ALAMEDA, Calif. &
Any chance for the Oakland Raiders to make the playoffs disappeared weeks ago. With nothing tangible to play for in the closing weeks, coach Lane Kiffin has started looking toward the future.
That attitude might lead some coaches to turn the reins of the team over to rookie quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Kiffin, however, is still moving slowly on that front, saying it's more important to teach the team how to win than to prepare Russell for next season.
"This organization and this team needs to win and it needs to play well," Kiffin said. "We're not just going to go in and start play solely based on the future because this team needs to learn how to win and it needs to understand how to be competitive. This is not a locker room that has won a lot of games."
That's what Kiffin is balancing in the closing weeks of the season. In last week's 21-14 loss to Indianapolis, Kiffin played Russell for three series in the third quarter that did not lead to any points.
Josh McCown led Oakland (4-10) to two touchdowns on seven drives, leaving Kiffin to question whether the decision to play Russell might have cost Oakland the game.
This week against Jacksonville, Kiffin is contemplating starting Russell for the first time and then bringing in McCown. He said he also could use Russell to finish the game or keep using him for a few series in the middle like he did the first two times he played him.
Whatever decision Kiffin makes, McCown understands that it's important to get Russell ready to play next season.
"I think if you're not playing for the playoffs this year you play for the playoffs next year," McCown said. "Obviously they selected that guy very high and they have got to get him in there. You can't roll into next year and have him not played in games. You'd hate for that to happen. You have to play him at some point.
"It's would you rather him make those mistakes next year when you have a clean slate and are starting over or would you rather him make the mistakes now when you're out of it?"
Oakland has just 19 wins the past five seasons, the worst record of any team in the league. Under Kiffin, the Raiders have shown signs of progress this season but those have not yet registered in the win column.
Turning blowout losses into close defeats has been little consolation for Kiffin. The Raiders have led in the fourth quarter in nine games this season, but have blown five of those leads, including last week to Indianapolis.
"We have to start winning these games," Kiffin said. "Someday we'll be that team that makes the plays and finishes people off like that."
The players believe that will start happening soon comparing this season's team to the one that packed it in early a year ago under coach Art Shell. The Raiders were outscored 90-22 in the final four games a year ago, failing to score a touchdown in the last three.
This season, they played the defending Super Bowl champion Colts down to the wire.
"Everybody was gone," safety Jarrod Cooper said. "Everybody had their plane tickets already. At least here, guys are still talking about the next opponent, talking about Jacksonville, opposed to going to Miami for a vacation. There's a team in here."
Other than a blowout loss two weeks ago in Green Bay, Oakland has been competitive in nearly every game this season. Cooper compared the progress under Kiffin to what he went through in Carolina earlier this decade.
The Panthers went 1-15 under George Seifert in 2001, before John Fox came in and turned things around in a 7-9 campaign the following season. A year later, Carolina went to the Super Bowl.
"The games are lost by one or two plays now as opposed to last year when they were lost at the coin toss," Cooper said. "So you've got to build off that and I don't think you need to change anybody. If so then you're just starting all over again. Then you're looking for another rebuilding year. Well this was the rebuilding year, build off of that."
Kiffin tries to balance winning with planning ahead
ALAMEDA, Calif. &