SHANAHAN’S SHENANIGAN : Young Coach Comes In and Changes the Raiders’ Looks

Times Staff Writer

Something stirs beneath the silver and black ashes of a 5-10 season. It isn’t like last summer’s premature self-congratulations, nor does anyone confuse it with anything that will take the place of actual performance on an actual football field, but as young Mike Shanahan gets set to lead his own team down the runway for the first time, a feeling pervades his first camp:

This could actually work.

The Raider camp fairly hums with industry. The practice tempo is brisk, about double the old pace, interrupted every so often for a little blood-curdling instruction by the new line coach, Alex Gibbs, whom Shanahan brought along from Denver:

“Newt Harrell! Rev your damn motor up!”


No one ever used to yell at Raiders. And Raiders can’t sit on their helmets between plays anymore, a ban akin to telling lions in the zoo they can’t lie down. Once, this team ran the most relaxed drills in pro ball, but that’s over.

The veterans are scrimmaged against each other, too, another precedent-buster. The old philosophy was, “We’re the Raiders, we’d just hurt each other. We’ll save the blood-letting for Sunday.” But Shanahan, the X-and-O wonder, the ex-Bronco assistant coach and gimmick king, wants his players to get into that good, old-fashioned hitting, so they do.

Surprise, they aren’t complaining.

Grizzled Raider vets call Shanahan a players’ coach. In Denver, he is credited with relieving the tense situation that existed between Coach Dan Reeves and quarterback John Elway.

Shanahan got to know Elway and got him to start lifting weights by lifting with him, every morning at 8. Shanahan, the head coach, asks Raider players for input. He works at putting everyone at ease, chatting up stars and insignificant players alike.

“Nice practice,” he tells Greg Knapp, a perennial camp quarterback from Cal State Sacramento with coaching aspirations, laughing. “Your coaching career may have to wait.”

Shanahan draws reporters out and asks about their families. He talks to fans who’d have settled for an autograph.

How about his own ease?

Let’s not forget this is supposed to be Mission: Impossible. The first Raider head coach brought in from outside since Al Davis himself, Shanahan has to find a quarterback, fashion a line to protect him, integrate six new starters on offense and three No. 1 picks onto the squad, not to mention satisfy one hungry employer.

Having just begun his career as an endangered species, he acts as if his state of mind isn’t an issue. He looks as serene as the surface of a landlocked lake on a quiet evening.

If you want to know how he impressed enough people to go from a graduate assistantship at mighty Eastern Illinois University and a part-time assistantship at Oklahoma and his first full-time paid job--at Northern Arizona--to coach of the Raiders in little more than 10 years, you have only to watch him.

Said Dick Steinberg, the respected New England player personnel director: “Every NFL team has to have a ready list of possible coaches, college and pro, and it’s never a crowded list.

“Shanahan is a guy people were watching. I think the guy’s a very, very bright football coach. It’s always interesting to see if a guy who has never been a head coach is ready, but you never know that.

“I remember seeing him in college (at Florida, where Shanahan, age 28-31, was offensive coordinator in 1980-83). His offenses were imaginative and sound. We don’t go there to look at the teams, we’re there to see the players, but right from the start, he caught your eye as a guy who was a good teacher, a motivator. If it’s a clever scheme, you can’t help but notice it.”

Shanahan was offensive coordinator for one season at Minnesota, and the Gophers averaged 373 yards a game, including 500 against Ohio State in the opener. His last Florida team went for 412 a game and Wayne Peace set the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. record by completing 70.7% of his passes.

At 31, Shanahan was hired by Reeves as coach of the backs and receivers, then was given the quarterbacks even before his first season and was made offensive coordinator before his second.

At 35, he was as certified a whiz kid as Davis could find.

Let’s put it this way: It won’t hurt if he lives up to his billing. Tom Flores lasted nine years and won two Super Bowls, and John Madden lasted 10 and won one, but among the Raiders continuity isn’t everything.

When Shanahan was hired, Madden was asked if that 10-year commitment wasn’t comforting.

Well, Madden said, it isn’t necessarily a 10-year commitment. It is if you win.


There are three teams that have won two Super Bowls in the ‘80s--the Redskins, the 49ers and the Raiders.

I don’t know what the future holds in store, but we’re not ready to give up the ‘80s as yet as something that belongs to anybody else. --AL DAVIS, announcing Shanahan’s hiring.

Shanahan is five years younger than the next youngest head coach in the National Football League, but Davis knows from youth.

Davis was 33--and hadn’t ever been a head man, either--when he took over the Raiders in 1963.

Davis remains, as ever, omnipresent, watching practice from his usual perspective, 20 yards downfield. He still functions as the team’s personnel director-general manager, raising the question of how much freedom his coach has. “The old puppet routine,” Davis called it at the Shanahan press conference.

The two Redskin applicants for the Raider job, Dan Henning and Joe Bugel, were dropped, or dropped out, complaining publicly or privately that Davis was balking at the thought of letting them change the offense and the terminology.

Shanahan took the job, pledging publicly to stay within the old Raider deep-strike, power-running precepts.

Voila! Shanahan has changed the offense and the terminology.

Raider quarterbacks now take quick drops, sprint out, send receivers across the middle. Most important of all, they look short first.

“If that first guy, the shallowest guy, is open underneath, you go to him right away,” said Jim Plunkett, accustomed to holding the ball five seconds and bearing the surgical scars to prove it.

“You don’t wait to look for the guy downfield. The progression is short, medium, long, rather than the old progression, long, medium, short.”

The old scheme was simple and based on physical superiority. When that was lost and when teams following the Bears’ vogue began sending five, six, or seven pass rushers while the Raiders were trying to go deep, the old scheme stalled.

It may not be fair to pin it on Flores, who wasn’t the one who surrendered physical superiority. It may not be realistic to expect Davis, or for Davis to have expected himself, to maintain that superiority. Teams do get old, things do go in cycles, smart men make mistakes. But it happened, Flores is gone and Shanahan is in charge of the reconstruction.

Shanahan’s system takes a lot of the pressure off the long-beleaguered Raider quarterbacks and linemen and makes the receivers easier to locate. Davis might have been able to ease the transition if he could have signed Marc Wilson, the quarterback Shanahan wanted, but Davis has acquired two prodigious talents, receiver Willie Gault and tackle Jim Lachey. Of course, he gave up most of his 1989 draft to do it.

Shanahan has worked with less. In Denver, Reeves and his top assistants, Joe Collier, Shanahan and Gibbs, did what was widely recognized as a brilliant job. Gibbs got special notice for what he did with the Broncos’ toy offensive line.

Well, except for one key position, the Raiders are still loaded with real players--huge ones, fast ones, Pro Bowl starters, household names, wily vets, young comers.

In camp, Steve Beuerlein, Vince Evans and Jim Plunkett have all looked good running the new offense.

Maybe Shanahan can actually make this work?

That’s why they play the games, to find out.


If all NFL coaches are expected to be stoic, a greater load falls on the Raider coach, who is expected to speak for the entire organization, reveal nothing and mention “the greatness of the Raiders” in as many sentences as possible.

Thus, relatively little is known yet about Shanahan, apart from his impressive resume.

He looks confident.

He has a look, eyes ablaze, that suggests intensity.

He’s a tireless worker who loves the game.

Said his Florida coach, Charlie Pell, who once handed his offense completely to a 28-year-old Shanahan:

“Everybody said he was too young, told me I was crazy.

“He has something that takes him beyond his years. What is it? I never could say but I saw it then.”

Shanahan says he never intended merely to be a head coach, but a great one.

He doesn’t back away.

“When I went to the University of Florida, the head coach said, ‘Hey, do you realize the responsibility, calling plays, Florida, the Southeastern Conference, Division I?” Shanahan said.

“When I went into my first meeting at Denver as offensive coordinator, they asked me, ‘How’s it feel to go in a meeting where there’s eight guys older than you and you’re conducting the meeting?’ Those questions have been coming to me since I’ve been in the profession.

“There is pressure but that’s why I enjoy it. I enjoy competition. I like to be put in those situations where your heart starts beating about 160 times a minute and you’ve got to come up with the right decision.

“I don’t consider this work. A lot of people go to work and it’s work for them. I mean, I enjoy it.

“The people who say they’d do something if they didn’t get paid for it? Well, that’s the way I feel about this. That’s one thing I don’t think a lot of people can say.”

So if the challenge is considerable, and it is, it’s well-matched.

Now, let the scorekeeping begin.