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RAIDERS COACH Lane Kiffin called the team s passing game basically embarrassing and says he s still behind struggling kicker Sebastian Janikowski. (Photo: DAVID ZALUBOWSKI Associated Press)
ALAMEDA — Freshness and candor are for the time Lane Kiffin's greatest assets. A simple Monday game-follow press conference, the sort that in defeat often becomes a mixture of accusations and subterfuge was yet another chance to understand what Al Davis saw in a man so young in age but so wise in understanding.

Freshness and candor are for the time Lane Kiffin's greatest assets.

Kiffin has it. Nothing could be more obvious. And the Raiders, notorious for their methods, their elusiveness, have Kiffin, the new guy, the contrarian thinker.

He is determined to step away from the past, from conspiracy theories, from the grumbling, from the "woe-is-us" philosophy that holds a team in its clutches when everything seems to go wrong.

The Sunday loss at Denver, 23-20, in overtime, fit right in with the bad old days. Oh, those stigmatized Raiders, losing that infamous January 2002 playoff on the Tuck Rule, now losing on a freak, but legal timeout call.

Tucks, timeouts and Randy Moss. Together they would change any fan's mood from silver to black.

But sitting in front of the cameras, microphones and notepads, and interestingly wearing a hat with an NFL logo, not a Raiders logo — although, admittedly a black hat — the 32-year-old Kiffin dealt in more substantive issues.

Such as the Raiders' passing game. "Basically embarrassing," said Kiffin, an offensive specialist. Such as the Raiders' kicking game. "I'm still behind (Sebastian) Janikowski. He's goingthrough a tough time right now."

Such as the Raiders' missed tackles. "We've got to figure it out, because it was very poor and a key to the game."

Such as the Raiders' record. "Well, we're 0-2, and we can talk about, 'Our team fought back, and we've been ahead in both games in the fourth quarter, and are we better than we used to be?' But we're 0-2, and it's my job to win here."

The way it was Art Shell's job to win there. And Norv Turner's job to win there. And Bill Callahan's job to win there, after his Super Bowl season, when in 2002 he became the last Raiders coach to have a winning record.

It's been a disaster, but we know that.

What Kiffin knows is Josh McCown, who has thrown five interceptions in the two games, remains his starting quarterback. For this third game.

Daunte Culpepper is waiting, and surely the fans are waiting for Culpepper, but the coach makes a solid argument McCown is more completely versed in the system.

"I just feel he gives us a better chance to win right now. Will that be the case next Monday?"

You like the way Kiffin asks the same question the rest of us are asking. You like the way Kiffin says of McCown, "He has to be more accurate." You like the way Kiffin, rejecting stubbornness born of ego, says, "When you have less success at something, you don't keep doing it to prove a point."

Eleven straight losses for the Raiders, nine straight on the road. But only two in a row on Kiffin's watch.

This last to the Broncos, when Janikowski's 52-yarder in overtime didn't count because cleverly Denver called time out before the snap and not so cleverly the Raiders didn't notice, must have been particularly painful. Janikowski's subsequent attempt hit the top of the left upright.

"It was depressing again today," Kiffin conceded Monday, "because you watch (the film) and see our guys run out there, and they're so excited. And it was like they'd won, and it was taken back from them. It's different than the other team going down and scoring, or you're driving and you turn it over."

Janikowski had taken a small divot on the first kick, so holder Shane Lechler slid to his right before the second to find a smoother patch of turf. The snap was a bit off target, Lechler rushing the spot, and that may have caused the miss, although how do you find fault with a 52-yarder that is two inches wide?

Kiffin makes no excuses. Of his choices. For his players. Janikowski is not being replaced. For the moment, neither is McCown.

"I apologize to the fans," Kiffin said of a demand for Culpepper, "but I can't make decisions based on their reactions. ... But I can't say if I were in their shoes and I had a guy (Culpepper) who's been to three Pro Bowls, I wouldn't be doing the same thing."

A rookie coach with a veteran's sense of perspective.

Art Spander has earned a spot in the

Pro Football Hall of Fame. He can be reached

at typoes@aol.com.