Shell putting emphasis on playmaking, not schemes

NAPA, Calif. -- Systems come, systems go. The Raiders? They've been through the system gauntlet in recent years.

Bill Callahan had the West Coast offense. Norv Turner brought in the trendy, high-powered Rams/Air Coryell approach. The results: a combined 13-35 record the past three seasons.

Just when owner Al Davis was about to reach into either the college coaching ranks or the NFL assistant circuit, he received one of his many phone calls from coaches agent Danny Moore. For years, Moore called Davis and others to sell the steady leadership of Art Shell, who still wasn't sure why Davis let him go with a 56-41 record from 1989-94.

Since then, Davis had hired five different head coaches. Only one, Jon Gruden, registered an overall winning mark. Systems recycle in the NFL, and if you wait long enough, old-school systems can become new-school again. Davis consented to a Shell interview, and the two came to a conclusion -- believing in a system or a concept is better than the imagination put behind it.

"You still have to believe in what you believe in," Shell said. "What we believe in has been here for years."

Old school is new school at Raiders camp. Shell is re-educating a new generation of Raiders about "Commitment to Excellence" and the "Greatness of the Raiders." His approach is old-school. Gone is the West Coast offense and its progressions, replaced by the return to the "Vertical Stretch." After seven seasons of the restrictions of the West Coast offense, quarterback Aaron Brooks loves the freedom Shell gives him in an offense that allows him to go against script and throw to Randy Moss or Jerry Porter if they get open ahead of the progressions.

Shell is taking the Raiders back to their roots. He's stressing playmaking instead of play scheming. Sure, the playbook is just as thick as any other NFL team's. What changed is that the Raiders will forgo the trickery for simple execution. Shell, a Pro Football Hall of Fame blocker, is reaching back into his Raiders past to rekindle a lost concept. He wants players believing in themselves and believing in the Raiders.

"I believe that all the players want the same thing; they want direction," Shell said. "They want to know they are going in a certain direction. That's what I believe in. Players want to be held accountable. If you give them that, you have a chance."

It helps that Shell is a Raiders legend and a winner. As a former player, he speaks in a voice that players respect. His messages are clear. Tired of the endless false starts and offsides penalties, Shell installed an automatic rule. Mental mistakes such as offsides force a player to run after practice. A dozen Raiders lapped the practice field Tuesday morning for their mental blunders. Players yelled and laughed at the first site of an infraction, assigning accountability for mistakes. It was fun to watch.

"We made too many mistakes last year," said defensive end Derrick Burgess, who played for three years in Philadelphia before joining the Raiders last season. "He wants to eliminate the penalties and be mentally strong. The key is winning, and in Philadelphia, the Eagles played team football. That was the biggest thing. You have to go out there and count on the offense and they have to know, they could count on us on defense. For an offsides in practice, it's a 100-yard run. With this heat, you are going to pay attention."

Raiders camp under Shell will be hard. The Raiders have more double sessions than virtually any team in the league. The plan is for more padded practices. Shell isn't trying to punish his players or wear them out, but he's trying to make a point.

"When you get the pads on, I am looking for people who are willing to attack, make contact and do it on a consistent basis," Shell said. "We want to be a tough football team, and part of that is making physical contact."

The Rams went old school in the late 1990s when they talked Dick Vermeil out of retirement. His 2½-3-hour practices provoked near-mutiny, even though Vermeil weeded out many malcontents in his first season. Vermeil adjusted only slightly, but the team jelled and eventually won a Super Bowl. Joe Gibbs brought back the hard-work ethic to practice, and now the Redskins are back in the Super Bowl hunt.

"He's bringing back discipline, and I think it's needed," wide receiver Ronald Curry said. "If you're winning and everything is good, you don't worry about it. But we haven't been winning, and a lot of bad has been coming out of it."

The interesting sidebar to the Shell story is how secure he is in the organization. Forgotten and neglected for a dozen years, Shell is expected to run the football operation once he decides to retire the coaching whistle. Those who don't answer to Shell as a coach could eventually face him as the personnel man in the organization years from now. Players have to respond if they want to remain Raiders.

"He told us, 'If a problem gets to me, it's going to be all bad, and you don't want to find out what I will do because nothing good is going to come of it,'" Curry said.

Shell's imprint on this team -- in terms of personnel and technique -- was visible during his first practices. Third-round choice Paul McQuistan, a massive 6-foot-6, 315-pound mauler of a guard with red hair, emerged from the offseason as the starting right guard. Speedy linebacker Thomas Howard, the second-round choice, is the starting weakside linebacker. First-rounder Michael Huff is penciled into the starting lineup at safety once he completes the paperwork on his new contract.

"When I studied the team from last year, I was looking at the talent, and I was trying to figure out what kind of talent we had on this team," Shell said. "Based on what I saw, I saw that we had enough talent that we could build upon, and if we teach them what we want to teach them, then we could have a chance to be successful. Finishing games is something that has been taught to me for years. You've got to preach that."

For whatever reason, Raiders players didn't believe. As one player noted, figuratively, the Raiders didn't leave the team bus in about five games last year. They were finished before kickoff. Shell played on teams that had amazing comebacks and knew how to close out games strongly. He had similar success as a head coach. Old-school Raiders believed. They believed under Gruden, too.

"Consistent is the word I'll use for him," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said of Shell. "He has certain things he wants us to do, and he harps on them every day. That's the sign of a good man as I understand them from my days of being in the league. If you don't harp on the things you want done day in and day out, you won't do them. Somebody once told me in this game that you become what you do repeatedly. If you repeatedly go over the good things and correct your mistakes, you become a good football team."

Shell established his authority early. Shell blew up at Porter this offseason and kicked him out of the office. The story wasn't supposed to go public, but Shell's tirade was so loud those in other offices heard his lecture.

"That's part of the business," Shell said. "You are going to have some differences of opinion. You don't have time to stay with those differences. You move forward. I've got a whole football team to be concerned about. Our football team is looking forward to having success."

Four of the five starters on the offensive line are 27 or younger.

"If we do well, you guys will say we are young and athletic, but if we suck, you guys will say we are young and inexperienced," tackle Langston Walker said.

The defense has a young look to it, too, with two rookie starters, and a younger, faster linebacking corps. Shell isn't afraid to test the youth to see what he has.

Shell believes.

"I want to get this organization back to where it belongs," Shell said. "The Raiders organization is great for football. This team deserves to win. The owner deserves to win. He's a football man, and he loves the game. This organization deserves to be up there."

Al Davis learned something. Systems are great and can be updated. But football is a game of players making plays. Shell's hiring brought the Raiders back to its roots. Though there is no guarantee of immediate success, Shell is restoring the faith. He's bringing back the commitment. In time, he plans to bring back the excellence.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.