He's a first-time coach, as well as the youngest in league history. Which makes him the youngest coach to ever get his first head coaching assignment in the professional ranks. To distill the last four sentences, Kiffin was up against it in 2007.
But he certainly deserves to be critiqued.
In the NFL, the talent level from the worst team to the best is not as great as it appears. Execution, playing as a unit, attention to detail, gameplanning, and heart are some of the main factors that make the Patriots so much better in the win-loss column than the Dolphins, and all those elements can be managed by the coaching staff. So, turning the Raiders into, say, a playoff team in one season wasn't an impossibility, although it was pretty improbable.
Kiffin didn't do that, but did he do enough? Is there reason for hope in the Raiders' near future?
Well, first, what were the expectations?
Al Davis probably wanted to reach the Super Bowl. But we Raiders fans, for the most part, were realistic. Reaching the playoffs seemed far-fetched, but we like competitive games and for the majority of the season, that's what we got. Even the 38-7 road loss to the Packers was a 14-7 game at halftime. And the Raiders were beating the defending Super Bowl champion Colts with five minutes remaining, while also playing tight games against most of the decent teams they faced, beating the Browns, losing to the division champion Chargers twice by a respectable amount of a combined four scores, and staying within a touchdown of both Minnesota and Tennessee. In all, the Raiders lost six games by a touchdown or less.
Last year, Oakland lost four games by 20 or more points, was shut out three times, scored in the single digits seven times, and held to 14 or less 12 times. This season, the Raiders lost two games by 20 or more, weren't shut out, scored in the single digits three times, and held to 14 or less seven times.
Not overwhelming improvement overall, but Kiffin did raise the running game from the dead, bringing the Raiders from being 30th ranked last year to sixth this season. Overall, though, the Raiders went from 32 to just 25 on offense, not a colossal gain. And, of course, the defense was a major disappointment. With 11 starters back from the third-best defense in the NFL (yards-per-game-against average) in 2006, the Raiders slipped to 22nd, which is presumably why coordinator Rob Ryan may still lose his job.
The best defense of Kiffin can be found in the play at quarterback. Not because the four of them played well; certainly, none of them played well for more than a few minutes at a time. It's because he used three passers who were new to the Raiders and his system, and yet still managed to establish a running game and make improvements. Two of them, Josh McCown and Daunte Culpepper, couldn't stay healthy or consistent, and JaMarcus Russell was simply not ready to take over.
Kiffin played to the Raiders' strength, or more accurately, away from their most glaring weakness, and found a running attack, the best in years (even in the Super Bowl season of 2002, Oakland was only 18th in the league on the ground, and Norv Turner, despite his well-known run-first style, couldn't get the team higher than 16th in his two seasons). The Silver & Black actually finished with more rushing yards than the LaDainian Tomlinson-led Chargers in 2007.
A lot needs to be addressed this off-season, such as tough decisions involving key personnel, what to target in the draft, etc. But somehow Kiffin needs to inculcate an attitude of winning.
What makes the Raiders wilt late in the game? Is winning a mindset? Kiffin admitted that turning around the Raiders and their affinity to let games slip out of their grasp was tougher than he had imagined. Figuring out what to do about that problem is probably more important than the process of reviewing — and replacing — personnel.
Is it fair to assess JaMarcus Russell after just one abbreviated NFL season?
Remember, he came out as an underclassman, missed countless valuable reps by sitting out training camp, and came to a team with myriad offensive challenges. But still, he certainly needs to be evaluated.
Kiffin wisely didn't throw him out there from the beginning to flounder, instead giving him a limited playbook and selective playing time. Russell's decisions were questionable, as Kiffin acknowledged, despite a "safe" gameplan, but he didn't show anything to indicate that he's not the franchise quarterback.
He's huge and strong, has a rocket arm, and can throw on the run. We didn't learn anything either way beyond that, and we already knew it anyway. But it's guaranteed that the long and laborious learning process will continue next year, when he'll be the full-time starter.