Lane Kiffin has learned the secret of success for a Raiders coach: Showing that you can challenge Al Davis.
Davis has always had an overwhelming presence, but he also has respected coaches who challenge him.
John Madden did it by scrapping the Davis offense to play smash-mouth football in the ’70s. Talking within Raiders headquarters, Davis threatened to fire Madden, but he did not. Madden’s 1976 team was the first Raiders Super Bowl champion — and Madden is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
More recently, Jon Gruden clashed repeatedly with Davis on players, and reportedly, the F-word dominated their conversations. But Gruden got Davis to get rid of the underproducing players that filled the roster. Most importantly, he got Davis to let Jeff George go and sign Rich Gannon. Gruden built the team that got to the Super Bowl the year after he left, and the Raiders have the worst record in the NFL since Gruden’s new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, beat them badly in the Jan. 26, 2003, Super Bowl.
When players know a coach is challenging Davis, they respect him and play for him. When a coach doesn’t do that, they don’t respect him and won’t play for him. The worst example since the Raiders returned to Oakland is Joe Bugel, who did everything but get behind Davis and pucker up at the press conference announcing his elevation from offensive line coach. Some players were so disturbed by that, they called beat writers to express their anger and amazement.And, of course, they laid down big-time in a 4-12 season that got Bugel fired.
None of the coaches who have come between Gruden and Kiffin have had the players respect, for differing reasons. Gannon and Bill Romanski provided the veteran leadership that drove the team in the 2002 season, but when Gannon suffered a career-ending injury the next season, Bill Callahan’s shortcomings became obvious in a 4-12 season that started the five-year slide.
When Kiffin came in last year, he tried to play nice with Davis. Though he didn’t want JaMarcus Russell (he preferred Calvin Johnson), he pretended to be on board with that pick. Nor did he criticize the snail’s pace of the negotiations to sign Russell, whose late signing meant his rookie season was a washout.
But when Davis tried get him to sign a letter of resignation in the offseason, Kiffin realized he had to make a stand. He’s been a different person, criticizing the decisions that left the Raiders short at defensive back, for instance, and saying the roster wasn’t as good as it should be. Those decisions were, of course, made by Davis.
He has been critical of players in camp, too, much more than last year. Javon Walker was a big free-agent signing, but Gruden has pointed out Walker’s sloppy practice work. (He also praised Walker when he finally started working hard.)
The Raiders have some obvious problems, a lack of depth in the defensive backfield, a porous run defense, an offensive line that blocks well for the run but can’t pass protect. But Kiffin seems to have changed the team’s attitude — because the players now respect him. Wherever he goes from here — my guess is still that he’ll go back to college — he’s earned respect from everybody because he’s finally stood up to Al Davis.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.