On Aug. 13, with the regular-season opener still four weeks away, Lane Kiffin was already in the hospital, suffering from the exhaustive effects of mononucleosis. Thus is the life of a Raiders coach.
Inheriting a 2-14 team that scored the fewest points in the NFL last season could be reason enough for discomfort, but add to that the holdout of No. 1overall pick JaMarcus Russell and the four-game suspension of running back Dominic Rhodes for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and you can understand why Kiffin, at 32 the youngest coach in Raiders history, may be beginning to wonder what he got himself into.
Still, despite the mess surrounding the organization, there are some reasons for optimism that Kiffin may be able to turn around this once-proud franchise, which hasn’t won more than five games since its 2002 Super Bowl season.
Kiffin, who earned his job based on his offensive exploits as an assistant coach at Southern Cal, will instead have to rely heavily on the leadership of a defensive unit that competed surprisingly well last season.
The Raiders ranked first in the NFL last season in fewest passing yards allowed per game (a slightly misleading statistic considering teams don’t pass when they are ahead early).
Overall, the Raiders ranked third in yards per game allowed and almost the entire unit returns, led by sack master Derrick Burgess and the resurgent Warren Sapp.
The defense may look strong for Oakland, but the Raiders’ offense is a dramatically different story. Unbelievably, the notoriously inconsistent Daunte Culpepper, who is almost surely a one-year quick fix for the Raiders while Russell gets acclimated, may be the most certain piece of Oakland’s offensive puzzle. That’s how bad the offense is.
Rhodes suspension won’t do anything to lessen the workload of incumbent running back LaMont Jordan, who underwhelmed last year with 434 yards and 3.8 yards per carry before sustaining a season-ending knee injury.
FIVE KEYS TO THE SEASON
1 So the plan just a few months ago was to have a big-armed, big-bodied quarterback work his way into the starting role and be the foundation of the Raiders for years to come. The first part of that equation still seems to be true, just not in the same form it was back when the Raiders selected JaMarcus Russell with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Instead, it appears Daunte Culpepper — cut in July by the Miami Dolphins — will be the one controlling the fate of the Silver and Black this year. While first thought to be a mentor for Russell, the No. 1 pick’s holdout probably means he will have little chance to prove himself in games. It will take Russell several weeks to learn what he missed in training camp.
2 Last year’s offensive line was so bad that it yielded an NFL-worst 72 sacks. That led to the league’s second-worst passing offense (151.2 yards per game) and the No. 29 rush offense (94.9 ypg). Much of the personnel is returning, with Robert Gallery moving from left tackle to left guard, so the Raiders have to feel the performance had to do with coaching. That is a strong indictment on Art Shell, Jackie Slater and Irv Eatman, all dominant linemen as players.
3 Addition by subtraction. That is what the Raiders are hoping happens following the draft-weekend trade of talented but troublesome receiver Randy Moss. Often pouting on the field and criticizing coaches and teammates off of it, Moss was never productive in his two years in Silver and Black.
4 The bright spot in the otherwise dreary 2006 was the defense. Led by sackmaster defensive end Derrick Burgess, resurgent defensive tackle Warren Sapp and star-in-the-making linebacker Kirk Morrison, the unit turned heads by finishing third in fewest yards allowed per game (284.8), including No. 1 against the pass (150.8). Adding safety Donovin Darius, linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski via free agency and defensive tackle Gerard Warren in a trade provides depth.
5 LaMont Jordan got beat up last year, mainly due to the Raiders’ porous line. After 1,025 yards in his first year as a starter in 2005, Jordan musteredjust 434 yards in the first six games before missing the rest of the season with a knee injury. Super Bowl hero Dominic Rhodes was signed to provide help, but has been suspended for the first four games after violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Rookie Michael Bush could be a big-time surprise. — Staff report
FIVE IMPACT PLAYERS
At one time, he was the dominant QB in the NFL. And to think the Raiders came this close to having Culpepper and Randy Moss together again. While he tries to rehab his career, Culpepper will also be important to the development of JaMarcus Russell.
POSITION: Defensive end
Since coming to the Raiders in 2005 from Philadelphia, Burgess has turned himself into one of the league’s elite pass rushers. The 2005 Pro Bowl pick has had 16 and 11 sacks the past two seasons after just 8½ in four years with the Ealges.
POSITION: Left guard
Hailed as a franchise left tackle after being selected with the No. 2 overall pick in 2004, Gallery has been a disappoint-ment. Blessed with the looks that make him a perfect Raider, Gallery shifts inside to guard in hopes of shoring up a leaky offensive line.
The former Cal star has become one of the better corners in the physical AFC West. After not having an interception in his first three seasons, he picked off eight last year, tying for second in the league. Ran one back for first career touchdown.
POSITION: Wide receiver
A versatile athlete who played football and basketball at North Carolina, Curry has shown dynamic skills — when he has stayed healthy. Curry has battled back from Achilles’ tendon injuries in 2004 and ’05 and can be a difference maker.
ON THE HOT SEAT: JERRY PORTER
Showing up on the first day of training camp with a championship belt strapped around his waist wasn’t exactly the way to endear himself to an old-school coach. Porter simply pressed the wrong buttons with Art Shell and lost the battle. The receiver ended up missing games and being suspended due to his poor relationship with Shell. Now that Randy Moss is in New England, Porter is the clear-cut No. 1 receiver — and the leader of a potentially talented group that will be key to how the quarterbacks — proven or on the comeback trail — develop.
As the youngest coach in the NFL — not to mention under the owner who chews up coaches — Lane Kiffin, 32, will have many eyes upon him this season. Is he the next Jon Gruden as his Southern Cal background might suggest? Or is he the next Mike White? More importantly, will he get enough time to prove himself or will he clash with Al Davis?
Sept. 9: vs. Lions- 1:15 p.m.
Sept. 16: at Broncos- 1:15 p.m.
Sept. 23: vs. Browns- 1:05 p.m.
Sept. 30: at Dolphins- 10 a.m.
Oct. 7: Bye
Oct. 14: at Chargers- 1:15 p.m.
Oct. 21: vs. Chiefs- 1:05 p.m.
Oct. 28: at Titans- 10 a.m.
Nov. 4: vs. Texans- 1:15 p.m.
Nov. 11: vs. Bears- 1:15 p.m.
Nov. 18: at Vikings- 10 a.m.*
Nov. 25: at Chiefs- 10 a.m.*
Dec. 2: vs. Broncos- 1:05 p.m.*
Dec. 9: at Packers- 10 a.m.*
Dec. 16: vs. Colts- 1:05 p.m.*
Dec. 23: at Jaguars- 10 a.m.*
Dec. 30: vs. Chargers- 1:15 p.m.*
* Time subject to change due to flexible scheduling policy
HOW IT WILL END
3-13 It can’t get much worse than the offensive ineptitude of last year. With Kiffin seemingly having owner Al Davis’ support, the players will buy into the plan — just without the wins.
Will the Raiders pick No. 1 again next year?
Share your comments below.