No Kiffin? There's no defense

By GARY SHELTON, Times Columnist
Published January 6, 2008

TAMPA - Long before the game begins, his familiar shadow will crease the field. Just like always.

He will step across the grass in that up-tempo hobble of his, tilting slightly forward, moving like a younger soul has taken over his 67-year-old body. He will chatter endlessly in that wounded voice of his, driven by the nerves and the excitement and the pressure of the moment within him. You know the routine.

By now, you are aware of the sight of Monte Kiffin on game day, his eyes narrowed, his hair wisping into a thousand directions, his skin as bronzed as old footballs. Around the Bucs, it always has looked a lot like hope.

For so long now, his has been the most trusted face in Tampa Bay. It seems as if he has been here longer than sunset, longer than gravity. Certainly, he has been here longer than success.

Given that, could today really be Monte's Last Stand.

His contract is up, and how did that happen? A new one has not been offered, and how can anyone justify it? Kiffin is a few weeks from free agency, and whose bright idea is that?

If there is any question about how important Kiffin is to the Bucs, consider how he will spend what might be his final hours in charge of the defense. Today is a playoff game against a New York offense that features a battering ram of a running back, a talented but flawed quarterback and dangerous wide receivers. More than ever, the Bucs need Kiffin to be a giant among Giants.

Around here, that isn't particularly new, either. From the time Kiffin arrived, a dozen seasons ago, success has been in the hands of his defense, and everyone in the building - everyone in the league - darned well knew it. For the Bucs, it always has been a matter of shutting down the other team or shutting off the lights.

How long as Kiffin been here? The Bucs have won 196 games as a franchise, and Kiffin has been the defensive coordinator in 102 of them. The Bucs have had 46 Pro Bowl slots go to defensive players, and Kiffin has coached 34 of them. In 10 of 12 seasons, his defense has been among the league's top 10.

In other words, Kiffin's fingerprints are all over whatever success the Bucs have had in the past. Still, the Bucs have not offered him a future.

How does this happen? Why have the Bucs flirted with losing someone so important? At a time the world keeps asking Kiffin about the possibility of going to the Raiders, how could the franchise have left him with so few answers?

Perhaps you can understand why the Bucs did not address Kiffin's situation last offseason. There was enormous pressure on coach Jon Gruden coming into this season, and if a change had been needed, perhaps a new coach would want a new defensive coordinator running a new system. Besides, Kiffin's defense had slumped badly for the first time last season, falling to 17th in the NFL.

It has been obvious for months, however, that the defense had been retooled successfully. So why hasn't Kiffin's contract been addressed? Does his agent have better things to do? Can't the Bucs spare a Glazer to work this out?

If I ran the Bucs, I would lock Kiffin's door from the outside. I would tell the security guys to keep intruders out, but to make sure they kept Kiffin in. I would fold contract offers into paper airplanes and spent the day launching them in his direction. I would align the front office into defensive positions, and if I thought Monte was about to break free, I would tackle him.

A team wouldn't let its star quarterback hit free agency, would it? A great running back? So why would the Bucs let Kiffin?

In many ways, this is Kiffin's finest season. The Bucs climbed 15 spots in the defensive ratings. They are allowing 51 fewer yards per game. No one talks about how old the players are anymore. No one asks if the league has caught up to the Tampa 2.

"I'm really proud of this defense," Kiffin said. "There was a lot of pressure on them. There were a lot of questions. But I knew we'd be back. I didn't become a bad coach overnight."

Soon, however, he may become a free-agent coach overnight. The contracts of assistants usually end after the Super Bowl date. In other words, the Bucs front office has some work to do.

Down deep, I think Kiffin realizes Tampa Bay is where he belongs. No, not because he spent all week talking about how he loves it here. What else was he going to say?

As tempting as the idea of working with son Lane might be, however, Kiffin would also have to work for Al Davis, who is in the habit of peering over the shoulders of his coaches. For Kiffin, who has autonomy here, that would be an adjustment. Can you imagine the debate over man-to-man coverage (Davis' preference) vs. zone (Kiffin's system). If Kiffin wants to know just how much Davis would interfere, all he has to do is ask Gruden.

When a coach has been in one place as long as Kiffin, when he's paid above scale the way Kiffin has been, the gut feeling is that this will work out. But with so many teams looking for coaches - Baltimore, Miami and Atlanta, for instance - why not embrace a coach who has been such an asset?

Today, Kiffin may be the most important performer on the field. There will be a half-dozen plays, maybe more, when the game can be turned by his defense.

One more time, perhaps for the last time, the Bucs need Kiffin.

After that, they need to realize how much.

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.