Except for his puzzling delay in naming Daunte Culpepper his starting quarterback, Lane Kiffin gets high marks so far in his first year as Raiders coach.
A good coach is vital to a football team’s success because of the nature of the sport. Coaches can determine strategy on every play, which is not possible in baseball or basketball.
Some feared that Kiffin, because of his youth, would have problems gaining the respect of veteran players, but again, that’s a basic misunderstanding of the sport. A baseball manager has to gain the respect of his players, and that’s even more true for NBA coaches. Despite his collegiate success, Mike Montgomery never won over Warriors players. But in football, players are programmed to respect their coaches. Coaches can lose that respect, as Bill Callahan and Art Shell did, for different reasons, but it’s always there at the start.
The Raiders have had great success with coaches in their early 30s. I saw John Madden and Jon Gruden at the start of their careers, and even saw some of Al Davis. None of them had any trouble commanding respect. The players realized that all three coaches knew what they were doing.
And so does Kiffin. He has shown from the beginning, when he reorganized the coaching staff and brought in younger assistants, that he had a clear idea of what he wanted to do.
This Raiders team is much different from the league-wide joke of last season. The offensive line, under the tutelage of Tom Cable, is opening holes for the running backs and protecting the quarterback. There is an overall crispness to the team’s play. Kiffin says, "We should be 4-0," and that’s not too much of a reach because their losses came to Denver in overtime and Detroit, which may be the surprise team of the NFC, in the closing minutes.
But to continue the momentum of the first quarter of the season, Kiffin has to settle on Culpepper as his starting quarterback.
It was understandable when he went with Josh McCown in the season opener against the Detroit Lions. McCown knew the offense much better than Culpepper, who wasn’t signed until early in training camp, and he is a good fit for Kiffin’s offense, which is run best by a mobile quarterback, much as Gruden’s was.
McCown played well enough in the opener to win the game — it was the defense that failed the Raiders — so it was logical to keep him as the starter. But injuries have knocked him out of games and Culpepper has played well in relief, especially in the last win, over the sad-sack Dolphins.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Culpepper, when healthy, has been a standout NFL quarterback, a three-time Pro Bowler, and his surgically repaired knee seems sound now. McCown had failed to win the starting role in Arizona and Detroit before coming to the Raiders.
Nevertheless, Kiffin continues to spar with the media about naming his starter for the San Diego game, which comes up after this week’s bye. I hope he’s not naive enough to think that will upsetthe Chargers’ preparation.
That may work in college ball, but not the NFL.
Culpepper is the obvious choice. Kiffin needs to make it and put any potential controversy behind him, so the Raiders can continue their drive to respectability.