Art Shell well understands the difficulties Gregg Williams faces as he takes over the Cleveland Browns as interim head coach for the rest of the season after the firing this week of both head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Shell faced the same hard road and worse in 1989.
That season the Hall of Fame tackle replaced Mike Shanahan with the Los Angeles Raiders struggling at 1-3. They had not had a winning season in four years and the team was in rebellion at Shanahan’s methods but Art settled the ship, becoming one of the few interim coaches to produce both short and long term coaching success.
Talk of Fame Network decided to visit with Shell this week to get his opinion on the difficulties Williams faces and how to handle them when it is likely he is leading a fractured staff with potentially split loyalties.
“He has to put that on the table,’’ Shell said. “He has to explain where he’s headed. He has to tell them he knows some guys may not like it but management has decided I’m the guy…and we’re working for one role. To make this football team better.
“All need to be on the same page. He has to broach that. He’s got to be blunt. Maybe use some colorful language. Then he’s got to watch every single situation to be sure they are doing what you want to be done. If there’s a problem, talk about it.’’
Shell faced one difficulty Williams won’t. He was not only replacing a coach who had brought in a majority of the staff but he was also becoming the first African-American head coach in the NFL in 65 years. Not since Fritz Pollard was a player-coach in 1925 had a black man led an NFL team.
Shell tells TOF how bluntly he addressed that, saying any man “who has a problem working for a black coach’’ should come to his office and they’d talk about it.
“I told them ‘If you want to leave, we’ll make it happen,’’ Shell tells Talk of Fame Network’s co-hosts Clark Judge, Ron Borges and Rick Gosselin.
Shell’s inherited team went 7-5 and missed the playoffs on the season’s final weekend. A year later, he led the Raiders to a 12-4 record, made the AFC Championship Game and was named Coach of the Year. Statistically that is not the way it normally goes for interim coaches.
As Gosselin points out in an essay on the show’s website, talkoffamenetwork.com, “Since 1960, the start of the game’s modern era, there have been 87 interim coaches in the NFL. Only 16 of them managed to win more games than they lost during their interim stints. Only two of the 87 took teams to the playoffs during those interim seasons.
“The most successful interim coach was the first one – Wally Lemm. After the Houston Oilers started 1-3-1 in 1961 in defense of their AFL championship, owner Bud Adams replaced Lou Rymkus with Lemm. The Oilers went 9-0 the rest of the way and added a 10th victory in the AFL title game with a 10-3 victory over the San Diego Chargers. Lemm remains the only interim coach ever to win a championship.’’
Shell didn’t quite manage what Lemm did and it is unlikely Williams will in Cleveland but Shell knows how he should start. To hear him tell it, just go to talkoffamenetwork.com and click on the helmet icon. Or you can download our free podcast at iTunes or on the TuneIn app. Or dial the show up on any SB Nation Network radio station Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. or listen to the weekend replay.
This week you’ll also hear from one of the best pure pass rushers of his era explain how times have changed.
Robert Mathis collected 123 career sacks in 13 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts including 19 ½ when he led the league in 2013. Teamed with Dwight Freeney on the opposite of the line, he was half of the most feared pass rush in football.
Mathis, who came into the NFL despite not being invited to the Combine, retired after the 2016 season. He presently serves as a Colts’ defensive assistant and pass rushing consultant. As Mathis tells Talk of Fame, coaching pass rushers today is far from what it was a decade ago.
“It’s very, very different,’’ admits Mathis, who’s modified “tomahawk chop’’ would likely draw a flag now if done with the enthusiasm Mathis used it.
“In today’s NFL most quarterbacks are bigger than the edge guys. In the coaching world the worst thing you can say is ‘I don’t know’ but when they ask me how they’re supposed to tackle (the quarterback without a penalty being called) I had to say, ‘I don’t know.’’’
Certainly he knew in his playing days when he and Freeney helped legitimize the undersized speed rusher as a dominant edge player. At 6-2, 245 pounds, Mathis didn’t fit the defensive end prototype when he came out of Alabama A&M. Despite the fact he set an NCAA Division 1-AA record his senior season with 20 sacks and 10 forced fumbles, most teams ignored the idea of a hybrid defensive end until the Colts’ grabbed him on the fifth round.
Soon after he was grabbing quarterbacks and didn’t stop until he retired 13 years later.
“I heard that ‘exception’ word all my career,’’ Mathis said. “I never understood it. Don’t judge by what I look like. Look what I do on film and judge me by what I do.’’
What Talk of Fame Network is doing this week is also taking a look at the Hall of Fame case to be made for former Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims. Sims had a brilliant start to his career in Detroit but injuries cut him down early. Might he be the latest Terrell Davis exception? Rick explores the possibility.
Ron argues that while it may not have been a bogus idea to fire Hue Jackson, if Cleveland thinks it’s going to make a difference this year it has another think coming.
There’s all that plus a look at where the NFL stands at the season’s halfway point and Tampa Bay-based Hall of Fame voter Ira Kaufman drops by to discuss who the most deserving Bucs not in the Hall of Fame are.
There’s that and much more this week and you can hear it all on SB Nation Radio or at our website, talkoffamenetwork.com.