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Tenure Requires Winning Shell Game

Embarking upon his first full season as field leader of the Raiders, who have just completed their minicamp, Art Shell doesn’t overlook the tentative nature of his job.

The Raiders, he acknowledges, aren’t enjoying the adulation today of, say, the dolphin, on whose behalf society is uniting.

But would consumers boycott tuna caught in nets that aren’t Raider-safe?

The club’s troubles, for the most part, have stemmed from misfires in stadium ventures, leading to resistance on the part of Los Angeles ticket buyers.

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“We have hit a little slump,” Shell says. “But the problem is very correctable. We have to win football games as the Raiders used to. Once that happens, a new spirit will develop around our club and it will be like old times.”

A visitor who makes the morning line on misery inquires, “And what happens if they don’t win?”

Shell is unruffled. “What happens,” he replies, “is that I’ll be gone.”

Shell is told, “Some say it is harder to fire a black coach.”

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He laughs. “Those who say that don’t know Al Davis,” he answers. “He will fire a black coach as easily as he hires one. The Raiders don’t think color. They think victory.”

Regrettably, victory the last few years has been escaping them, although in the 12-game incumbency of Shell last season, they won seven and curse themselves for letting two others get away, costing them a spot in the postseason tournament.

Overall, the work of Shell, who replaced Mike Shanahan after the fourth game, was graded satisfactory, but Art is conversant with the ground rules.

“We must get this team going again,” he says. “A lot of people still like us. They’re just waiting for us to do something.”

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At the minicamp ending Thursday, the Raiders looked at draftees and other players coming into the nest, Shell seizing the opportunity to acquaint himself with this spring exercise, his first as a head coach.

“What does one accomplish at minicamp?” he is asked.

“You like to see in the flesh what your new guys look like,” he answers. “But terminology is the most important thing you deal with at minicamp. Each club talks in its own language. Most do the same things, but set them up with different words.

“A wide formation on one team, for instance, may be keyed by the word slot. The Raiders say East. A certain blocking combination elsewhere may be labeled C-block. The Raiders will trigger it with Rip and Liz.

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How this lexicon comes about is a long story, not necessarily worth recounting, but it must be assimilated by the new help at minicamp so as not to slow down the operation when full-scale practice begins in summer.

“How did you appraise Major Harris?” Shell is asked, with reference to the West Virginia quarterback who abandoned school after his junior year to seek his treasure in pro football.

Shell is very guarded. “He does things like a typical rookie,” he answers. “But he seems to have a lot of physical ability.”

Mind-reading is the only science not yet mastered here, but a feeling exists that the Raiders may be more interested in Colonel Sanders than Major Harris.

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Since Shell is new to the job, he naturally is asked how he feels about opening camp in July without the multi-entrepreneur, Bo Jackson, who, under an arrangement unique to the sport, doesn’t join the forces until October.

“I have my own way of looking at Bo,” Shell says. “I see him as more a problem to other teams than to ours. There is a misconception that guys on our side resent his showing up late. That isn’t the case. They welcome him. They know that when someone that dangerous gets the ball, he is an asset to our team.”

He ponders this a moment, then adds: “They also know what he’s worth even when he doesn’t get the ball. One drawing that much attention from the defense gives us the edge in other ways. All we have to do is execute.”

Executing, of course, involves throwing the forward pass, an art the Raiders have misplaced the last few years. The technicians this season as last are Steve Beuerlein and Jay Schroeder, either of whom will perform the work unless management is inspired to bag someone else.

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“Are you looking for a third party?” Shell is asked.

“I coach,” he responds quietly. “We have someone else who looks for quarterbacks.”

OK, so you’re dying to decode the message, Rip and Liz. Rip merely stands for right and Liz for left. A new man must remember not to go Liz when he is supposed to go Rip.


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