After Further Review: Looking at Lane … and beyond

Let’s see if this sounds familiar: Youthful outsider with reputation as offensive whiz takes over as head coach of struggling franchise amid grand pronouncements and great expectations, only to find himself at odds with owner and facing an employment equivalent of the Sword of Damocles hanging over him before his second year is out.

When Lane Kiffin became the youngest head coach in the history of the NFL at age 31, he may well not have been Raiders owner Al Davis’ first choice — that was rumored to be Southern Cal peer Steve Sarkisian. But, despite the owner infamously dubbing him “Lance” at the introductory news conference, many people had visions of Kiffin becoming Gruden 2.0.

A year and a half later, however, he’s starting to look more like Gruden Vista.

Or, dare I say it, Shanahan 2.0.

That’s what a 5-14 record will do, and despite clear strides from the dark 2006 season of Art Shell 2.0, Kiffin faces a near-daily deathwatch of media and fans waiting to see if he’ll get the chance to become a Jon Gruden, or a Mike Shanahan.

Gruden, like Kiffin, doubled the team’s win total in his first year, only to fall short of expectations in Year Two before taking the Raiders to the playoffs in years Three and Four. Shanahan, on the other hand, increased the team’s win total his first year, but never saw the end of Year Two, his first head coaching job ending with him becoming the first — and thus far, only — head coach fired by Davis in mid-season.

It would be easy to blame Kiffin’s struggles — which mostly center on his too-brutal honesty with the media — on immaturity or lack of experience, but the son of Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is hardly the first youthful chief the Raiders have employed.

Start with Davis himself, a head coach at age 34 in 1963. Then move on to John Rauch, a 37-year-old when he took over from Davis in 1966. John Madden, who succeeded Rauch, was 33 in his first year, 1969. Later in franchise history, Shanahan was 35 when he took over in 1988, and Gruden was 34 when he got the job in 1998.

And Kiffin’s blunt style, which could easily be described as aloof or abrasive by detractors, is hardly unique to the NFL. Such martinets and egotists as Bill Parcells, Jimmy Johnson and, most recently, Tom Coughlin have won Super Bowls.

In the end, if Kiffin indeed loses his job this season, it will be his inability to coexist with Davis — who reportedly said of Kiffin, “He’s not the guy I hired” — even more than his team’s inability to win games, that is to blame.

That may distinguish defensive coordinator Rob Ryan — who S&B Report sources say will become head coach if and when Kiffin gets the ax — from his boss.

For one thing, Ryan — whose profanity-laced tirade after Kiffin said Buddy’s son and Davis design the defensive game plan endeared him to fans and players alike — obviously is a Davis favorite. The owner interviewed Ryan for the head job before hiring Kiffin, and according to rumor repeated so often it is taken as fact, prevented Kiffin from dumping him after last season.

Second of all, Ryan is unquestionably loved by his players, despite the fact that the defensive unit he has run since 2004 has been consistent only in its lack of consistency.

A pessimist might recall Joe Bugel, who the players lobbied for before the 1997 season, only to write off as a puppet of the owner when he infamously brown-nosed the owner at his introductory news conference.

But an optimist might point out that, while Davis has hired only one defensive coach as head man in the 45 years he has run the team, that man, Madden, ended up in the Hall of Fame after a decade that included 112 wins and a Super Bowl ring.

Conventional wisdom also suggests bringing in a “players’ coach” after one not so beloved also gives a team the incentive to play harder and better — witness the tough, but popular, Shell’s taking over for Shanahan and leading a 1-3 team to a 7-5 record over the remainder of the season.

On the downside, the Raiders have tried to follow conventional wisdom since they’ve come back to Oakland — following the intellectual Mike White with the boisterous Bugel, then following him with the hard-charging Gruden and Bill Callahan, then trying the easygoing Norv Turner, followed by Shell, who had become “old school” with age, then the young and ambitious Kiffin — and that hasn’t worked out so well.

Plus, if running a defense is in the Ryan genes — witness Rob’s twin Rex in Baltimore — dad Buddy’s stint as a head man in Philadelphia doesn’t exactly suggest head coaching is a genetic strong suit, either.

An added bonus, on the other hand, might be that Ryan’s elevation could help Oakland retain highly regarded offensive coordinator Greg Knapp — who would finally get to call the plays — and even more highly regarded offensive line coach Tom Cable, plus popular running backs coach Tom Rathman, all of whom intend to join Seattle Seahawks heir apparent Jim Mora Jr.’s staff next year, according to S&B Report sources.

For now, however, fresh off a devastating last-second loss to the Buffalo Bills, Turner’s explosive San Diego Chargers coming to town next week, and the bye week following, Raiders fans apparently will have to continue playing “As the Team Turns” and reading headlines that basically offer no news:

“Lane Kiffin is still Raiders coach.”

There is certainly potential in that statement, even if Kiffin doesn’t really want to coach for Davis and Davis doesn’t really want Kiffin coaching for him.

But right now, the one-time boy wonder looks more like a Raiders head coach who never was — “Bernard” Petrino, who fled the NFL for the NCAA after less than a year in Atlanta — than a head coach who will equal even Gruden’s short four-year stint in charge.

Never mind Gruden’s results.

Raiders head coaches since the return to Oakland:
Mike White: 8-8 in 1995 and 7-9 in 1996
Joe Bugel: 4-12 in 1997
Jon Gruden: 8-8 in 1998, 8-8 in 1999, 12-4 in 2000 and 10-6 in 2001
Bill Callahan: 11-5 in 2002 and 4-12 in 2003
Norv Turner: 5-11 in 2004 and 4-12 in 2005
Art Shell: 2-14 in 2006
Lane Kiffin: 4-12 in 2007 and 1-2 thus far in 2008

Raiders 30-something coaches in their first two years:

Al Davis: 10-4 in 1963 and 5-7-2 in 1964
John Rauch: 8-5-1 in 1966 and 13-1 in 1967
John Madden: 12-1-1 in 1969 and 8-4-2 in 1970
Mike Shanahan: 7-9 in 1988 and 1-3 at time of dismissal in 1989
Jon Gruden: 8-8 in 1998 and 8-8 in 1999
Lane Kiffin: 4-12 in 2007 and 1-2 thus far in 2008

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Author: Eric Strauss

a columnist and editor for SBReport.net.

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