OAKLAND, Calif. &
Lane Kiffin proclaimed at the start of offseason workouts that the Oakland Raiders were done talking about the disastrous 2006 season.
The players have followed the lead of their new coach, hoping to put the lopsided losses, late-night talk show jokes, and feuds between players and coaches in the past.
This is a time for optimism around the NFL, when most players believe their team has a chance to contend and no one has lost a game that counts.
That's especially true for the Raiders, who have gone from being one of the league's winningest franchises to the one with the worst record in the NFL over the last four seasons. The man counted on to change their fortunes is the 32-year-old Kiffin, the youngest man to coach an NFL game in more than four decades.
"There was nothing fun about what we were doing last year. Nothing," running back LaMont Jordan said. "But Kiffin has definitely put back the fun in Raiders football. And I'm looking forward to see how this thing comes together."
Kiffin, the son of longtime NFL assistant Monte Kiffin, has never been a head coach at any level and has only one year of NFL experience. But he has already won over many of the Raiders who grew tired of the losing ways under Art Shell and Norv Turner.
Kiffin has been given more freedom than some past Raiders coaches, bringing in 15 new assistants, changing practice schedules and locker room layout. He also proclaimed the days of "scholarship" players &
those who kept their jobs by being popular with the front office instead of being productive on the field &
Kiffin jettisoned experienced players even before training camp started in a sign the team was being run in a different fashion.
"I believe that's paid off for us," he said. "It's paid off in people feeling the pressure of competition, knowing that jobs aren't safe around here. I think that's made us better."
The veterans who are still around have bought into Kiffin's plan, including a handful who are older than their head coach.
"I like how we work. I like how we come to work. I like how we go out on the field. I like everything about the vibe," said defensive tackle Warren Sapp, 34. "I like that he changed the locker room and it looks different. I like that he walked in the room and said, 'Everybody switch seats.' I like all the stuff he's doing. Does that correlate into a championship season? I don't know."
The last coach to have control like this in Oakland was Jon Gruden, another young, energetic offense-minded coach. Gruden helped build the team that won the AFC championship in 2002 and is the only coach to have a winning record with the Raiders since the team returned from Los Angeles in 1995.
Kiffin has much less experience than Gruden did when he took over the Raiders as a 34-year-old in 1998. He has spent only one year as an NFL assistant &
as Jacksonville's defensive quality control coach in 2000 &
and spent the past six seasons as an assistant at Southern California.
With Pro Bowler Derrick Burgess, shutdown cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, Sapp and the other eight starters returning from a defense that ranked third in the NFL in yards allowed last season, Kiffin knows the biggest key on offense is reducing the 46 turnovers committed in '06.
Who will be running that offense remains an unknown. With No. — overall draft pick JaMarcus Russell unsigned in a contract dispute, the Raiders brought in former Pro Bowl quarterback Daunte Culpepper on July 31 to challenge Josh McCown and Andrew Walter.
Kiffin said he has not chosen his starter between Culpepper and McCown and could keep it a secret until right before the season opener against Detroit.
Culpepper has shown that his surgically repaired right knee is healthy and threw four touchdown passes with only one interception in the preseason as he tries to put last year's disappointment in Miami behind him.
After throwing 39 touchdown passes in 2004 in Minnesota, Culpepper battled injuries the past two years and had just eight TD passes and 18 turnovers. That led to his release by Miami in July and his late signing with the Raiders.
"I'm a guy that can adapt to any situation," Culpepper said. "I'm glad to be in a situation like this."
The success of the quarterback will depend mostly on the play of the offensive line. The Raiders hope last year's struggles &
72 sacks, 3.9 yards per carry &
were more about poor coaching than bad players.
The linemen complained last year about being confused. With assistant Tom Cable's cut-blocking scheme in place, the Raiders hope consistency will lead to better results.
"There's a ton of talent between all of us," said center Jeremy Newberry, a former Pro Bowler brought in during the offseason. "There's as much talent as I've been around, ever. Some of the ways they did stuff was probably not real efficient. A lot of that's changing now. We'll have a pretty good line this year."
But even with the optimism, there is still the reality that Oakland has won only 15 games the past four seasons. That hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of their demanding owner.
"I feel that we're an underdog right now," Al Davis said. "Every one of you have got me believing we're an underdog. I did feel and I have always felt this: that we can overcome anything."
Kiffin and Raiders aim to bury the past
OAKLAND, Calif. &