Their last four opponents are Green Bay and Jacksonville on the road, Indianapolis and San Diego at home. All four are among the NFL’s elite, and it would be a serious upset if the Raiders won any of those games.
But that shouldn’t be dismaying because this was always going to be a season where the Raiders had to be content with making small steps of progress. The talent level isn’t high enough to expect a dramatic turnaround.
Kiffin’s goal has been to change the losing culture, the attitude of pointing fingers in the locker room after losses, and he’s done that. He’s taught his team how to finish games and win the games they should win. They ended an NFL-record 17-game losing streak to AFC West opponents with back-to-back wins over Kansas City and Denver, both mediocre teams but the type of teams the Raiders had been losing to. Indeed, they had lost to both teams already this season.
Kiffin has also learned on the job. He probably cost his team a win in the first Kansas City game when he passed up a field goal to try for a first down in a fourth-down situation in a game that seemed destined to be decided by a field goal. The Raiders didn’t get the first down, of course. He won’t make that mistake again.
Though we all wondered when — or if — he’d get his No. 1 overall pick, JaMarcus Russell, into a game, he handled it deftly on Sunday, giving him a few plays to run in the second quarter of a home game. Russell got a taste of the NFL and played as well as anybody could expect.
Meanwhile, Kiffin has had to juggle his veteran quarterbacks, Daunte Culpepper and Josh McCown, because of injuries; McCown had his best game as a Raider in the win over Denver. Significantly, there has been no sniping back and forth, nor did McCown complain when Russell took some plays against the Broncos.
There have been signs all year that this Raiders team is different. One is a seemingly small thing: They almost always have their timeouts left at the end of a half or game, so they can use them to stop the clock. The previous four years, the Raiders often wasted those timeouts early by not being able to get in plays in a timely fashion.
So while the final record may not reflect it, this is a much-improved team. It reminds me somewhat of Jon Gruden’s first year. Gruden’s first team went 8-8, just as the Raiders had done the year before, but he was building a foundation for the championship teams to come.
Kiffin can’t do that yet because he needs help from inside the organization. Gruden inherited a team with good talent but had to weed out the underachievers to change the attitude. Kiffin inherited a team that has many holes.
After the season, it will be up to owner Al Davis and the club’s personnel department to plan to get the players the team needs, but they know they have the right coach. Kiffin has changed the culture and given the Raiders a chance to win.