naturally, it was a disaster. Shell finally admitted his error and replaced Walsh with John Shoop in late November. Way too late. But as you’ve noticed, Shoop was not able to do much with the Raiders’ messed-up offensive personnel, either.

Shell’s other major mistake came in the way he dealt with his two diva receivers, Jerry Porter and Randy Moss. Porter clashed with Shell from their very first meeting. Shell then put Porter on ice, suspending and then benching him.

Instead of having him around as a distraction, Shell should have lobbied Davis to send home Porter for the winter, much as Jon Gruden did with Keyshawn Johnson in 2003.

Moss was another matter. It was clear early on that Moss’ mind was more on his new fruit smoothie venture than on buckling down to make the Raiders better. Shell needed to find someone on his staff who could motivate Moss. Instead, Moss kept losing interest and kept dropping passes.

I understand and empathize with Raiders fans who say Davis should either give up the team or step down from his day-to-day involvement with it. But that has nothing to do with reality. Let’s be practical. Davis has his medical issues.

But as long as he can show up at team headquarters each day — and by the way, has anyone else besides me noticed that it is easier to get information about Fidel Castro’s physical condition? — the Raiders are going to be Davis’ team. They are his oxygen.

And let’s assume Davis does dismiss Shell. What happens then? The Raiders will simply be rewinding themselves to a year ago, when they scoured the nation for candidates but found few who wanted to work under the conditions set by Davis. One of the best college coaches, Louisville’s Bobby Petrino, also turned down the Raiders.

So unless they want to hire Walt Harris, or bring back Joe Bugel, or roll the dice with an unproven young coach desperate for a chance, the Raiders are not going to find a guaranteed winner.

Shell at least has a relationship with Davis that allows them to communicate as relative equals. Together, with a drastic roster and staff makeover, they might make 2007 into a decent season.

Because don’t buy the business about Shell’s stone-faced expression on the sidelines. Supposedly, this indicates a lack of passion or involvement. Oh, really? Then how do you explain the sideline demeanors of Paul Brown and Tom Landry? Their stone faces are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The truth is, if you win, then an expressionless face represents elegant stoicism. If you lose, it represents apathy. Shell is anything but apathetic about the Raiders, the team of his heritage.

The day he was hired, Shell said: “I want to get it back to the point where, when we walk into the stadium, they know the Raiders are here.”

Right now, you can’t see that when the Raiders show up for a game. You can only smell them. But the best way to improve the smell is to not fire Shell.