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Blue Bolt
10-15-2006, 10:02 AM
Raiders Are a Nation Divided and Downtrodden
The New York Times - October 15, 2006
By KAREN CROUSE

The stench when the Oakland Raiders practiced was awful. A gaggle of migrating Canada geese commandeered their field last month, creating another mess for the team to address.

Even before the Raiders’ grounds were overrun by geese, the players had been dragging a lot of muck through the locker room. On the heels of a third consecutive losing season, Art Shell, a Raider from way back, was hired in February to clean house. At the opening of training camp, Shell, the third head coach in four seasons, delivered a bold State of Raider Nation address.

“A couple of the inmates have been trying to run the doggone culture around here,” he said, adding: “And that’s not going to be anymore. I’m the head coach. I’m the guy in charge.”

Well, yes and no. The 59-year-old Shell is working in concert with Al Davis, the Raiders’ 77-year-old Brooklyn-bred owner, who has spent more than half his life running the team. After 43 years, his influence, like his cologne, remains strong, even overpowering. His only concessions to age appear to be his use of a walker and his move to a full-service hotel that is a five-minute drive from the practice field.

Davis was the first N.F.L. owner to hire a black coach when he brought Shell aboard for the first time in 1989 (then fired him in 1994); the first to hire a Hispanic coach (Tom Flores, 1979-1987); and the first to hire a female chief executive, Amy Trask, who oversees the team’s business operations. Davis built the Raiders in his renegade image and in doing so created one of the first identifiable sports brands.

“That’s where the buck stops around here,” the veteran defensive lineman Warren Sapp said of Davis.

Can a franchise assembled to attract nonconformists be built to last? Since 1995, when the Raiders returned to Oakland after a 13-year run in Los Angeles, they have sold out 60 of 90 home games, including their first two this season. In this decade they have graced the Super Bowl and the American Football Conference West cellar and have had only one draft pick, punter Shane Lechler, make the Pro Bowl.

Davis is as invested as he ever was in the Raiders. He spends several hours a week watching film at the complex, Shell said. Raiders tight end Courtney Anderson believes that even if he has not actually seen him. “We smell Mr. Davis’s cologne in the hallways,” he said.

In those hallways, the scent of failure is no less subtle. The franchise that won 63 percent of its games from 1963 to 2005 is 0-4 and is riding a 10-game losing streak dating to last season. It is a measure of how far the Raiders have fallen that they are big underdogs for Sunday’s game in Denver against the Broncos, their bitter division rival.

Raiders lore is rich with stories like the one about the first round of the 1993 playoffs. Before playing the Broncos, Davis told a San Francisco reporter, “They’re scared to death of us.” The Broncos protested, but the Raiders prevailed, 42-24.

Grant Irons is a Raiders linebacker and a legacy; his father, Gerald, played the same position for the Raiders from 1970 to 1975. Irons, 27, who grew up near Houston, said his father used to tuck him in at night and tell him stories about A.F.C. West rivalries, which is why he never made a fuss about going to bed. “I knew I would get a good bedtime story,” he said.

Irons, in his fourth year with the Raiders, has experienced few storybook endings. Since their Super Bowl season in 2002, the Raiders have won two games against division opponents, most recently in November 2004 at Denver. They are 13-39 over all since losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 48-21, in Super Bowl XXXVII.

The franchise that gave the N.F.L. Kenny Stabler, Fred Biletnikoff and Marcus Allen is last in the league in 8 of 17 offensive categories, including total yards (901) and passing yards per game (106.8).

Davis, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has remained committed to a deep-passing game, which is harder to execute against today’s bigger, quicker defenders. That explains why the Raiders flirted with the 38-year-old quarterback Jeff George during training camp; why Aaron Brooks, the marquee off-season acquisition, was taking five- and seven-step drops before he strained a muscle in his shoulder in the season opener; why Brooks’s replacement, Andrew Walter, is struggling; why the offensive line has allowed 20 sacks.

Tom Walsh, the offensive coordinator, was running a bed-and-breakfast with his wife, Ann, in Swan Valley, Idaho, when Shell lured him back into the game. Walsh was an assistant with the Raiders from 1982 to 1994, working his way up from receivers and quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. His firing in 1994 was fueled by criticisms about his unimaginative play-calling and his clumsy clock management. Twelve years later, nothing seems to have changed but the names of his detractors.

Quarterback Todd Marinovich used to moan about Walsh’s offense being in the Dark Ages. Now receiver Randy Moss uses his weekly radio show to express his dismay. Moss, who was voted the offensive captain by his teammates, has volunteered to be traded if that is what the team considers the best course.

“If we’re 4-0 and he’s on the radio, wow, nobody’s paying any attention,” Sapp said. “But when you’re 0-4, everything’s magnified. And I think being a veteran guy he would understand that, but hey, Moss is Moss.”

Shell apparently made Moss cross when he insisted that all cellphones — as ubiquitous as ankle tape in the locker room — are turned off during meetings. Moss’s outrage at this edict spoke to a disconnect that has nothing to do with a dropped call.

“It’s a new generation,” Shell said. “You walk back on the plane when we travel, these guys have the video games and they’re sitting four, five seats apart and they’re playing each other. It’s all new to me. But that in their own way is camaraderie through the video machines, I guess.”

Last Sunday against the 49ers, Moss caught the 100th touchdown pass of his nine-year N.F.L. career. The team gave him a framed poster of the catch to commemorate the occasion. On Thursday, Sapp stopped on his way to the lunchroom to glance at the memento. “You catch 100 TD passes, you think that would bring a little happiness to your life,” he muttered before moving on.

Jerry Porter, a receiver whose seven years of service makes him one of the longest-tenured Raiders, rebelled against Shell’s off-season conditioning program. During training camp, Porter wore a T-shirt that depicted a rude hand gesture. During the first four games, he has been dressed in street clothes.

In an interview Wednesday, Porter, who led the Raiders in receptions last year with 76, said he was not practicing with the offense. “I play linebacker on the scout team,” he said with a shrug. Porter was hopeful of being traded before the Tuesday deadline, not because he wants to leave, he said, but because of “me seeing how things have played and me seeing there’s going to be no mending of fences.”

Yesterday the Raiders suspended Porter for four games for conduct detrimental to the team. Their disciplinary action came three days after Shell said of Porter: “He’s doing what he’s asked to do. You can’t ask for any more than that.”

The players are caught between Shell’s principles and more pragmatic concerns. Jarrod Cooper, a 28-year-old reserve safety who plays on special teams, said Wednesday that if Porter were on the field, he would have an impact. Asked if he understood Porter’s situation, Cooper said: “I have no clue.”

He added, “All I know is that I fight for it not to be a distraction anymore.”

At least the Canada geese are gone. That distraction disappeared after a decoy coyote in a peremptory four-point stance was parked on the field. It looks so lifelike that a visitor asked Bill Hughan, an assistant strength and conditioning coach, if that was the resident dog.

“You mean our quarterback?” he replied dryly. A few yards away, in the middle of a scrum of reporters, stood Walter, the camouflage for the problems at the Raiders’ core.