This is the sixth installment in a seven-part series detailing every head coaching change made in the NFL this past offseason. Today’s edition focuses on the Oakland Raiders and new head coach Lane Kiffin.

When I did the second part of this little miniseries, I went on quite a bit about how I just couldn’t get excited about the Cam Cameron hiring in Miami; how everything about it suggested “middle of the road” to me. Not a bad hire, but not a real head-turner. In addition, not a really intriguing franchise situation – not so much blowing up a team and starting over, and also not taking over a team with apparent potential to be immediately competitive. As far as fresh starts go, it seemed pretty bland. Well, consider the Raiders’ hiring of Lane Kiffin the exact opposite. This one fascinates me. It could very well be one extreme or the other with this choice. Kiffin could flame out spectacularly – or perhaps his lack of age and experience (he’s only 32, comes fresh off being a college offensive coordinator, and has only had one season of NFL experience,as a low-level assistant) will mean he’s one of those guys who “doesn’t realize they’re supposed to fail,” just goes about his business, and gets the job done. I have no clue what to expect here, which is why I can’t wait to follow Lane Kiffin and the Raiders in 2007.

Kiffin was previously the offensive coordinator at USC for two years. There, he had a lot of success, with the Trojans coming off consecutive Rose Bowl appearances, including a 2007 win. Previously, they won a couple national titles with him as a position coach, so at the very least, you can’t say he hasn’t been successful. What you can say is that immediate promotion from a college coordinator to NFL head coach is exceedingly rare. Usualy, when an NFL team hires a head coach, they go for either a hotshot college head coach (Bobby Petrino, for one) or a hotshot NFL assistant (i.e. Mike Tomlin, tomorrow’s subject). Even Petrino had experience as a high-level NFL assistant, so the league isn’t too foreign to him. Kiffin has experience as an NFL assistant, too, only his experience consists of one season as a quality control assistant, and I’m not entirely sure that even a quality control assistant really knows what a quality control assistant does. The guy is essentially a wide-eyed n00b when it comes to head coaching, especially at the game’s highest level. Can someone like that really succeed?

The good news for Kiffin is: he can’t fail more miserably than the last guy. Art Shell was brought back when the Raiders couldn’t hire anyone else, and quickly showed the form that had him so far down their potential coach list. The team went 2-14, the worst record in the league last year. Shell is a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, but that group was possibly the weakest area of the entire team. His offensive coordinator, Tom Walsh, who was let go in the middle of the season, had most recently been serving as mayor of a small town in Idaho, and ran a bed and breakfast there. (This is actually true.) As a result of the disastrous year, Shell was unceremoniously dumped and Kiffin was brought in. After last season, and with a real coaching staff in place, he has almost nowhere to go but up.

One reason for this is that the Raiders’ defense is actually pretty good. They allowed the third-fewest yards in the league last year, suggesting if the offense had been anywhere near competent, the team would have been decent. Another is the draft. Oakland had a good one, picking up a ton of players (which is good because this team needs a lot of players). In addition to getting rid of Randy Moss, who hadn’t done anything for them, they got potential franchise quarterback JaMarcus Russell with the first overall pick, as well as a slew of other guys who could help. They include second round pick Zach Miller (tight end from Arizona State), third round picks Quentin Moses (defensive end from Georgia) and Mario Henderson (offensive lineman from Florida State), and especially fourth rounder Michael Bush (running back from Louisville). Bush missed almost all of last season due to injury, but if he recovers he will be the kind of playmaker the Raiders desperately need, and a huge steal considering he made it to the first pick of the second day. They did some retooling with the offensive line, including signing center Jeremy Newberry, drafting Henderson, and letting tackle Langston Walker leave, but it might not be enough considering how disastrously they performed last year. Of course, the silver lining there is that if the line does not improve significantly this season, the team will almost certainly have another high draft pick in 2008, which can then be used on a lineman.

Perhaps the best thing about Kiffin’s hiring, however, is the new feature it has enabled on the Raiders’ official website: The Fast Lane with Coach Kiffin. (Get it? Fast Lane?) It can be accessed here, and is updated “weekly” as Kiffin “answers” fans’ questions. Besides redefining what constitutes a week (it has not been updated since July 4, and was last updated before that on June 18), it is groundbreaking in that in six installments, Kiffin has yet to provide a straight answer of any substance. An example from the June 18 Fast Lane:

From Brian Robinette of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: I can’t help but notice the positive atmosphere you have created and I am confident that you will turn things around in Oakland. There have been a lot of position changes along the offensive line. How are the players adjusting to the new blocking scheme?

Coach Kiffin: Our offensive line has worked extremely hard to get better this off-season, and I am pleased with the additions we have made. The players are adjusting to our new scheme and they are practicing great. I am really looking forward to seeing that group improve as we get into Training Camp next month.

Cutting through all the beating around the bush, Kiffin essentially answers the question of “How are the players adjusting to the new blocking scheme?” by saying, “The players are adjusting to the new scheme.” Unfortunately for Kiffin, restating a question is not answering it. Here’s another one from June 18:

From Jason Evans, Season Ticket Holder in Section 104: What do you and the rest of the coaching staff try to emphasize more than anything else when you have indoor team meetings?

Coach Kiffin: There are a number of things that we as a staff emphasize during our meetings with the players. There is a lot of teaching that takes place so our players understand their assignments on every given play. As a staff, it is our job to put the players in the best possible positions on the field to be successful. During our meetings, we also emphasize playing smart and being competitive.

This is such a generalized, cliche-ridden, vague answer that his response might as well have just been, “Stuff.” Finally, from the May 28 edition, one of the best ever:

From Ken Webb, Season Ticket Holder in Section 120: What can we expect from the offense this season that wasn’t there last season?

Coach Kiffin: On offense, we are going to try and get the football in our playmakers’ hands.  There are a lot of talented football players on this team and we plan on exploiting that talent.

This is apparently in contrast to last season’s strategy of trying to avoid the talented offensive players on the team, and keeping them from getting the ball in their hands. (Then again, judging by their results, maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss that idea.)

All this is a distraction from the main point: unlike his Q&A sessions, Kiffin’s hire is intriguing. He is the youngest coach in the league, and it could potentially work to both his advantage (tons of energy) and disadvantage (can he possibly come in and initially have any idea what he’s doing?) but how it ends up is still anyone’s guess. Although Kiffin is obviously not a grizzled NFL veteran, it should be noted that his father Monte is a grizzled NFL veteran, meaning perhaps Lane has seen a lot more of the NFL than his coaching record would indicate. In addition, however he fares in Oakland, he made the right move to go. For one, being a college coordinator (even at USC) just doesn’t pay like being an NFL head coach. Also, he is essentially in a no-lose situation. If he fails in Oakland, he’ll still be young, people will say he failed because he inherited such a bad team, and he’ll probably get a nice cushy college head coaching job somewhere. If he turns the Raiders around, he’ll be looked at as a genius and everyone can live happily ever after. What will compel me to pay attention is how possible both of those seem: the flameout and the success story. Either the offense will continue to just be too bad for the team to succeed, or the defense will form the building block that brings the Black & Silver back to the promised land. Raiders owner Al Davis liked Kiffin’s offensive background, and he’ll need it to restore the team on that side of the ball. Whether he does or he does not (to reiterate, I don’t see a lot of “in between” potential here), I’ll be watching.

The next (and last) installment, hopefully up tomorrow, will focus on the Pittsburgh Steelers and new head coach Mike Tomlin.

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