A coach's greatest challenge

Raiders coach Bill Callahan, like others like him on the hot seat, has to figure out how to motivate a team that has given up.

Updated: November 12, 2003, 8:20 AM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

So now Bill Callahan, like every coach to ever come before him in this situation, has to ask the basic questions, some of them of himself. He has to ask whether he's coaching for this job or the next one (Jim Fassel, come on down). He has to ask whether there is truly virtue in sticking with what doesn't work simply because it's yours (Dave Wannstedt, you have the floor).

Bill Callahan
Chances are that Bill Callahan doesn't have something in his game plan that can win back the loyalty of his players.
And Callahan can ask some other questions. He can ask whether, as many suspect, the Oakland Raiders were headed into this morass with or without him -- whether the Raiders' front office pushed a successful golden-oldies formula to just beyond its stretch point, to the place where seasoned veterans turn into injury-list regulars and continuity becomes a holy grail rather than an everyday given.

He can ask where those veterans were, the ones who reached the Super Bowl in January with him as their coach but fell silent when the first carping shots began whistling across Callahan's bow.

He could certainly spend the rest of the month wondering what suddenly seized up inside Al Davis, to the point that the Raiders' owner could speak not a word of public support for the embattled coach whom Davis personally selected to succeed Jon Gruden.

He could do all of it, Callahan. But why quibble? It's academic here. Practically pure aftermath.

The big loss, that is, already has been posted.

One of the NFL's most interesting subspecies, if sometimes the most painful to study, is the coach perceived as having lost his team. It may or may not be true for Wannstedt and Fassel, two veterans fighting to set their franchises back on playoff tracks -- or for Dan Reeves, the man in Deion Sanders' myopic sights. In Callahan's case, one need not wonder.

In the immediate wake of Charles Woodson's lambasting of Callahan, that the Raider players had lost confidence in their coach amid the frustration of a 2-7 season, the most resounding sense was the silence. Woodson essentially wrote off Callahan as a man whose ego wouldn't allow him to make use of his players' experience and expertise, first in an interview with ESPN's Andrea Kremer, later to just about anyone with a notepad or a microphone.

Woodson made it personal. He made it about both style and substance. And he was never rebutted, not even by Callahan himself, whose detached, delayed, seemingly impervious response to being scalded by a minion spoke volumes about the distance established between the coach and the locker room.

To be fair, several days down the road, a few of the offensive linemen loyal to Callahan from his days as their coordinator said they'd stand behind him. By then, the Raiders' Alameda training facility was all but engulfed in flames.

The club, already heavily hit by injuries to game-changers like deep-threat receiver Jerry Porter, lost quarterback Rich Gannon, the heart of the offense no matter how erratically he performed in the early season. Center Barret Robbins, so crucial to Oakland's success in 2002, made an injury-delayed return to the lineup, only to see stalwarts like Lincoln Kennedy limp off the field. Callahan attempted to chart a course away from some of what Gruden ran, often with disastrous, offense-deadening results.

The season got over quickly. It just keeps getting more and more over.

All of which brings Callahan to a weird and unenviable position -- although, in the world of coaching, hardly a unique one. He is down, essentially, to relying on the honor of many of the established front-liners with whom (to hear Woodson tell it) Callahan long ago lost meaningful contact. But their honor is all he has.

At 2-7, of course, the value of all that can stand in debate. The Raiders might finish with the worst record of any defending Super Bowl entrant in the history of the NFL. Gannon, not even 10 months removed from a Most Valuable Player sortie through 16 games plus a full postseason, is dealing with the question of whether he'll ever regain his form.

Tim Brown is unbowed, but unquestionably bloodied. Jerry Rice, ahead of the curve weeks before Woodson took the case public, said ominously early in the season, "I didn't come back for this."

As for Callahan: It is beyond the bounds of reason, not to mention the arc of Davis' career as owner, to suggest that the coach can survive this kind of team collapse. In that regard, some view Davis' silence as the ultimate rebuke, even given Al's general disinclination to go public with his thoughts.

It's a ghost ship Callahan steers -- some good coaches with their own futures up in the air, players like Woodson already with two feet at the edge of the door, fans thinning with each home non-sellout. All around the Raiders lies the general feeling of disbelief, the natural shock that a team good enough to win the AFC last season could disintegrate to the point that its chance to defend the title is over by the midseason turn.

Callahan has nothing to appeal to now but the players' pride, and stop me if this sounds at all familiar. It is the exit strategy of just about every self-respecting head coach in football history, Lombardi to Allen to Parcells, Ditka and beyond. Maybe, in the end, the Raiders just won't play for Bill Callahan anymore. He is down to hoping they're still willing to play for themselves.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com