Warren Sapp was lying on the grass and watching his daughter play soccer Saturday in South Florida when his cell phone vibrated and knocked him out of his daze. A friend on the other line wanted to talk football, and after a few seconds it suddenly occurred to the recently retired defensive tackle that this was a reasonably significant afternoon.
"Oh, (expletive), it's draft day!" Sapp exclaimed. But after learning of the first seven picks or so, he became disinterested in the subsequent selections, explaining, "I don't know any of these (expletive) kids." He wanted to know if "my streak was alive" – since Sapp went 12th overall to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1995, at least one University of Miami player had gone in the first round in each successive year – and sweated it out until the New York Giants took former Hurricanes safety Kenny Phillips with the 31st pick.
One other selection made Sapp smile. "I love Darren McFadden to the Raiders," he said Monday. "I think it's a perfect fit."
I started to argue with Sapp, which isn't surprising – some of our arguments have literally lasted years, and I almost stayed in exile in London after getting a particularly salty text message last October from the smart, funny and very, very large defensive menace.
Citing what I perceive to be conventional wisdom, I told Sapp that given Oakland's run-stopping struggles last season (it gave up 145.9 rushing yards per game, the NFL's second-worst figure) – and the fact that Sapp, one of the league's best interior linemen of the modern era, just called it quits – the Raiders would have been much better served taking stud defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey than adding another halfback. And Sapp, as he is prone to doing, face-planted conventional wisdom like a defenseless quarterback in the pocket.
"I understand that (coach) Lane Kiffin and (offensive coordinator) Gregg Knapp are supposed to be these guys who make their living by throwing the ball," Sapp said. "But our offense is made for downhill guys. And this kid will make that offense go."
Sapp reminded me that, "after three games last season, LaMont Jordan led the NFL in rushing. But LaMont is like the worst offseason running back I've ever been around; he was out of shape and couldn't keep it going. Then, remember late in the season, Justin Fargas was slashing and cutting and gaining all those yards? (McFadden) is the same guy, but he's faster. I promise you, this guy will hit those holes and take it to the house, and then our offensive line will slash people up."
None of that addressed the fact that the Raiders' defense, particularly when it comes to stopping the run, has serious problems. Sapp didn't argue that point – the basic problem, he said, is that owner Al Davis has put together "a team with 3-4 personnel, but they're running a 4-3 system." Sapp insisted that a sound, two-gap approach would be more effective than the macho, one-gap system employed by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Given that Ryan managed to avoid getting pink-slipped and is back for another season, this is not likely to change in '08.
All of which brings us back to embattled second-year coach Lane Kiffin.
When Davis made Kiffin the league's youngest coach following the 2006 season, he was counting on the former USC assistant bringing a fresh and innovative offensive approach to a team that, in one miserable season under coach Art Shell and coordinator Tom Walsh, had set offense back a half-century. To demonstrate his commitment, the owner took a freakishly gifted quarterback, JaMarcus Russell, with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2007 draft – though Davis didn't bother to get him signed until after the start of the regular season, essentially washing out Russell's rookie campaign.
Things went poorly enough that Kiffin nearly lost his job at season's end, surviving only because his boss was too cheap to buy out the remaining two years of his contract. The owner made a stand on Ryan, resisting Kiffin's attempt to bring in a new defensive coordinator, and seemed to be doing his best to force Kiffin to resign.
It has since become clear that Davis is stuck with Kiffin for at least another season. But here's the weird thing: By signing talented deep threat Javon Walker to a reported six-year, $55-million contract in March and by drafting McFadden fourth overall Saturday, Davis has given Kiffin a golden opportunity to prove him wrong.
If Kiffin can get the Raiders' offense humming it will, at the very least, set him up nicely for his next job. If it can hum enough to overcome a seriously flawed defense more often than not, he and Davis may actually be able to coexist while crafting a strained but mutually beneficial partnership.
I don't know if I'm completely on board with this line of thinking – the franchise's inherent dysfunction always seems to surface at inopportune times – but I guess it's possible that the drafting of McFadden could be the best thing to happen to Kiffin's career.
"There is nothing wrong with Lane Kiffin's offensive system," Sapp insisted. "There is nothing wrong with Lane Kiffin as a head coach, and now he has another stud who can help him succeed. I guess Al's going for his last hurrah."
As bizarre as it seems, this just might work.
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL):
"Never have been inspired to write to a news writer before, but just wanted to let you know I thought your 'No pity party for former Oregon star' was a great column. I was moved to tears, which is not easy to do. Very nice work! And the follow-up story was great, too."
Thanks. You are aptly named.
"Dude , if this article about Dixon were any more classy, there would be a string quartet in the background and a man in a suit asking me how I would like my steak prepared (burnt to a crisp or bloody as hell?). That being said, I watched every game of the Oregon Ducks 2007 season, and I have a few observations: 1) Does anyone remember how awesome this guy's play-action motion is? The only person I think sells it better wears the No. 18 [Peyton Manning]. 2) Eat some food Dixon! QB that runs like a WR – spectacular. QB built like a WR – needs to get Kirstie Allie's (sic) number. 3) Mike Bellotti … I hope that his higher ups ask him to coach while recovering from a brain injury, and in doing so he severely re-injures himself, seriously jeopardizing his once bright future. Sound familiar? 4) The only game he made a significant number of mistakes – against your beloved Cal – he shook it off and made the best of the games he had left to play. Stay classy Michael Silver."
After seeing the high-volume approach to cooking favored by Dennis Dixon Sr., whose meat requires no man in a suit to green-light its consumption, I'm pretty sure the kid is eating plenty. Evidently, he and DeSean Jackson have the same metabolism.
"I know I don't have to tell you this, but you're the best thing to happen to sports journalism. Your article on Dennis Dixon is fantastic and is now bookmarked as a favorite in my web browser if I ever need a source for inspiration/motivation. It's so
refreshing to read sports articles based around the human spirit. Thank you, Mike."
De nada. And no, you don't have to tell me that … but I won't complain when you do.
"I really enjoy your work, and you're out there enough to take this task on. Has anybody kicked the Oregon coach in the ass for making Dennis Dixon play on a partially torn ACL? He cost the kid about $30 million guaranteed, and if his knee and opportunities don't come right, he cost him all or much of his career. There should be some sort of penalty for that sort of negligence – what are your thoughts on the matter?
Glad you asked … (Though, for the record, it's not accurate to say that Mike Bellotti cost Dixon $30 million. Once the ACL was partially torn, he was looking at reconstructive surgery regardless.)
"Life long fan of Duck Football (George Fox grad). Still upset and wonder why we were left out of the NC (national championship) game with Joey (Harrington), Keenan (Howry) and crew. I'm still wondering why we were left out of the Fiesta Bowl in 2005 with one loss while two Two-loss teams played in it and of course with Dennis' situation wondering why it happened. I've been in Afghanistan the last 2 years and sincerely appreciate your article. I stayed up all night when Dennis and Ducks were on with my Duck jersey my brother AJ gave me. Sitting there in my room in the early hours of the morning wearing a Duck jersey in Afghanistan is an interesting contrast: ) I'm glad we have the ability to dream in America like Dennis has. I don't even know what to say in regards to his mother and the opportunity lost or mitigated but he has been watched and rooted for in more places than Eugene, Ore. I've blogged on a Raiders fan site I hoped my Raiders took him even though we have JaMarcus Russell because he wasn't just part of a system. "
Be safe in Afghanistan – and thanks for injecting even more perspective into the discussion. As for the comparatively trivial BCS shafts, my fellow Cal devotees and I (see 2004) feel your pain.
"You never cease to amaze me. Just one week after I was saying to myself that this Silver guy is one heck of a hard-ass dude, you come up with this wonderful and inspiring article on Dennis Dixon. I just loved it. It's so not like you. Are you getting soft in your old age? All kidding aside, I commend you on putting a human face on the meat market that is the NFL draft. Now, after seeing this side of you, I expect you to have at least one uplifting and inspirational article per quarter. And that's an order! Keep up the great work."
I'll try to make the quota, but you can always go to si.com and check out the online "vault" of SI magazines from 1994-2007. After you read some of my earlier profiles, you may conclude that I was softer in my young age.
"Great article on D-Dawg (Saturday)! As a Razorbacks fan and former little rocker, I'm extremely proud of Darren, and I wish him the very best. He was so much fun to watch in college and wherever he goes (I wish the chiefs had traded LJ last year to
get Darren (Saturday, but whatever) I will be a big fan. Regards, go Hogs!"
Kansas City, Mo.
Thanks, and two questions: How small were you, and what was the name of your band?
"First off I would like to say how much I enjoy reading your articles. It's not everywhere that one can get some humor with one's information. You sir are quite witty and talented. Second, I just have to bring attention to this statement: 'The Giants won that Super Bowl for a reason: They were the best team in football.' I still get all giddy inside when I read something like this. I've been a Giants fan since I started watching the games with my dad as a kid. We were all together to watch them win that Super Bowl and that was pretty special (well all of us except my brother who happens to live in Boston, talk about being in the lion's den). Anyway keep up the good work Mike. I'll be reading."
That's very cool, but I have to be honest: All of this praise is starting to unnerve me. I have a feeling some of the fans of the teams not ranked at the top of '32 Questions' may offer a less-glowing assessment …
"You are probably the worst writer in the Yahoo! payroll. If the Giants reach the playoffs this year it will be pure luck. You have to win all your games to be considered the best in the NFL. I think the Giants lost a few games or don't you recall that. And only won the Super Bowl beacuse of an injured QB, not becauyse they were the best team. They are not good enough to wipe the Patriots (expletive), and you will see that this season. Find another job."
No chance – this one is way too much fun.
"Why are the Packers ahead of the Colts, when the packers only were good last year because they happened to have, statistically, the best QB of all time? I understand the Giants being ahead of everyone because they are the champs, and I can even see you putting the Patriots ahead, because they went undefeated last year, but not the Packers."
I could tell you about my faith in Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' deep, young roster, but what I really want to say is this: I love that people are writing in to argue NFL rankings … in April.
"Thanks for your thoughtful insights concerning the Detroit Lions. You've certainly taken the initiative in attempting to properly disect weaknesses of this squad. Oh, wait a minute. No, you didn't. Instead, you made a joke and didn't even bother to accompany the joke with an actual observation. Great job."
Trust me, you don't want the Lions' weaknesses "disected" or dissected.
"I truly hate you. Go Lions."
I'm truly devastated. Go (Golden) Bears.
"This is the first time I have ever written to you, so I'm trying to keep my grammar and spelling correct. However, sadly, I will not get to see if I make your next column on Tuesday because on Monday I will be flying out to Texas to help serve our country. Now since that is out of the way, I have to totally agree with your question on the Laughable Lions. What really is the point? The Fords clearly do not know how incompetent Matt Millen is, as it's evident because they extended his contract even though he has the worse record of any team president since his hiring. We're blessed to have three great sports teams in this city, with the dominance of the Red Wings and Pistons of their respective conferences to the sudden re-emergence of the Tigers. Actually, now that I think about it, in this area the question is less like 'What's the point?' to 'Who really cares?'"
Sterling Heights, Mich.
Thank you for the kind words and, more important, for bravely serving our country. I hope the war and the Lions' struggles end soon.
"My man, when will you ever take the stick out of your ass when it comes to Al Davis and the Raiders? Give it up already and get a new schtick to carry your writing. If you need help, look around at other teams including the morons across the Bay, the 49ers, when it comes to ineptitude from a coaching, management and ownership structure. You're entitled to your opinion, but at least do your homework."
San Leandro, Calif.
We certainly agree when it comes to the 49ers – and, had you done your homework, you'd know that I'd made my thoughts very clear on the subject on many, many occasions.
"What was that Kiffin remark about? What team intentionally drafts slow guys you jerk?"
Hate the owner, not the messenger.
"Is it possible that the young SI writer that was banned from the Raiders locker room some 15 years ago is still bitter after all these years? Why else would you take every opportunity, and even create opportunities when they are not there, to kick them while they are down? Granted, even as a lifelong Raiders fan, I am not blind or stupid, and I even agree with most of the negative print that's out there when it comes to the three-ring circus that is my beloved team, but somehow with you it seems personal. Any truth?"
I can see why you'd wonder, but no, I harbor no personal ill will toward the Raiders. I lived in Oakland for a long, long time and would love to see the franchise succeed. Then again, as you all should know by now, I have 32 children and love them all equally. (Though, in fairness, some of them tend to act more childish than others … )
"'Mr. Smith' you are the most 'awesomest' sports writer ever."
Just call me Smitty …
"Nice new picture … a little grey and it would be almost Farve-esque"
Thanks, and good line about the hair. How about if I just tease it?
"Mr. Silver, I would gladly be your research assistant. I am very serious. You wouldn't even have to pay me. Please let me know how I can apply for this job. Your No. 1 fan, Jonathan."
St. Petersburg, Fla.
By publicly offering to work for free, I believe you just did. First assignment: Come up with some better Favre/hair jokes.
"I love it when people try to find you making the tiniest grammar mistake and are still wrong. Good grief. About the only time you point out grammar mistakes is when someone is going off in a hate and expletive-filled diatribe on your latest article. I
think your point in doing so is, if you are going to critique someone, at least use frickin' spell check and make your comment readable! Keep the great articles coming, I think 'your' hilarious and a great sports journalist!"
You are very perceptive. If I hire another unpaid research assistant, you're the first person I'm calling.
"You are the best sports writer. Period."
You are the best emailer. Exclamation point.
- Lane Kiffin