In a team meeting
at the Oakland Raiders' training camp a couple of weeks ago, coach Lane Kiffin
turned down the lights and showed a grainy piece of nighttime footage on the
big screen. The clip opened with a shot panning five cars, their headlights
dimly illuminating the team's summer practice field in Napa, Calif. The camera
then shifted to two 300-pound men in shorts and T-shirts, doing football drills
in the shadows. What, the players wondered, could this nonsense be? ¶ Kiffin
explained in full afterward: Two offensive linemen had been scheduled to arrive
in Napa for tryouts earlier in the day, but their flights had been delayed, and
they didn't get to the hotel until late in the evening. Because the Raiders
were short a body on the O-line, they needed to sign one of the two prospects
before practice the next morning. Kiffin and offensive line coach Tom Cable
told the players upon their arrival, "We're going to work you out."
Now, they meant.
At 11:15 p.m.
Because it takes
more than a half hour for the lights on the field to reach full power--time
Kiffin didn't have--he lined up the cars so that the coaches could see the
players run through their paces. And when the workout was over, at around
11:30, Oakland agreed to terms with one of the night owls, center Jesse Boone,
who played in NFL Europa this spring. Nine hours later he was back on the
practice field with his new team.
movie Invincible?" says veteran cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. "The scene
in there of guys playing on the sandlot at night, with the cars lighting the
field? When Coach showed us that [clip], it left an impression."
Kiffin has left a
lot of impressions. Until camp opened, he was just the latest strange hire by
owner Al Davis, having left USC, where he was offensive coordinator under Pete
Carroll, to become the youngest head coach in modern history. As a 32-year-old
first-time boss under the domineering Davis, Kiffin could easily end up
overseeing a debacle in Oakland like Joe Bugel (4-12 in 1997), Norv Turner
(9-23 in 2004 and '05) and Art Shell (2-14 in '06) did. But based on his
performance in camp this summer, it's hard not to think Kiffin, who looks as if
he started shaving two weeks ago, has a chance to be something special.
He has a chance,
too, because Davis is giving him a chance. That's what a league-worst 15-49
record over the last four years--and one of the most anemic offensive seasons
ever, a 12-touchdown, 46-turnover nightmare in 2006--will do to the owner of a
three-time Super Bowl-winning franchise. After being hired last January, Kiffin
wanted to overhaul the staff and replace some Raiders lifers, like receivers
coach Fred Biletnikoff. Davis said yes. Twelve assistants were out, 14 new ones
were in, and the average age of the Oakland coaches dropped from 48.7 years to
42.2. Of the 87 players in camp last week, 43 weren't on the team the day
Kiffin was hired, with several longtime favorites axed by the new regime.
"There are no more scholarship players here," Kiffin says.
There hasn't been
this kind of energy around the franchise since February 2002, when another
young, blond, precocious and loud coach--Jon Gruden--left Oakland.
Hey, let's go to
work, Doug!" Kiffin, in a long-sleeve white T-shirt and white cap, takes a
football, twirls it, then whizzes a pass at receiver Doug Gabriel's feet during
the prepractice stretch. He fires another through the hands of startled safety
Hiram Eugene, then throws a behind-the-back pass to cornerback Chris Carr. And
look out, quarterback Andrew Walter--pffft!--here comes a line drive right at
"This is gonna
be a good day!" Kiffin yells as the stretch ends, and he begins to jog
downfield for punt-team work. He's not profane or sarcastic like Gruden, but
the look, the volume, the energy all scream Chucky Jr. "Sounds just
like him," says left tackle Barry Sims, a Raider for three of Gruden's four
seasons in Oakland. "Sometimes I have flashbacks."
But while Gruden
was all offense, Kiffin dips into special teams and defensive drills. He
learned the defensive side of the ball from hanging around his father, Monte, a
25th-year NFL assistant and now Gruden's defensive coordinator in Tampa Bay.
And in six years under Carroll he learned that the head coach has to inject
himself into every aspect of the team. Many of the Raiders assistants are NFL
rookies with no significant ties to Kiffin, and while he gives them the freedom
to coach, they feel his presence. He wanted coaches who were willing to teach
and had the courage of their convictions; coaches who were hungry and had
something to prove. Like offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, 44, blistered in the
middle of a game by Terrell Owens during his time in San Francisco and
deemed a failure in Atlanta when Michael Vick's development stalled. Like
receivers coach Charles Coe, 55, whose last job was head coach at
Division I-AA Alabama State.