OAKLAND, Calif. – When you see it up close, it's always weirder than you expected it to be.
Here was Lane Kiffin, the embattled coach of the Oakland Raiders, striding conspicuously through the Oakland Coliseum locker room for what might have been the last time Sunday afternoon, literally holding his head high.
Stuck once again in the middle of Dysfunction Junction, in the wake of his 15th defeat in 20 career games, Kiffin didn't seem the least bit rattled. Sure, Oakland owner Al Davis might have been about to make good on his eight-month-long implied threat to fire Kiffin any minute – perhaps even then and there.
If Kiffin, 33, was supposed to be intimidated, he didn't get the memo. Somehow, the NFL's youngest coach came off as the only adult in a room full of guarded children.
Kiffin had just spent 15 minutes at a podium conducting a postgame press conference following the Raiders' 28-18 defeat to the San Diego Chargers, breaking down his team's failure to hold a halftime lead against a superior opponent for the second consecutive week. He had no further obligation to speak to reporters, or even to be in their presence.
Yet Kiffin stopped to talk to me, with Raiders senior executive John Herrera hovering in the background – that's the same John Herrera who became an internet caricature for his impromptu press-conference tantrum six days earlier, a man who might as well wear a silver-and-black "Yes, Al" T-shirt – and addressed the notion that his players might have been sidetracked by the drama over his job status.
"It's hard to tell," he said. "The last thing I would ever want them to think is that I'm a distraction to them. I wouldn't want to take away from what they're trying to accomplish."
If that sounds like a strange thing for a still-employed NFL coach to say, the scene that took place a minute later was downright surreal.
Kiffin, near one of the player lockers by the room's exit, stopped to answer a television reporter's question, and a crowd gathered. Soon he was holding what amounted to a second, unsanctioned press conference, complete with boom mikes and at least 30 reporters vying for position.
I've been covering the NFL for two decades and I've done my share of circling back to grab a couple of minutes alone with coaches after their main media availability. Sometimes, I've been joined by a few of my colleagues. But I've never seen, or heard of, a coach holding court in a crowded locker room while the background fades to black.
How can Kiffin's players not be distracted by the steady stream of reports (all of them premature to this point) that he's a goner and the inevitable mindset-adjustment that it provokes?
Has Kiffin run off the Coliseum field for the last time?
(AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
And while we're asking questions, where is Davis? Has any owner ever cultivated such an image of omnipotence and unquestioned authority yet, in reality, been such an indecisive shell of a man?
If Al Davis wanted Kiffin fired in January but decided not to pull the trigger, why hasn't he done it by now? The Raiders are 1-3 and headed into a bye week, and Kiffin keeps acting like a man unencumbered by the pressure of pleasing his boss while seemingly taking every opportunity to tweak him, subtly or otherwise.
Logic suggests that by the time you're reading this, a press conference to announce the firing will already have been scheduled and announced.
Or, if Davis has decided not to fire Kiffin, why not end the rubber-necking and issue a declarative statement that the coach's job is safe for the rest of the season? That seems like a sound way to do business, rather than allowing an ominous cloud to hang over everyone in the organization, but hey, Davis is a managerial mastermind.
Or not. Right now, it sure seems like Kiffin is gaming him, or at least proving that he's the bigger man than the boss who is 46 years his elder.
"I thought they were prepared really well," Kiffin said to the throng of reporters in the locker room as public relations director Mike Taylor stood nearby with his arms crossed. "I thought they played extremely hard today. I've got to do a better job of getting them to finish games."
He was right on all counts, by the way. The same statements could have applied a week earlier, when the Raiders blew a second-half lead to the Bills. In that game, Kiffin got conservative in the second half and it cost him. This time, arguably, he stayed aggressive and it cost him.
Soon Kiffin was talking about his wife's pregnancy with the couple's third child and how the stress over his job security was affecting her. "It's part of the business, I guess," Kiffin said as we all scribbled furiously.
Another reporter asked if Kiffin had sought the counseling of his father, longtime Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, about how to deal with the situation.
"You talk to people that you trust," Kiffin said, "but I don't think that anybody can understand it. … I'll try to keep this team together the best I can and find a way to keep fighting."
The next question contained the phrase "coaching for your job," and Kiffin answered cheerfully: "I don't really understand what that means, cause what do you do if you're coaching for your job? Do you try harder?"
Finally, someone asked Kiffin the obligatory question: Have you had any feedback from Al Davis lately?
"Until I'm told something different by Al – not by other people – we're going to try to find a way to win," he said.
That was enough for Taylor and another team official, who abruptly broke up the unsanctioned interview session. The locker room was practically empty by then.
"Alright, ladies and gentlemen," Taylor announced to the dispersing crowd. "If you want to interview some players, you can."
A minute later Taylor flat-out asked reporters to leave, "so we can get on with our process."
What that process is, only one man knows. And he's not the one holding court in the locker room, weird as it all may be.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• As first impressions go, Jim Zorn's debut as an NFL head coach (and offensive coordinator, and play-caller) couldn't have been much less inspiring. His Redskins looked unprepared and flaccid in their season-opening defeat to the New York Giants on Sept. 4, and given the brutality of the NFC East, I figured Washington might be in for another choppy post-Joe Gibbs transition. Still, I'd heard enough good things about Zorn to harbor hope, and it turns out he had the Skins ready to compete after all. On Sunday Washington went to Texas Stadium and stunned the previously undefeated Cowboys, 26-24, for its third consecutive victory. With Philly's 24-20 defeat at Chicago on Sunday night, the first loss an NFC East team has suffered to an opponent outside its division this season, the Eagles (2-2) now look like the most vulnerable member of the quartet. Realistically, these teams will beat one another up all season, and three of them will likely make the playoffs. Fourth-year quarterback Jason Campbell's maturity and confidence have the rest of the Skins believing they can go a long way. "He's playing smart and spreading the ball around," tight end Chris Cooley said via text message before the team flew home from Texas. "If he keeps it up we're gonna be real good."
• When I visited the Chiefs at their River Falls, Wis., training camp in August, I asked halfback Larry Johnson if, after his injury-ravaged '07 campaign, he'd be approaching this season with a determination to restore his reputation as one of the league's elite runners. "Oh, I'm definitely running mad," he said. "I want to show people I'm in that elite class. It's funny how quickly these things change. There's always a new (media) favorite, and right now everyone is talking about Adrian Peterson. But I'm ready to get back in that mix." On Sunday, at long last, Johnson thrust himself back into our consciousness, rushing for 198 yards and two touchdowns to lead Kansas City to its first victory in nearly a year, a 33-19 triumph over the previously undefeated Denver Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium. LJ's 65-yard dash to the Denver 21 on the game's second play from scrimmage got things going and his 16-yard scoring run with 1:37 to go clinched the game. I'd say he’s back in the mix.
• It was a good-vibe Sunday on several fronts: Brett Favre, shrugging off a sore ankle, threw for a career-high six touchdown passes in the Jets' 56-35 victory over the Cardinals. No matter what happens the rest of the season, Favre can savor that memory as a positive byproduct of his decision to keep playing. That said, it's jarring enough seeing him in the Jets' green-and-white uniforms; could we keep him out of those blue-and-yellow throwbacks from here on out? … At the Superdome, Saints fans got their wish and Deuce McAllister delivered, thriving in his first extensive action since suffering a career-threatening knee injury a year ago. Suddenly New Orleans, a 31-17 winner over the 49ers, had a power running attack as Deuce got loose for 73 yards on 20 carries. If his reconstructed knees hold up, McAllister will make coach Sean Payton's job a whole lot easier, even as wideout Marques Colston and tight end Jeremy Shockey remain out with injuries. … Back in Kansas City, tight end Tony Gonzalez caught a 10-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter and moved within two yards of former Broncos great Shannon Sharpe's career record for a tight end (10,060). It would great theater if, next week in Carolina, Gonzalez could break the record on a touchdown reception and perform his trademark slam dunk over the goal post. … Finally, our thoughts and prayers go out to Bucs kicker Matt Bryant and his family. Bryant, whose infant son died four days earlier, went three-for-three on field goals and three-for-three on extra points in Tampa Bay's 30-21 victory over the Packers. It's great that he was able to perform so well on Sunday, but the healing process is obviously just beginning.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Scott Linehan was fired Monday by the Rams after a 31-14 loss to the Bills. He'll be thrilled to know that his players were questioning his decisions to the bitter end. "He should have given us the bye week off," one Rams player told me Sunday night. "It's not like it matters for him." In a word: Ouch. I like Linehan and think he has a chance to be a good head coach someday, but the situation in St. Louis couldn't be much uglier, with a virtual player mutiny and choppy play on both sides on the ball.
• Meanwhile, a player from the Rams' glory days, Kurt Warner, threw for 472 yards Sunday – and it was a major step backward. Though Warner rallied the Cardinals from a 34-0 deficit to at least put a scare into the Jets before losing by three touchdowns, the ball security and steady decision-making he displayed in the season's first three games were sorely lacking. The 37-year-old passer fumbled four times, losing three, and threw three interceptions against a defense that is hardly an elite unit. With the 4-0 Bills headed to the desert next week, the Cardinals (2-2) will need a much stronger effort from their quarterback if they're serious about trying to win the NFC West.
• When the Packers traded Favre to the Jets, leaving untested Aaron Rodgers and a pair of rookie backups in the legend’s wake, the scenario that played out Sunday was every fan’s nightmare: While Favre, as usual, shook off what seemed to be a significant ankle injury and put on an air show in New Jersey, Rodgers’ durability was called into question yet again in the Pack’s defeat in Tampa. The fourth-year passer, in only his fourth game as a starter, suffered what he said was a separated right shoulder in the third quarter, returning to throw his third interception before giving way again to seventh-round pick Matt Flynn. Now the Packers (2-2) may have to get by for the next several weeks (or more) with Flynn and second-round pick Brian Brohm, which would be treated as very good news in Chicago and Minnesota. Green Bay is a good enough team with a deep enough roster to survive most injuries, but losing Rodgers for a significant period would likely be a crushing blow.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How my son's U-10 soccer team, the Steelers – in my wife's first career game as a fill-in head coach (because the head coach, Kamika, flew to Pittsburgh for Monday night's Steelers-Ravens game) – could take a 3-0 lead, go down 6-3 at halftime, trail 7-5 in the fourth quarter and fight back to tie it at 7 before falling 9-8 on a wild Saturday afternoon. I'm exhausted after typing that last sentence; watching the game was beyond draining.
2. Kiffin's decision to run the clock down to one second, then have Sebastian Janikowski attempt a 76-yard field goal on the final play of the first half. I know "Seabass" has a strong leg and all – Kiffin says he has seen him make 74-yard kicks in practice – but the odds of Janikowski getting enough leg on the ball in game conditions to break the NFL record by 13 yards were not great. I have to think a Hail Mary throw by strong-armed quarterback JaMarcus Russell was a better percentage play, not to mention one that would have produced more points if it had worked. It was also a safer play. Up 15-0, the Raiders realistically didn't have to worry much about an end-zone pass being intercepted and returned for a touchdown. A missed field goal, however, was a disastrous first-half ending waiting to happen. Standing in the end zone for San Diego was cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who last year against the Vikings lunged in the back of the end zone to catch Minnesota kicker Ryan Longwell's unsuccessful 57-yard attempt on the last play of the half and, as per NFL rule, was allowed to return it. He raced down the right sideline and, 109 yards later, completed the longest play in NFL history. This time, after Janikowski's kick predictably landed far short of the goalposts, Cromartie caught the ball at his own 2, hesitated and burst forward before being tackled at the Chargers' 28 by Tony Stewart. OK, so it all worked out. But the risk-reward ratio didn't make much sense to me. Was Kiffin, mindful that Sunday's game might well have been his last as the Raiders' coach, acting out by living on the edge? Was he lampooning Al Davis, who drafted Janikowski in the first round eight years ago because the owner was enamored of the kicker's leg strength? Was he hoping the play backfired in an effort to push Davis, at long last, to set the coach free? I'd say my chances of finding out the answer are roughly the same as that of someone hitting a 76-yarder in my lifetime. OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
It was strange enough when, a few days after getting sucker-punched by teammate Steve Smith back in training camp, Carolina Panthers cornerback Ken Lucas called the altercation a "blessing in disguise." But after the touching display of affection that took place on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium – Smith scoring on a 56-yard touchdown pass, spiking the football into the stands, retrieving it from a fan and presenting it to Lucas on the sideline – I'm starting to get a little queasy. "From day one, since the moment I forgave him, he has done everything a man could ever do from a forgiving standpoint," Lucas said after Carolina's 24-9 victory over the Atlanta Falcons that improved the Panthers to 3-1. "My hat is off to him. I am surprised but I'm not surprised because the adversity we had at first has strengthened the friendship that we didn't have so much in the beginning. Now we are friends. We play games together. A lot of times there's good that comes out of everything. It brought the team together and created a friendship between me and Steve." Isn't that special? Maybe Lucas is simply happy that his profile has been raised, or perhaps he's got a masochistic streak, but this adds new meaning to the term "take one for the team." The last time I saw someone so happy to get his nose broken by another man's fist, it was in the movie "Fight Club" – and it wasn't really another man's fist … oh, never mind. Just cue up John (Cougar) Mellencamp's "Hurts So Good" and allow me to vomit. Thank you.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"That was (expletive) awesome for us it was so much fun today"
– Text Sunday night from Cooley after Washington's upset victory over the Cowboys
"McCain was like the old guy yelling at you for hitting the ball into his yard …"
– Post-debate text Friday night from Y! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski, who has hit a few balls into the yards of various hoops powerbrokers lately
"This craziness never rests. … not even on Sunday morning …"
– Email Sunday morning from a former Raiders employee, which included a link to the Contra Costa Times story about an Oakland assistant who claims he was exiled by Kiffin