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Davis still sharp, but needs organizational help

Anybody who thinks Al Davis doesn't know football anymore, doesn't know what they're talking about.

That's one conclusion I drew from watching the bizarre, 45-minute news conference the Raiders' Hall of Fame owner gave after firing coach Lane Kiffin this week.

Davis has been blasted for his rambling performance from all corners. But it's obvious to me he's still sharp when it comes to the game. He showed great command of football strategy and talent evaluation. I felt sympathy for him because it's so obvious he wants to win so badly.

"I know that the fire that burns brightest in this building is the will to win," he said.

Davis also laid out a pretty good case for firing Kiffin.

Kiffin didn't want to draft JaMarcus Russell No. 1 overall in 2007. Too bad. Davis wanted the quarterback from Louisiana State. That's an organizational decision. If Davis believed in Russell, it was Kiffin's job to coach him. The other big rift in the Kiffin-Davis relationship came in January after Kiffin wanted to hire his father, Bucs defensive guru Monte Kiffin, as the Raiders' defensive chief. Davis wanted to keep Rob Ryan, who has a good reputation, and Davis didn't want to get involved in a tampering charge with the Bucs.

Again, Davis seems justified. Ryan is a good coach. Kiffin knew when he took the job that Davis was going to pick a bunch of the assistants. A head coach should be able to win with Ryan as the defensive chief.

Unfortunately, Davis' great strengths have been undercut by a couple of his weaknesses. The Raiders are 20-64 the past five-plus seasons. Davis now is on his eighth head coach in the last 15 seasons. Davis can't hide from that miserable, dysfunctional record.

Davis' biggest problem is he does not have a strong voice in his football department giving him independent opinions. He's surrounded, from what I hear, by people who tell him what he wants to hear. His second problem is he loves players and hates coaches. He wants to believe his current roster is better than it really is. Davis is super loyal to his players, which is a strength. He could use a little more loyalty, at times, to his coaches. (I'm talking about Art Shell, in particular, a good coach who Davis jettisoned twice.)

His third problem is he never has wanted to pay top dollar for a head coach. He always has believed he could find the right bright mind to run the team. He's not cheap when it comes to players, but he has skimped when it comes to the head coach. In today's game, the head coach is far more important than before the salary cap era.

Davis had a good team when Jon Gruden was coach and Bruce Allen was general manager. But Davis backed off from paying Gruden a new contract in 2001, and Tampa Bay swooped in and stole Gruden away with a monster contract. Gruden's departure hastened the departure of Allen (who followed Gruden to Tampa). Once Allen was gone, Mike Lombardi, another good football mind, was soon history. If the Raiders had won the infamous "Tuck Game" at New England in the 2001 playoffs (yes, they were robbed!), Davis probably would have been forced to give Gruden a contract extension before Tampa came calling.

So that's what Davis appeared to reference when he said: "The Tuck Game was the undoing of a lot of things."

Davis has been searching for the right coach ever since. His latest, Tom Cable, continues a curious trend, pointed out by San Jose Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami.

In his last 10 head coaching hires, Davis has stuck to a pattern of hiring a cerebral offensive strategist, then an offensive line coach. The evidence, going backward: Cable (OL), Kiffin (COS), Shell (OL), Norv Turner (COS), Bill Callahan (OL), Gruden (COS), Joe Bugel (OL), Mike White (COS), Shell (OL), Mike Shanahan (COS).

Writes Kawakami: "Al loves to be on the vanguard of new thinking, so he first wants to hand-pick the new hot offensive thinker. Once he gets tired of that guy -- and those guys tend to rebel under his sway -- he wants a more solid, players kind of guy, so he goes to his favorite OL types."

A former Raiders employee told me that the Raiders' football department "doesn't have meetings, it has barbecues." The point was, there's no bluffing with Davis in meetings, because he knows most of the right answers when it comes to football. He's still sharp.

Unfortunately, Davis can't do it all himself, and running an organization takes modern business leadership, not just strategic football brilliance. When he had great personnel chief Ron Wolf, he won Super Bowls. But that was a long time ago.

Davis said Tuesday he's thinking of bringing in an independent mind after the season to help run the football side.

That's about the only hope to which Raiders fans can cling.


Moss now Mr. X

Redskins coach Jim Zorn has made a tactical switch with star receiver Santana Moss that is paying off. Moss had eight catches for 145 yards in Washington's upset at Dallas last week. After four games Moss is tied for the lead among NFC receivers with 27 catches, and he's second in the NFL with 421 receiving yards.

Zorn is using Moss more often as the X receiver, the wideout lined up on the line of scrimmage and usually on the weak side, opposite the tight end. X receivers tend to be taller than the Z receiver (or flanker), and because they're on the line of scrimmage they don't motion much and have to contend more with press coverage from the cornerback. Randy Moss is the quintessential X receiver. Santana Moss is listed at 5-foot-10, and that's generous.

"When I came in and saw what he could do, I wanted to move [Santana] from the flanker position to the X receiver," Zorn said. "I always think of the flanker as more of a control route runner. He's off the line of scrimmage so it takes him a little bit of time to put pressure on the defense because he has to run a yard or two to get to the line. That takes away a little bit of Santana's threat of accelerating downfield. If you have him on the line of scrimmage, you get him on the defender a little quicker. Just a yard makes a huge difference."


Yankee football

With the closing of Yankee Stadium, not quite enough attention was paid to all the great football moments at that baseball shrine.

Of course, there was the most important game in NFL history, the 1958 championship in which the Colts beat the Giants in overtime.

One of the top 10 college football games ever also was held there. It was the 0-0 tie between No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 1 Army in 1946. Army had a 25-game win streak. Thanks to a war-enhanced roster, it had beaten the Irish the previous two games, 59-0, and 48-0. Army was led by Mr. Inside (Doc Blanchard) and Mr. Outside (Glenn Davis).

The Giants played their home games there from 1956 to '73. The legendary hit the Eagles' Chuck Bednarik put on the Giants' Frank Gifford happened at Yankee. Vince Lombardi won his second NFL title with the Packers there in 1962. It was a hard-fought, 16-7 decision in bitter cold.

Knute Rockne's "Win one for the Gipper" speech was given there at halftime of the Notre Dame-Army game in 1928. Notre Dame was having one of its worst seasons under Rockne but came back to give Army its first loss.


Onside kicks

*Let's get this straight. Tony Romo throws 47 passes in a two-point loss to Washington, and 18 of them are directed at Terrell Owens. Meanwhile, stud running back Marion Barber gets eight carries. And TO, not Barber, is complaining. Offensive chief Jason Garrett should be getting Barber more involved.

*The Ravens' defense has allowed only four trips into the red zone in 37 possessions, the best showing in the league. Opposing quarterbacks have a combined passer rating of 41.8 against Ray Lewis & Co., also tops among NFL defenses.


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