A tale of two seasons

The Oakland Raiders entered the year with high hopes but at midseason have proven to be a disappointment. The Denver Broncos, meanwhile, are tied atop the AFC West and it is how they scripted it.

Art Shell is halfway through what he hoped would be a triumphant return to the sidelines for the Raiders, and it's going nothing like he hoped it would.

His offense is a running (and passing) joke, a punch-line for pundits and armchair coordinators everywhere who are aghast at the archaic schemes cooked up by former Swan Valley, Idaho mayor and bed and breakfast proprietor, Tom Walsh.

The Raiders have got a pretty fair defense, stretched to its breaking point at times by an offense which can't keep the ball for long stretches of time, and the special teams have been better than average in all but two games.

But the offense, ranked 32nd in the NFL and with six offensive touchdowns in eight games, is one of the worst in franchise history and was reconstructed with Shell's vision. He's not giving up, of course, but concedes he thought it wouldn't go quite like this.

"I expected better, but then I'm an eternal optimist," Shell said. "I believe wholeheartedly in the people we have and I didn't expect to be sitting here at 2-6. I expected to be a much more competitive football team. But one thing these guys have done is to keep buckling up and going to work."

Away from head coaching since 1994 and an NFL administrator the past few years, Shell could be forgiven for wondering what he got himself into.

"When I came back I knew this thing wasn't going to be easy," Shell said. "I had a nice, comfortable job in the league office, wore a tie every day. It was nice. But this team, this organization needs something that I felt I could give it. I still believe I can do that and I'm going to work toward that end."

Shell still believes the Raiders can be restored to their luster of the 1970s, when he was a perennial Pro Bowl left tackle.

"When I leave coaching, I want this thing to be set up in such a way to be competing every year for the playoffs and the championship," Shell said. "I want to get it back to where it belongs. It's a long road, but we've got to keep climbing, we've got to keep working."

Shell faces two issues that could split the team in the second half of the season, and both have to do with an offense that has given up 44 sacks and scored three points in 12 quarters of football in prime time television.

Offensive players are beginning to question the play-calling and acumen of Walsh, Shell's hand-picked choice for offensive coordinator.

"I don't want to seem like I'm coming down hard on the offensive coordinator," running back LaMont Jordan said. "I'm just saying he's also responsible for the lack of points and the lack of consistency we have on offense."

Running back Justin Fargas questioned the direction of the offense against Seattle and wondered why the Raiders abandoned the run. Oakland had just four first-half rushes, and one was a kneel-down by quarterback Andrew Walter.

The second problem has to do with an overworked defense that has to be wondering when the offense will hold up its end. Warren Sapp has been fairly blunt in this regard without being cutting or overly sarcastic with regard to the play of the offense.

While the NFL has seen three offensive coordinators fired this season -- Jim Fassel of Baltimore, Keith Rowen of Arizona and Maurice Carthon of Cleveland -- Shell is publicly backing Walsh.

"There's so much involved that people can't see or understand as to why this offense doesn't work," Shell said. "But Tom will never complain about anybody. He will never complain about players. People talk about the depth of the quarterback drops. It's amazing. We watch film of other teams and we see some of the routes that we're running against teams that we just played and those teams come behind us and play those teams, and they're running the same routes we just ran against them.

"We're doing some things right. It's not all wrong. We're running five-step drops, just like everyone in the league. We run three-step drops, just like everyone in the league, and like everybody else, we run a few seven-step drops. That hasn't changed."

Shell said the players' criticisms don't bother him unless they create a real problem.

"Throughout history that has not changed," Shell said. "You're going to have players saying that guys who need to take a look in the mirror and make sure they're doing what they're supposed to do. If it becomes a problem, I'll address it. But one player here, another there, that doesn't bother me."

As for Oakland's defense getting restless about the lack of offensive production, Shell said he feels confident about the makeup of the locker room.

"The offense would be the first ones to tell you how bad they feel, I've heard it in the locker room," Shell said. "But when they share that with the defense, the defense says, 'We're a team. You guys will get this thing going.' The teamwork is there. We've just got to get better on offense."


Things could be better for the Denver Broncos. They'll regret not finishing off the Indianapolis Colts for a while, especially when playoff seeds are given out.

But halfway into the season, the Broncos are pleased at where they stand. Denver is 6-2, the same record as last year, and are tied for first place in the AFC West heading into Sunday's game against Oakland.

"I feel like we have done some good things in the first half of the season," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said.

The Broncos' first loss was a strange season-opening defeat at St. Louis in which Denver turned the ball over five times and gave up six field goals in an 18-10 loss. Then came the final-second loss to Indianapolis two weeks ago.

Denver also picked up some wins that could be big later in the year. The division leaders in the East and North are New England and Baltimore. Both are 6-2, and both were defeated by the Broncos. The Broncos would have the tiebreaker over either team when byes are handed out.

That won't matter if the Broncos can't hold off San Diego in the West. The first meeting between the teams, on Nov. 19, was moved to "Sunday Night Football." The second meeting is in San Diego on Dec. 10. Denver beat San Diego twice last season.

For now, Shanahan hasn't done much scoreboard watching to keep tabs of where his team fits in the AFC race.

"The only time that I really look at it is Week 14, 15, and 16 because you know what you have to do and you know where you are at," Shanahan said. "At this time of the year you have got to just keep on winning and everything will take care of itself."

Denver's outlook would have looked different had it lost last week. The Broncos, coming off that deflating loss at Indianapolis, went to Pittsburgh and forced six turnovers in a 31-20 win. Make no mistake, the difference between 6-2 and 5-3 for the Broncos was enormous.

"It's huge for us," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "To lose a game like we lost last week and then come into a hostile environment like (Pittsburgh) and get a win, it's big."

The Broncos aren't fooling themselves into thinking it was a perfect first half of the season. The offense struggled for six weeks, not scoring more than 17 points. That was fine because the defense allowed only two touchdowns. Denver's offense snapped out of its slump the last two weeks, scoring 31 points against Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, but the defense took a step back. The Broncos allowed 936 yards and 54 points in those two games, although they did enough against Pittsburgh to pull out the win.

The Broncos also will have to fight through many injuries to start the second half of the season. Six starters on defense are listed as questionable on the injury report. Another concern is letting up against a 2-6 Raiders team the Broncos already beat once this year.

"We are on to the second half and we have the Raiders and our football team is smart enough to know that you have to be ready," Shanahan said.

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