NFL's Best Offensive Linemen Duo:  Art Shell & Gene Upshaw

The Las Vegas Los Angeles and Oakland Raiders are proud to have the best offensive linemen duo in the history of the NFL in Gene Upshaw and Art Shell.
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Tackle Art Shell and guard Gene Upshaw of the Oakland Raiders were not joined at the hip. It only seemed that way.

Shell and Upshaw held down the left side of the Raiders line, which is considered by many to the best of all-time, for more than 10 seasons and were the driving force behind the Silver and Black’s first two Super Bowl victories.

“The Raiders had a great running team back then and Gene and Art were the reason for it,” said Joe Collier, former defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos and architect of “The Orange Crush” defense.

“You knew the play was going to that left side. All you had to do was stop it. But rarely could you stop it. In a critical part of the game, they were going right over Gene and Art and they’d always get the first down. We had some knock-out, drag-outs with Gene and Art over the years. They were great players.”

The 6-5, 260-pound Upshaw was drafted by the Raiders in the first round (No. 17 overall) out of Texas A&I (now known as Texas A&M-Kingsville) in 1967, and many people asked, “Who is Eugene Upshaw?”

They found out soon enough because he started at left guard as a rookie and became perhaps the best pulling guard in NFL history.

“Gene was a nightmare for us,” said Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller of the Minnesota Vikings. “He was a tough, rugged guy to play against. Gene was the pilot of that great offense. I hope people remember that.”

The 6-5, 270-pound Shell was drafted by the Raiders in the third round (No. 80 overall) out of Maryland State in 1968, and was installed next to Upshaw at left tackle, and there are those who believe he is the best ever to play that position.

“Art would kill you with kindness,” former Broncos and Raiders defensive lineman Lyle Alzado once said. “The first time we played, he smiled and said, ‘How are you doing, Lyle?’ I thought, ‘What the hell is this?’

“He proceeded to drive me off the ground, drop me on my back and run over me. Art was impossible to rattle. I’d talk about his mother, his sister, and his brothers. He ignored me. I hated Art Shell.”

Even though they were close friends, Shell and Upshaw had opposite personalities. Shell was the strong, silent type, while Upshaw always had something to say and quarterback Kenny Stabler often had to shut him up before calling plays in the huddle.

Shell and Upshaw impeccably protected the backsides of right-handed quarterbacks Daryle Lamonica, George Blanda, and Jim Plunkett, and were just as dominating while blocking for the left-handed Stabler.

And they were such powerful run blockers that Upshaw (No. 63) became known as Highway 63 and Shell (No. 78) as Highway 78 while blocking for running backs Clem Daniels, Marv Hubbard, Mark van Eeghen, Clarence Davis, Kenny King, and others.

“They basically ran to the left,” said Tony Dungy, now a TV analyst who played and coached in the NFL. “If they ran 30 running plays, 28 of them were going to be that way. It was hard to slow them down, let alone stop them.”

Upshaw was selected to the All-Pro team eight times, played in six Pro Bowls, and was chosen to the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team, the NFL 75-Year Anniversary Team, and the NFL 100-Year NFL Team.

Uppy elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.

“(The Raiders) have been classed as renegades, misfits, mavericks, but we all stick together out there, and we always will,” Upshaw said in his Hall of Fame speech. “We had some unique individuals.

“We have had a tradition with the Raiders that winning was the most important thing, winning is all that matters. As Al Davis says: ‘Just win, Baby.’”

Shell played in eight Pro Bowls, was selected to the All-Pro Team four times, and voted onto the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team and the NFL 100-Year Anniversary team. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989.

Both Upshaw and Shell played key roles as the Raiders beat the Minnesota Vikings, 32-14, in Super Bowl XI as Shell held Jim Marshall without a tackle or an assist. They again were starring roles as the Silver and Black defeated the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-10, in Super Bowl XV.

“We played in the Super Bowl when I was a rookie in 1967 and thought we would be back there every year,” Upshaw said of the Raiders’ 33-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl II. “But we kept losing in the playoffs and they said we couldn’t win the big one.

“But we finally beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1976 AFC Championship game and Joe Greene told me after the game that we wanted to play the Vikings and not the (Los Angeles) Rams in the Super Bowl. I wasn’t sure until I saw the Vikings on film.

“Joe was right. We just ran all over them.”

Upshaw and Shell played alongside center Jim Otto, tackle Bob Brown, and tight end Dave Casper, all Hall of Famers, during their Raiders careers, in addition, to guard George Buehler, tackle John Vella, tackle Henry Lawrence, guard Steve Sylvester, and other outstanding linemen.

“I would take that line and I think we’d be comparable to any group that’s ever played the game,” Shell said. “I’m not saying we were the best because that’s for others to say. But our group was pretty doggone good.

“We never thought about the Hall of Fame at that particular time. Looking back, that’s a pretty damn good group!”

When their playing careers were over, Shell and Upshaw weren’t through with the NFL. Shell coached for 20 years, including two stints as head coach of the Raiders, and had a 54-38 record until going 2-14 in his last season in 2006.

Upshaw became Executive Director of the NFL Players Association, a position he held at the time of his death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 63 in 2008.

But Shell and Upshaw will live forever in Raiders Lore.

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