Kiffin has Raiders headed in right direction

Lane Kiffin's legacy with the Raiders has yet to truly be defined, but if his first year is any indication, the NFL's youngest head coach is headed down the right path.

Despite finishing the season with just four wins, Kiffin succeeded in creating a new, positive mindset and bringing respect back to 1220 Harbor Bay Parkway while formulating a cohesiveness and unity in the locker room that had been noticeably absent in recent times.

But now comes the hard part for the 32-year-old Kiffin, taking what he accomplished in Year 1 and using it as a springboard to get the franchise back to the elite level.

It won't be easy.

The Raiders have a plethora of holes to plug on both sides of the ball, and while Oakland made considerable progress in several areas, the team still remains mediocre to inadequate in numerous other spots.

Still, you get the sense that if anyone is capable of fixing the mess, Kiffin stands as good a chance as any. Surely he's better qualified than Bill Callahan or Norv Turner were in their second seasons as the Raiders head coach. Both bottomed out and were subsequently fired after Year 2.

One of Kiffin's greatest achievement in 2007 was getting the players to buy into his program. After feuding with Art Shell for a year and suffering through the turbulent Callahan and Turner years, it would have been easy — and somewhat understandable — for the players to tune Kiffin out as the losses piled up.

Yet with the exception of two games — Green Bay and Jacksonville — the Raiders didn't give in, nor did they give up. It's not difficult to imagine that with a bounce or two here and there, Oakland could have easily been 8-8 or 9-7 because the players simply refused to go away quietly.

The bottom line, though, is that they didn't finish .500 or even close. The Raiders' 4-12 finish marked the fifth consecutive year the franchise had 11 or more losses, a fact that's certain to burn Al Davis to the core.

But lest we jump off the bandwagon before the cart is hitched to the horses, let's take a closer look at the job that Kiffin did.

He resurrected an offense that was simply putrid last season and turned the Raiders into one of the league's most dominant running teams despite having a trio of players start at tailback throughout the year.

Oakland also had to deal with what was almost a weekly revolving door at quarterback, a situation that forced Kiffin into a scramble mode because the anointed savior — rookie quarterback JaMarcus Russell — was playing catch-up with the playbook after sitting out all of training camp and the preseason.

Kiffin never seemed bothered by it all. He was the prototypical ‘Never let ‘em see you sweat' guy, a coach who refused to accept excuses from his players and himself and instead demanded that everyone, including himself, pay more attention to detail and work harder.

Yes, he made his fair share of mistakes along the way, as most rookie NFL coaches —and some veteran coaches — tend to do.

But whatever miscues Kiffin made along the way, the Raiders were more easily able to overcome them and move on than they had been in the past during the Callahan-Turner-Shell regimes.

One reason why: Kiffin's word was as good as gold in the locker room, and the players knew it.

When Kiffin opened training camp by proclaiming that no starting position was safe and that competition would be stressed everywhere, it would have been easy to overlook the comments as that of an eager, young, first-time head coach trying to say all the right things.

And while Kiffin is indeed an eager, young, first-time head coach, he wasn't merely talking out of the side of his neck. Just ask running back LaMont Jordan, safety Stuart Schweigert, cornerback Fabian Washington, linebacker Sam Williams, defensive tackle Terdell Sands and punt returner Johnnie Lee Higgins. All six started 2007 atop the depth chart at their respective positions but were replaced as the year went along.

When two of the six complained about their diminished roles, Kiffin didn't bat an eye. He pointed out players like Justin Fargas and complimented the veteran running back for working hard to earn increased playing time instead of venting to the media.

On the field, Kiffin was forced to take on a more conservative approach than he felt comfortable with. While the running game blossomed, the passing game kept jerking along with mixed results, which probably had to do more with the team's constant changing of quarterbacks than it did with the play-calling. None of the QBs — Josh McCown, Daunte Culpepper or JaMarcus Russell — had enough time with the starters to develop any kind of steady timing with the receivers, and it showed.

It's tough to blame Kiffin for the penalty problem, since it's been the same story around these parts for decades now, nor would it be fair to pin the defensive struggles on his back since coordinator Rob Ryan was pretty much given a free reign over things. But Kiffin is the head coach and that comes with the territory, too.

Kiffin also proved to be a quick learner. When Denver's Mike Shanahan pulled a fast one by calling a late timeout to erase a Sebastian Janikowski field goal, Kiffin tucked it into his bag of tricks and pulled it out the next week with equal success.

The Raiders also beat the Broncos and Chiefs late in the season after losing to both earlier in the year, in no small measure a credit to Oakland's coaching staff.

Any NFL person will tell you that it's a lot easier going from two wins to eight wins than it is going from eight wins to 10 wins. The Raiders doubled their victory total from a year ago and, with a little luck, could probably do the same thing in ‘08.

If they don't, the love fest with the new coach will likely end quickly. The NFL's theme song should be Janet Jackson's ditty ‘What Have You Done For Me Lately' because it's not about what someone has done in the past but what they're doing in the here and now. Mike Nolan took San Francisco from the bottom of the scrap heap and turned the 49ers into a pretty competitive club by the end of his second season. This year, San Francisco failed to follow up on the success and Nolan's job was in jeopardy.

Baltimore won a Super Bowl in 2001 and a franchise-record 13 games in 2006 under Brian Billick, but after the Ravens failed to make the playoffs this year, Billick was handed his walking papers.

For all that Kiffin and the Raiders accomplished this season, none of it will matter if the team doesn't take another equally significant step forward next year. And that's when we'll find out just good of a coach Kiffin is.

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