Those crossed swords on the Raiders’ helmets have been more than just a team logo in recent years.
They’ve been symbolic of the intrasquad turmoil that has probably been enough to take an extremely talented team out of title contention.
Shouting matches between players and coaches on the sideline were the overt manifestations of the problems, while covert conflicts left some staff members fearing that those swords were about to be plunged into their backs.
This combative atmosphere was enough to lead to the firing of coach Art Shell, despite a decent-enough 9-7 record last year.
And now, in a near-miraculous transformation, the Raiders somehow have evolved from the Manson Family into the Brady Bunch.
“This is a very, very happy team,” said receiver Tim Brown, one of those who felt that Shell was art-less in his coaching. “I’m much happier than any time in my career in the league, except maybe my rookie year when I was young and naive.
“We always felt if we could go out and play as one, we could win games, but we always seemed to be fighting one another.”
The main problem?
“It was definitely a lack of respect the players had for the coaches,” Brown said. “Consequently, players were unwilling to listen to them. Things are different now.”
Thanks goes to head coach Mike White and a veteran staff that includes highly regarded assistants Joe Bugel and Floyd Peters, who lead the Raiders against the visiting Seattle Seahawks today.
“All that’s happened is in the past now and we’re just looking forward,” Brown said. “Mike White brought in a totally different offense.”
And early returns show that it is an offense that works, as the Raiders stand at 4-1 and have erupted for 48 points (vs. Philadelphia) and 47 points (against the Jets) in their last two games.
And it is one that runs counter to the historic preferences of omnipotent owner Al Davis.
“His reputation is to have them run deep for some long ones,” White said. “But when I took this job, I said I would create an offense based on the talents of the people we had. All we’ve done is assess the talent we have, especially at the quarterback position, and then try to create an offense that gives him a chance to be successful.”
That would be Jeff Hostetler, whose completion percentage has leaped from 57 to 65 and whose quarterback rating is up from 81 to 95.4.
“Jeff is calling over 50 percent of our plays, which has not been his role in the past,” White said. “He’s really taken an active interest in it and it’s made him a much better quarterback.”
Instead of simply sending Brown, Rocket Ismail or James Jett deep every series, Hostetler is spreading the wealth on short and medium routes.
“We’re completing balls to seven, eight, nine guys every week and that makes it tough for people to concentrate on any one guy,” Brown said. “You have guys who would rather get the ball in the 7- to 15-yard area and make people miss and turn it into a 20-yard gainer than trying to just go out and catch 20-yard routes all the time.”
Mike Shanahan came in and tried to run an offense of his own design in the late ‘80s and barely made it into his second season because of conflicts with Davis.
Thus far, White has kept it cozy with Davis.
“The one thing that I said to myself when this opportunity came along - and this is not a paid political announcement - was that I’m working for the most knowledgeable owner in pro sports. He’s also a strong-minded guy who spends 24 hours a day on his investment. My No. 1 objective was to earn his trust and earn his respect.
“So I knew that my relationship with Al would be critical, and right now, everything is fine,” White said. “But, as I say, you better not relax because this is a day-to-day business.”
The Raiders have improved in so many ways, though, that Davis’ tinkering has to be limited.
Their running game is second in the NFL, while the offense is rated fourth. And their plus-seven stat in turnovers/takeaways is third in the league.
The most unexpected reversal, though, is that the Raiders have been penalized less than their opponents this season.
Traditionally the league pace-setter in drawing flags, the Raiders have become far less flagrant.
“When you start new in a program, you have to assess the things that have to change,” White said. “Our penalty statistics were so bad that it was one of the first things we put emphasis on.
“We didn’t just give it lip service; we had officials at all practices and we did an extensive study and put together a film of people making the mistakes. We put them in two categories: aggressive penalties and ignorant penalties. We found we had way too many in that second group.”
White has hired two former NFL officials to work the Raiders practices during the week, “which has been a big, big help to us.”
Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson sees several problems that have to be overcome if the 2-2 Hawks are to pull off the upset.
Aside from the speedy receivers, which he will attempt to contain with deep zone coverage, Erickson worries about the Raiders’ defensive line.
“I haven’t seen a defensive front with depth like theirs, with Chester McGlockton, Jerry Ball and those good defensive ends,” Erickson said. “It’s pretty obvious how good they are with the number of sacks and hurries they’ve had. The Eagles and the Jets couldn’t even get the ball off against them.”
Another problem will be the boisterous crowd, which is still elated about the team’s return to Oakland.
“Ninety percent of the (snaps) will be on silent counts,” Erickson said. “Everything we audibilize will be with hand signals. You’ve got to simplify things a bit. But, hopefully, that’s something they’ll have to work around when they come to Seattle.” , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: HAWKS VS. RAIDERS The game: 1 p.m. Oakland-Alameda County Stadium. Coaches: Seattle - Dennis Erickson, 2-2, first season. Oakland - Mike White, 4-1, first season. The records: Seattle 2-2. Oakland 4-1. The series: Oakland leads 19-15. Last week: Seattle dumped Denver 27-10 in the Kingdome. The Raiders abused the New York Jets 47-10 on Sunday night. The line: Oakland by 10. On the air Television: NBC with Jim Lampley and Bob Golic. Radio: KXLY (920 AM) with Steve Thomas and Steve Raible.
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