Raiders clearly belong to Davis, not the NFL

Updated: February 14, 2006, 12:40 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

And so, just to review: There is the NFL, and there are the Raiders.

There is a league operating in real time, more or less, and a franchise operating -- well, not in olden times, exactly. It's more like out of time.

There is a league moving forward, and a franchise whose trademark behavior is refusing to go along for the ride. Or, to put it another way, how many times over the last few weeks did you hear someone say, "That's just the Raiders," by way of explaining pretty much anything Oakland did?

That, indeed, is just the Raiders, never to be confused with anyone else. For good, for bad or for worse.

By the time Art Shell was introduced as the Raiders' new-old coach (or old-new, depending on your view), with Oakland thus becoming the last team in the league to fill its opening along the sideline, those following the program already had been treated to another chapter in the Al Davis story. It's always the greatest story ever told, full of counterintelligence and secrecy and posturing and whatnot. Alas, the history says it usually ends badly.

Shell took the job after no one else would seriously consider it. Oh, wait: He took it after the Raiders, 13-35 over the last three seasons, seriously considered only a tiny handful of the candidates they interviewed. Choose your spin.

Shell reclaimed the job that Al bounced him from in 1994, to this date the only coaching decision Davis ever even has hinted he regretted. But the real news here is that Shell is returning to a coach-owner dynamic that is virtually unchanged from that period, despite almost every shred of available evidence suggesting that change is exactly what Al Davis needs to embrace.

In the time since Shell was canned, Davis has gone through five coaches: Mike White, Joe Bugel, Jon Gruden, Bill Callahan and Norv Turner. He has three playoff teams to show for this 11-season variety of musical chairs. The Raiders made the Super Bowl once, under Callahan -- and therein lies a tale.

Callahan was coaching the team Gruden built. Gruden built the team largely by ignoring those football dictates of Davis' that either made no sense or didn't fit into the larger picture of what he, Gruden, was trying to put together. Fine strategy; lousy politics.

Gruden won, and in winning he lost. Davis came to view the coach as far too independent, too headstrong, too media happy. A generation of reporters identified Gruden, not Davis, as the "face" of the Raiders, and that was pretty much that.

Davis subsequently worked out a cash-and-draft-pick deal with Tampa Bay that allowed Gruden to become coach of the Bucs. Callahan was promoted, got destroyed by Gruden in Super Bowl XXXVII in January 2003, and quickly discovered what Norv Turner was about to discover after him: Al was back in charge, never again to be confused with a person merely owning the team.

Now this: Art Shell returning to the Raiders "family" in large measure because no coach qualified enough to interest Davis would seriously consider coming to work for him. Davis tried NFL guys like Mike Martz and Ken Whisenhunt; he tried a college flavor like Bobby Petrino, reportedly to the tune of five years and $18 million. No one said yes, so he reached into the Wayback Machine and pulled out Shell.

And Shell knows the drill. After all, he has been through it fully once. His first coaching tenure with the Raiders produced a 54-38 regular-season record, a 2-3 playoff mark and a scarlet letter on Shell's chest after he was widely perceived as doing Davis' bidding when he benched Marcus Allen for whole chunks of time in the early 1990s.

It was a shame, because before the Allen debacle, Shell had worked rigorously to establish himself as his own man, a Hall of Fame Raider who would leave his own mark on the franchise. Ultimately, it was Al's mark that lingered.

Seventeen years after he first ascended to the head-coaching job in Oakland, Shell remains a proud person -- but he also knows what he's getting into. He knows he is about to enter a world out of time, wherein Al Davis still insists upon whatever he insists upon, be it playbook, personnel or practice structure.

It is a world in which Callahan and Turner before Shell tried to coexist peacefully, only to find that they lost the respect of the players. The coaches had no authority. The players saw clearly that it was Al pulling the strings, and dissolution followed.

Can Shell change that? Receiver Tim Brown once said that of the many coaches he played for in Raiderland, only Shell and Gruden had the force of personality to work for Davis and still command the locker room. Of course, that was a while back. But maybe Art Shell already realizes that time seems to stand still where the Raiders are concerned.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com.

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