Good news for Raiders fans: Al Davis seems to be serious about giving his young coach, Lane Kiffin, a genuine opportunity to turn the franchise around.
First, Davis allowed Kiffin to select assistant coaches, which is a complete turnaround from the way Davis has always operated.
Now, on the Raiders’ practice field, Kiffin is installing an offense that looks much more like the one Bill Walsh brought to the 49ers in 1979 than the bombs-away approach Davis has long favored.
One of the assistants Kiffin hired is offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, who put in this type of offense with the 49ers in the 2001-03 seasons before going to Atlanta with Jim Mora.
"When I was in Atlanta, I worked with Alex Gibbs [known for his offensive line work earlier with the Denver Broncos] to improve the run game," Knapp said after practice. "Otherwise, it’s basically the same principles as Bill’s offense. Fortunately, Lane has been coaching the same basic offense, so it all fits right in."
Right now, the Raiders are conducting Organized Team Activities.
Because players do not wear pads, it’s difficult to make too many assessments, but as Kiffin noted after practice, "We can still work on game situations."
To that end, the Raiders simulated a two-minute offense. Quarterback Josh McCown immediately fumbled the snap on the first play, confirming my suspicion from last season that they must practice that.
Kiffin also had his offense simulate other pressure situations, and the chief beneficiary is No. 1 overall draft pick JaMarcus Russell, who is on an accelerated learning curve.
Russell has learned to let up on his fastball when he’s throwing the short outlet passes, and he showed some grasp of the system when he moved a back who had lined up out of position before one play.
"That’s the type of thing we’re looking for," Kiffin said, "but there are other times I have to take him aside before a play and tell him what he should be telling the guys in the huddle."
The more experienced McCown looks more comfortable running the offense.
Kiffin is still months away from naming a starting quarterback for the season, but the smart money is on McCown. Andrew Walter is only marginally in the competition. Walter had arthroscopic surgery on one of his knees — Kiffin wasn’t even sure which one — and will be out four to six weeks. But the Raiders drafted him two years ago because he was a classic pocket passer, so he doesn’t fit Kiffin’s system.
Of course, no quarterback will look good with the kind of offensive line play the Raiders had last year, but there should be improvement in the OL simply because new assistant Tom Cable is teaching solid techniques, not the antiquated ones taught last season by Jackie Slater.
"Last year, these guys never knew what to expect when they came out to practice," a Raiders insider said. "There was something new each day."
It’s easy to be optimistic in the spring, when the harsh realities of the season are months away, but there seems to be a new energy and enthusiasm on the Raiders practice field, as the players react to the same qualities in their young coach.
The best news, though, is that Davis has finally realized his old ways weren’t working and is willing to let Kiffin do it his way.
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