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Former Bills coach Kiffin irreverent but effective

Here is a rarely considered "what if?" in Buffalo Bills history.

What if Jim Kelly did not sign with the USFL when the Bills drafted him in 1983? Kay Stephenson, the Bills' new head coach, would have let Kelly sit for a year behind Joe Ferguson and then handed the offense over to Kelly in '84.

All of a sudden the '84 season, which in reality ended 2-14, doesn't turn into a disaster. Kelly has a 1,100-yard back in Greg Bell, gains star wideout Andre Reed in '85 and the Bills' offense is on its way. Stephenson, an offensive coach, doesn't get fired.

What about Stephenson's defense? It's no stretch to think it would have done more with less over the long haul. In 1984, Stephenson hired two hotshot defensive minds. His defensive backs coach was Pete Carroll, the linebackers coach was Monte Kiffin.

Carroll, of course, today is leading the college dynasty at Southern California. Kiffin? He merely has become one of the most successful defensive coordinators in NFL history, up there with Bud Carson, Bill Arnsparger and Bill Belichick.

The Bills will try to overcome the scheming of Kiffin today when they face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Kiffin's Bucs have ranked among the top 10 in fewest yards allowed for eight straight years.

Asked last week to describe Kiffin in three words, Tampa coach Jon Gruden said, "The mad professor."

Kiffin, 63, is renowned for his strategy and tactics, along with an offbeat, irreverent personality.

He has been known to draw X's and O's on the back of his kids' homework. He has been known to get so engrossed in drawing plays on napkins at restaurants that he forgets to eat the food when it's delivered.

When he was the head coach at North Carolina State in the early '80s, Kiffin was trying to create more interest in the program. During a spring pep rally, he dressed up as the Lone Ranger, had them play the William Tell Overture and came charging down a hill atop a white horse.

Once when he was with the Vikings, he and defensive tackle Keith Millard staged a fistfight on top of a nearby building. It ended when Millard tossed a mannequin, dressed like Kiffin, off the rooftop.

But behind the nutty professor stereotype is a brilliant strategist.

Kiffin called the defensive plays for Nebraska in 1971 in "The Game of the Century" against Oklahoma. (Nebraska won, 35-31.)

His stint at Nebraska from 1966 to '76 made him a devotee of the one-gap defensive line system. Kiffin's nose tackle in 1970 was a 5-foot-9, 199-pound bowling ball named Ed Periard, whose gap-slashing ability helped the Cornhuskers win the national championship. Nebraska repeated as national champion in '71 with a more talented but still undersized line-wrecker named Rich Glover, who was 6-0 and 225.

Kiffin decided speed would be the trademark of his defenses.

"A football field is 53 and a third yards wide, and the quicker you can get from one side of it to the other, the more plays you're going to make," Kiffin once said. "That's my philosophy."

Kiffin's defensive style crystallized after he worked under Tony Dungy, when the Colts head coach was defensive coordinator in Minnesota in the early '90s.

Dungy ran the Cover 2, two-deep zone with the Vikings. When Dungy became head coach in Tampa, he made Kiffin his defensive chief. Kiffin tweaked the Cover 2 and made it his own with the Bucs. Tampa's Super Bowl-winning defense of 2002 was the first team since the '85 Bears to allow the fewest yards, the fewest points and have the most interceptions.

"He's smart, he looks for weaknesses in teams and he tries to expose that weakness," said Bills coach Mike Mularkey, who played in Minnesota when Kiffin coached the Vikes. "He's always got something that you have to adjust to. We might get hit one time, but it's a matter of adjusting to it."

> Weis tops Brady

Tom Brady lost a bet with Charlie Weis when Weis' Fighting Irish beat Brady's alma mater, Michigan, last weekend. Brady had to wear a Notre Dame cap at all news conferences last week and Weis went to considerable measures to assure that got done.

"I talked to both his position coach and his head coach Sunday morning," Weis said, "to make sure that it is handled expeditiously."

When Brady met the media in front of his locker he was wearing an "ND Football" cap but he wore the cap backward over his Patriots cap.

"I don't want the Michigan coaches to disown me," Brady said.

> Kraft in power

Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who has the ear of Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to an increasing degree, was among four additions to the executive committee of the NFL Management Council. The changes were made with an eye toward kick-starting stalled negotiations over extending the labor agreement with the NFL Players Association. Of course, that won't happen until the owners reach an agreement on their own revenue sharing. The other new members of the committee are Denver's Pat Bowlen, Carolina's Jerry Richardson and the Steelers' Art Rooney. They join Dallas' Jerry Jones, the Giants' John Mara, Rams President John Shaw and the Bengals' Mike Brown. Off the panel are Arizona's Mike Bidwell, the Niners' John York, Green Bay's Bob Harlan and the Colts' Jim Irsay.

> Snappy Jets

Jets center Kevin Mawae and quarterback Chad Pennington spent this week working out the kinks in their shotgun snap. How this was not solved in preseason is a mystery. The Jets never used the shotgun under former coordinator Paul Hackett (now the Bucs' QB coach). The shotgun is not part of the traditional West Coast offense. New Jets offensive chief Mike Heimerdinger added it. But Pennington fumbled Mawae's snaps a remarkable six times in Arrowhead Stadium. The solution: Mawae will try to put a little less zip on the snaps, and Pennington will back away from the line of scrimmage to give himself more time to react.

> Clock trouble

Clock mismanagement remains a problem on NFL sidelines. Seattle coach Mike Holmgren seemed mysteriously resigned to defeat last week, allowing the Jaguars to run three plays and run the clock down to the two-minute warning without calling a timeout. The Jags then kicked a field goal to make it 26-14. Seattle didn't get the ball until there was 1:55 left and then still had the ball and two timeouts left when the game ended.

> Onside kicks

K.C.'s Larry Johnson calls his pairing with Priest Holmes "The Church Backfield." "Priest prays over them," Johnson says, "and I bury them."

Where's the passion? Giants season-ticket holders bought only about 15,000 seats for Monday night's game against the Saints.

Dungy is the latest coach to join the $5 million club. That's how much he will earn a year under his new contract extension, which keeps him in Horseshoe Blue through 2009. Coaches in the $5 million-a-year district are believed to include Washington's Joe Gibbs, New England's Belichick, Tennessee's Jeff Fisher, Denver's Mike Shanahan, Seattle's Holmgren and Detroit's Steve Mariucci.

The Dolphins announced a decline of 5,122 season tickets from 2004, with the team's total dropping to 53,422. However, Miami reports that premium seat sales and sponsorship revenues have increased by 10 percent from last season.

The Panthers will be missing star defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, who went down for the year to injury for the second straight season. Nobody's going to suffer more from Jenkins' absence than defensive end Mike Rucker. In 2002 and 2003, he had double-digit sacks. With Jenkins missing most of 2004, Rucker's sack total fell to 3.5.

Bills safety Troy Vincent is a busy guy. Besides his All Pro Dad seminar set for Tuesday, he has a fund-raiser in Trenton, N.J., on Sept. 26. Vincent has recruited Takeo Spikes, London Fletcher, Nate Clements and a dozen other players from around the NFL to participate in the Taste of Trenton dinner. Proceeds benefit Vincent's "Love Thy Neighbor" project, a philanthropic community development corporation. Go to www.ltncdc.org to contribute.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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