Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Kiffin won't mind missing this Circus

San Jose Mercury writer Tim Kawakami must be thankful that he gets to cover the Oakland Raiders as there is never a dull moment with this team. The Raiders, as we all know, have resembled the Yankees of the 1970s with constant feuds between ownership and coaches, coaches and coaches, and an atmosphere of just plain bizarreness. Kawakami got into the fray on September 22nd of this year when he and Raiders’ exec John Herrera got into a verbal argument following a press conference. The spat was over an article the Mercury writer recently published stating that someone in the Oakland front office disseminated an article posted on criticizing Raiders Head Coach Lane Kiffin to the media covering the team. Herrera refuted the story and said that Kawakami’s article was predicated on a lie. But this incident was just the tip of the iceberg. Meanwhile Kiffin was fired yesterday and had been on the hot seat almost since the time he came to Oakland from USC.

Despite being fired, his departure could be seen as a blessing in disguise–one could even wonder if Kiffin wasn’t trying to get out of Oakland ala Manny Ramirez when he let the clock run down to one second in the first half of their game against San Diego, and then trotted Sebastian Janikowski out there to attempt a 76 YARD FIELD GOAL–as the state of the Raiders does not appear to be improving any time soon.

Everyone knows that Al Davis goes through coaches like Brian Billick went through quarterbacks, but the mercurial owner had been relatively docile recently. Well, that all changed following yesterday’s press conference where he described Lane Kiffin as being immature and a con man.

During his dialogue with reporters, Davis took shots at former coaches Norv Turner, Mike Shanahan and Jon Gruden, accused the Patriots (Owner Bob Kraft and Head Coach Bill Belichick were both mentioned by name) of tampering with Randy Moss, stated that the two Super Bowls the Broncos won in the 1990s have an asterisk next to them because Denver cheated (referring to salary cap manipulation), and a statement that might be the best part of the entire thing, Davis criticized former team exec Mike Lombardi for bad mouthing former Head Coach Art Shell–something about a pot and a kettle.

Two questions surface immediately following Davis’ tirade. First, who in their right mind is going to want to go this organization and coach? Even before the Kiffin fiasco it was not a highly sought after job (which is in large part why a 31 year old, college position coach got the gig). Sure the Raiders have some good young talent, but there are some weird things that have transpired this season, most notably the relationship between Kiffin and his defensive coaches. It was rumored that Kiffin and the defensive coaches were not on speaking terms going back to the pre-season. This come about when Kiffin wanted coordinator Rob Ryan out and was possibly trying to make room for his father, Monte Kiffin, the coordinator for the Bucs, who happens to coach under former Raider head man Jon Gruden. One has to wonder whether if the defense’s 4th quarter collapses over the past two weeks (they gave up 10 points in the final 6:23 in a 24-23 loss to Buffalo, and then surrendered 25 in the fourth in a 28-18 loss to San Diego) were tank jobs by those defensive coaches, hoping that Kiffin’s offense would cough up the game before realizing if they wanted to run Kiffin out of town they needed to cough up some points in a hurry come the fourth quarter. Hard to believe that this shark pool will be enticing for potential coaches...unless of course potential coaches have no problem working for a franchise where there is the perception that both the front office and assistant coaches have no problems sabotaging the Head Coach. This is just speculation, but speculation that would not surprise most.

The next question is, are these comments emanating from a lucid person, or are was this the rambling of a 79 year old man who should no longer have direct influence over a team? One thing to paint Lane Kiffin as someone who disrespecting ownership in an attempt not pay him what is remaining on his contract, it’s another thing to take shots at a divisional foe who is on the rise and hammered you as well as beating the dead horse that is your problems with Mike Shanahan that stretch back almost 20 years. Is he losing his mind? Is he trying to deflect attention away from his dysfunctional team? Whatever his motives and whether he is lucid or senile, Davis’ comments both during and after the press conference are a clear indicator that Oakland is not about to change their recent history. (The Raiders have not made the playoffs since their Super Bowl loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers following the 2002 season, and just four times in the last 17 seasons, and Davis has gone through 8 coaches since the 1995 season.)

Both questions point to the same conclusion; the Oakland Raiders are perhaps the most unstable franchise in all of football because of the high turnover with both coaches and players, and the fact the only coaches who will accept the head job in Oakland are guys who have no other head coaching opportunities offered to them.

The firing of Kiffin, though expected, is a little surprising as the Raiders were showing signs of life under his direction. In 12 of Kiffin’s 20 games the Raiders held, at some point, a lead in the fourth quarter, 8 of which they lost. Couple this with the fact that 9 of his 15 losses were decided by a combined 52 points (5.77 points per), and you see that Kiffin had the Raiders playing competitively despite being one of the younger teams in the league. There were also rumors that Kiffin had support from guys in the locker room, and there is a belief amongst other NFL teams that the Raiders have talent as one head coach told San Francisco Gate reporter Nancy Gay that "...there are at least eight guys on that team (the Raiders) right now that I would start on my football team." It would appear that the Raiders were heading in the right direction, so why was Kiffin let go?

Kiffin’s undoing was of his own making for not fully understanding the environment he was in working for Al Davis. He would often dodge the media fire by putting the blame on Davis and Defensive Coordinator Bob Ryan, as he did following their thumping against the Broncos on a Monday Night game. Furthermore, Kiffin struggled to deal with Davis’ overbearing style of managing the team while also not being diplomatic during press conferences when it came to questions regarding his relationship with Davis, as Lowell Cohn points out. But, when it is all said and done, Lane Kiffin just was not an Al Davis coach, in part because he could not bring about immediate success.

While there certainly were reasons to fire Kiffin, there are more reasons to believe that the removal of Kiffin will not be the Raiders’ panacea. The same NFL coach who lauded the young talent in Oakland also stated that, "The problem is the way that franchise is run. Those players have no chance to be successful the way it is there." ‘The way it is there’ is a direct result of Al Davis and his managing style. Not only will Davis attract less qualified candidates for coaching positions, but his attitude will not give a coach enough time to implement his system and bring in the personnel necessary to play in that system (not to mention Al is still in love with the vertical game and has no qualms with making that fact known to his staff). This type of revolving door will also stunt the development of younger players, such as Jamarcus Russell, as they have to constantly learn a new system while simultaneously adapt the NFL. On top of that, you have to wonder how much trust there is amongst the coaching staff and players who realize that their first trip to the Davis dog house could be their only, and last visit.

Regardless, the Kiffin firing was going to happen one way or another, but rather than being a move that will right the ship, it is one that has probably set the Raiders back. No, Kiffin was not going to take the Raiders deep into the playoffs with the status quo this year, but perhaps had he been given another year he would have shown enough on the field that it would have prompted Davis to intercede in the Kiffin-Ryan feud–instead of allowing it to fester and boil over into the season as it did–and allowed the young Head Coach to give something to this team that it had not had for a while; stability. Now, with yet another shake up in the coaching ranks, and with young guys like Darren McFadden and Russell, Raider fans will have to live with the fact the nasty word ‘Potential’ being associated with their team until a change in management happens. Get ready folks, the Oakland Zoo can still be seen on TV for a few more months.

Milwaukee's Best Ice enjoys playing video games with the TV turned off and has no idea what an expos is, but is very thankful for Pedro Martinez.



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