Saunders Spurns the Raiders
by Glenn Dickey
Jan 20, 2006

AL SAUNDERS passed up a possible chance at a Raiders head coaching position which is probably the lowest paid in the league, which would not have given him a chance to pick his top assistant (because defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had just been re-hired) and which would have required him to run his game plans past the owner. Instead, he took an offensive coordinators job with the Redskins for more money.

Go figure.

Itís not clear how serious a candidate Saunders was for the Raiders job. Saunders interviewed for only four hours and staffing and salary were never discussed, Nancy Gay reported in The Chronicle this morning. But, that is Al Davisís way. Saunders also interviewed with four other teams, and Davis never negotiates seriously with a coach who has leverage. He wants only a candidate who is desperate for the job, which is why he can get away with relatively low salaries. Itís also why he gets only the leftovers in the coaching derby. In this decade, coaches like Marvin Lewis, Charlie Weis and Lovie Smith have moved up from being assistants to being successful head coaches. Who has Davis hired? Hereís the record:

After ďtradingĒ Jon Gruden to Tampa Bay, Davis settled on assistant Bill Callahan as his next head coach. Nobody else in the league ever considered Callahan as a head coaching candidate. He was officially the offensive coordinator only because Gruden gave him that title so he could get a higher salary. In fact, Gruden was his own offensive coordinator, using a version of the offense Bill Walsh first made popular.

Callahan got to the Super Bowl his first season, but that was because of the player leadership of quarterback Rich Gannon. When the Raiders were stuck in a four-game losing pattern at the halfway mark, Gannon took over. As much as 50 per cent of the time, he ignored plays sent in by offensive coordinator Marc Trestman and called his own.

The next season, Gannon suffered a career-ending injury and the Raiders were toast, falling to 4-12 in an acrimonious season, with Callahan trying to shift the blame to the players and the players responding angrily Ė and with poor play.

After Callahan was fired. Davis waited and waited as the good candidates either got other jobs or stayed where they were, as Sean Payton did in Dallas. Finally, he found the kind of desperate candidate he was seeking: Norv Turner. Those Raiders fans who were so critical of Turner this year should remember that he was the best candidate available at the time.

Turner wanted another chance to prove that he could be a head coach. What he proved was that heís a good offensive coordinator but not a head coach.

Frankly, when Saundersí name first came up, I thought, heís a Turner-clone. Heíd had a shot at being a head coach with the San Diego Chargers and it hadnít worked out. Another tour as head coach, especially with a doomed team like the Raiders, would have been more of the same.

Itís wise to realize your limitations. Too often, coaches who are good assistants donít realize they donít have what it takes to move up. Turner and Joe Bugel both fall into that class.

Conversely, the late Bobb McKittrick, who was a great offensive line coach and designer of the 49ers running game, realized that was what he wanted to do and what he did best, and he resisted attempts to move up to even an offensive coordinator role.

Perhaps, after interviewing for head coaching jobs, Saunders realized the same thing. Certainly, he landed in a good spot. Washington owner Dan Snyder is willing to spend whatever it takes to get a winner. Heís reportedly paying Joe Gibbs $5 million a year, and heís signed defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to a three-year, $7.8 million contract and now Saunders to a three-year, $6 million contract.

Sure beats the grief heíd have had to take with a losing team in Oakland.

SO, WHERE does that leave the Raiders? In the muck again.

The latest names to surface are Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and Chargers coordinator Cam Cameron, who has interviewed for two head coaching jobs, with the Texans and Rams, without getting either. Whisenhunt will be available for interviews as soon as the Steelers are eliminated from the playoffs, which could happen this weekend.

The head coaching derby is reaching the point Davis likes, with only one other team, Buffalo, still looking for a coach. That means the best candidates have been taken, of course, but that doesnít concern Davis. Itís the lack of competition, with the resulting lack of leverage, that Davis wants.

Whoever the new coach is, heíll have two choices: (1) Go along with what Davis wants and lose the respect of the players, which guarantees a losing season or seasons; or (2) Fight Davis every step of the way and be either fired or forced out.

Davis likes to brag that heís ďdiscoveredĒ coaches like Mike Shanahan and Gruden, but he fired Shanahan after 20 games because he was trying to bring in a new system, and he couldnít wait to get rid of Gruden. Customarily, teams extend the contract of coaches who had the kind of success Gruden had had, but Davis did nothing until Tampa Bay came calling with $8 million and multiple draft picks.

After being fired by Davis, Shanahan went on to be a very successful offensive coordinator with the 49ers and then on to an equally successful career as a head coach with the Denver Broncos, who are in the AFC title game. Grudenís Tampa Bay team routed the Raiders in the Super Bowl in his first season. The Bucs then fell into two losing seasons, but Gruden has re-grouped and had his team in the playoffs again this year.

Meanwhile, Davis is looking for his third post-Gruden coach.

Since the Raiders returned to Oakland, itís been clear that Davis doesnít want a strong coach. He doesnít value coaches highly, obviously feeling that they should do his bidding.

Itís also clear that his system doesnít work. Gruden is the only strong coach heís had in Oakland. Gruden took over an underachieving team, got rid of the problems and brought in Gannon and went 38-26 in his four seasons. Here are the records of the other Oakland coaches: Mike white, 15-17; Bugel, 4-12; Callahan, 15-17; Turner, 9-23. Collectively, the four are 43-69.

DAVIS ISNíT going to change, of course. In fact, he gets more intransigent as he gets older, more convinced that he, and only he, knows the right way.

So, Al Saunders came out of this smelling like a rose. As for the next Raiders coach, whoever he may be, remember him in your prayers.


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