Davis kept it safe with stodgy Shell, Raiders paid price

Updated: January 5, 2007, 11:24 AM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Art Shell got whacked by the Raiders on Thursday, which isn't half as interesting as what Al Davis said a couple of weeks ago, when Oakland's record was only 2-12 rather than the 2-14 it eventually became.

When asked if he might need to change his own approach in order for the Raiders to stop stinking on ice, the 77-year-old Davis replied, in part, "What I say to you is: five decades, five Super Bowls, four head coaches, four different quarterbacks …

"I want to win. Obviously, in life, I like certain things. I like beautiful women more than unbeautiful women. I'm not in any way demeaning the unbeautiful women. I want to win and I will win, and we will win for the Raiders, and we'll get this thing straightened out."

Ye olde problem is beginning to sharpen into focus, isn't it? The Raiders are 15-49 over the past four seasons. They just completed a campaign that featured the worst offensive performance in the history of the franchise. They had as one of their coordinators a man whose most recent job (this is true) had been running a bed-and-breakfast in Idaho. And Al Davis is reminiscing about the time Jim Plunkett threw over the top of the coverage for that 63-yard touchdown.

Davis is also marking the passage of the days, though, and from a Raider Nation standpoint, that is more significant now than ever. The respective tenures of the past four Oakland head coaches go like this: Jon Gruden, four years; Bill Callahan, two; Norv Turner, two; Shell, one empty campaign. There is no time for patience. Shell was a Raiders guy from the ghost of Raiders past, a pure Al Davis choice, and he still got the boot after a single season, albeit an unmitigated disaster, in which Jerry Porter was essentially banished and Randy Moss might as well have been. (Maybe Jim Plunkett isn't such a bad place to start, after all.)

But dumping Shell is the easy part, intellectually if not emotionally. Beyond that move, Davis wakes up today in the same situation as when the regular season ended: He has an offense that scored 12 touchdowns in 16 games; he has a feud with Porter in which Davis very publicly has taken an extreme position (he said he'd trade Porter only if Porter paid back a massive chunk of his up-front contract money); he has an unhappy Moss and a pockmarked O-line; and he has a Raiders fan base that is becoming more exclusive by the game.

Interestingly, though, what Davis also has is some near-miss recent coaching history that's tantalizing. He made a hard run at Sean Payton in 2004, when Payton was still in Dallas. He made a hard run at Louisville coach Bobby Petrino last year. The uninspired list of those with whom Davis has actually wound up in the post-Gruden era -- Callahan (one of Gruden's assistants), Turner (a longtime Davis acolyte) and Shell (bleeds silver and black) -- is almost incongruous next to exclamation-point choices like Payton and Petrino.

This all suggests that Uncle Al hasn't lost his sense of touch when it comes to identifying coaching prospects, but that, in the end, he falls back into the comfort zone of hiring someone he thinks he can control. Not exactly breaking news, that. People saw in Shell little more than a physically formidable extension of Davis' will, and that was a problem from the start -- and the addition of Tom Walsh, who'd been out of the league for a decade before coming aboard as Shell's offensive coordinator, took the problem to another level.

It made the franchise feel old. It made the franchise play old. And Al Davis is, frankly, too old to let that happen even one more year.

The trendy betting is that he won't, and therein lies Raider Nation's only hope. The hope lies in the idea that the man who runs the franchise with one hand on its throat will decide to make the unconventional (read: non-Raiders) choice, the one that might have landed either Payton or Petrino in years past.

It might well cost Davis the kind of money he doesn't want to spend, for a number of years to which he doesn't want to commit. Then again, he paid Jerry Porter most of this season for nothing.

Petrino's still sitting in Louisville, right? Just checking.

Mark Kreidler's book "Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland," published by HarperCollins, can be ordered at amazon.com and markkreidler.com. Kreidler, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mkreidler@sacbee.com.

ALSO SEE