Kiffin brings a new energy to Oakland
After a season to forget, the first day of minicamp under first-year head coach Lane Kiffin was one to remember, writes John Clayton.
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- A year ago, Jerry Porter was buried so deep in coach Art Shell's doghouse he gave up on the chance of getting a few bones.
Shell, trying to re-establish old-style Raider attitude, kicked him out of his office early in the offseason when Porter talked about getting more catches and training in Florida instead of Oakland. As bad as that was, things only went downhill from there for Porter. Shell kept Porter either inactive or suspended. Meanwhile, the Raiders kept losing in an offense that produced only 12 touchdown drives.
Al Davis wanted a change, a complete change. He fired Shell after one season. He replaced old school with high school. Going against the odds, Davis hired 31-year-old Lane Kiffin, who last year spent his weekdays recruiting high school athletes and his Saturdays calling plays for Pete Carroll's USC offense.
Offensive line coach Tom Cable kept the offensive linemen moving and blocking constantly during drill work Friday. Players moved seamlessly from drill to drill. During seven-on-seven and team drills, waves of receiver assistants chased receivers down the field, critiquing their blocking or route running.
No one had time to rest on his laurels. When you go 2-14, there are no laurels to rest on.
"Anything different from what we had last year is a welcome change," Porter said. "It's a breath of fresh air."
For Porter, it was great just to break a sweat. He described Kiffin's practices as "fast, fast, fast, fast and fast. Just when you think you think you are slowing down, you go faster."
Porter has to go back to the Jon Gruden days in 2001 to recall this type of tempo in practice. For Porter and the Raiders, 2006 was a nightmare. It was so bad, the veteran receiver tried to erase the entire season from his mind.
"I don't remember last year," Porter said. "You keep saying the words [last year], and it doesn't even register to me."
Porter went for the total makeover. He changed his number to 81, Tim Brown's old jersey number. Instead of being an inactive afterthought, he has moved into being the No. 1 receiver in Kiffin's new offense now that Randy Moss has been traded to the Patriots.
Shell tried to bring back the vertical-stretch offense to Oakland, but it didn't pan out. Poor blocking didn't give Aaron Brooks or Andrew Walter enough time to set up and throw passes. Porter was constantly being disciplined. Moss was unmotivated. He became so down on the game of football he was willing to take a $7 million pay cut to leave Oakland and join the Patriots.
But there is a different feel to this team. Kiffin has brought in a fresh approach. Who knows whether it will work, but change was needed. Even defensive players such as Warren Sapp have picked up on the energy. Sapp likes what he sees so far. More than anything, he likes not seeing the bad images of the 2006 season.
"Well, I'm sure we don't have Randy Moss around not playing," Sapp said. "We don't have someone walking around in street clothes ... like Porter. We're in a much better situation. We have a team. We can go play. At least, we can take that out of the mix. I waited 13 years to get the No. 1 pick in the draft and have a No. 1 receiver [Moss] walking around all day not playing and the second best receiver [Porter] on the team not playing.
"Trust me, I went through enough last year with that. Give me somebody who's going to play and let's play."
Sapp didn't change his No. 99, but he did change his body. He looks thinner, though he wouldn't specify how much weight he's lost. During Friday's practice, the 34-year-old defensive tackle was moving around like he was 20-something.
Aside from Kiffin's youthful approach to the practices, all eyes were on first-round choice JaMarcus Russell. The 6-foot-5 LSU quarterback has a rifle for an arm. Though many of his passes may not have gone to the right spot, Russell wowed teammates and observers with tight spirals that looked as though they were fired out of a bazooka.
Russell was running third team behind Walter and Josh McCown, but it's pretty clear the Raiders don't regret selecting him. Russell has good command in the huddle even though he rushed some of his early calls. After all, it was only his first day as a pro.
Porter didn't get a chance to catch any passes from Russell, but at least he was on the field. Kiffin told the team that all starting jobs are open. As the highest-paid and most talented receiver on the team, Porter felt revived.
It is a new season with a new coach and a new quarterback in development. The Raiders felt as though they needed a fresh start, and life around the team is different with a 31-year-old head coach. The reviews are positive and now there is hope for a change.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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