LOS ANGELES -- Art Shell was musing recently on the resurgence of Chicago and Mike Ditka. "It has to do with the head coach. He's changed the attitude of the players, and they've decided to follow the lead of the head coach. And the coach has done a good job."
The Raiders coach could have been talking about himself.
You can cite the toughness of the defense, the steady play of Jay Schroeder and the settling influence of the decision to stay in Los Angeles as reasons for the Raiders' promising 3-0 start in 1990. But the simple answer is Art Shell.
In less than a full season on the job, he has put the pride back in being a Raider. He has managed to make the Mike Shanahan experiment a distant memory. The Raiders may decry the image of a family, unless it's Hell's Angels or Pirates of the Caribbean, but there is no doubt that he's reinstituted a family-like unity among the players.
"I've tried to instill that," he said. "Unity is family, and this organization has always been a family to me, since 1968. The veterans pulled me aside and helped me when I was a rookie, and that was something I tried to carry on as I became a veteran. I want the team to consider itself a family."
It's already visible. The Raiders openly talk about how they feel bonded under Shell, and the stark contrast to the brief-but-destructive Shanahan era.
"Before, everyone was an individual," said defensive end Greg Townsend. "The players had become selfish, worried only about their job security. We weren't playing to win, we were playing to survive. Now we're all on the same page.
"He points out to everyone that they play a significant role, not just the starters. He doesn't put anyone down just because they're second-string or a special teams player. He has everyone realizing they're a factor in the outcome, even if they're on injured reserve. Everyone here now feels like the head honcho. We're all equal."
"There's more feeling of camaraderie and togetherness now," said center Don Mosebar. "He allows people to believe in themselves and depend on each other. Before, we all went our own way. You can look back and see a definite change in everyone's attitude."
Where Shanahan worked everyone extra hard, Shell believes in pacing players. Where the coaching staff was divided before, they are now unified in Shell's central leadership. Where there was a clear separation between coaches and players before, Shell and his staff opened lines of communication.
Where Shanahan tried to remake the Raiders in his image, Shell has reinstituted Raider traditions that are comforting to the players.
"He gave the team some stability," said former Raiders coach Tom Flores, who is now the general manager in Seattle. "Having been in the organization, he was able to come in and end most of the turmoil. I thought he would make those strides, too, and that he would work hard. It's not surprising."
"The players say he deals with them man-to-man, which is what players like," said Boston Globe NFL expert Will McDonough. "They like to know where they stand. He is a force of his own personality.
"The biggest thing he did was bring the team back together. The team was split down the middle (under Shanahan), and was deprived of its physical nature. That's back, and they seem to be better coached. They don't look confused anymore."
Shell shrugs at all the accolades.
"If someone wants to (praise me), fine, I'll accept it," said Shell. "But you can't win without the players. We're fortunate to have players who believe in each other, and coaches who prepare them well. I'm just a vehicle."
This vehicle was born in South Carolina, was a two-time All-American tackle at Maryland State, and a third-round draft pick of the Raiders in 1968. In 15 years with the Raiders, he was a Pro Bowl selection eight times and missed only five games.
He became an assistant coach upon his retirement in 1982, working with the offensive line, and moved up to the head job last October when owner Al Davis finally admitted the mistake of going outside the organization to hire Shanahan.
Shell went 7-5 in his 12 games. Even though the team faded in the stretch, everyone associated with the team agreed it was a good start to a long head coaching career.
"I didn't reflect too much (on last year)," said Shell. "I wasn't satisfied with the job, because we didn't make the playoffs. That's my job, and I was very disappointed, because I felt we were playoff caliber. There were a couple of things I wish I had done better.
"But when you get a job like this, you learn as you go along, and make sure you don't make the same mistakes again. That's why I don't look back or look forward. I'm too busy with the now."
Bill Walsh was a genius. Sam Wyche, Lindy Infante and Marty Schottenheimer are innovators. Buddy Ryan, Jerry Glanville and Mike Ditka coach by decibels. Shell's modus operandi is to delegate and provide leadership.