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Tony Sparano proved Antonio Smith wrong

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Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

As players spoke to the media from the locker room for the last time for 2014, the conversation is mainly about whether they believe Tony Sparano deserves to return as Raiders head coach following the Raiders going 3-9 under his watch and 3-3 over the final six games.

In such circumstances, the players are naturally going to stand with their head coach. But Antonio Smith in particular showed his affection for Sparano when asked about whether he would like Sparano to return as head coach next season.

Smith has grown to really appreciate Sparano as his head coach, but he wasn't always so fond of the Raiders going through a coaching change.

Following the Raiders' week four loss to the Dolphins in England, Antonio Smith was especially somber about things. The team had just come off of a strong performance in a close loss in New England only to fall flat in London. Now the talk went from that of optimism and 'momentum', to whether the team would fire Dennis Allen and make a coaching change during the bye week -- something of which Smith was not a fan.

"Man, I don't get into that," Smith said of the idea that firing the head coach could give the team a spark. "I aint never seen it work out for good and I aint in the business of just chalking the season up for a loss and just accepting being a loser the rest of the year. That aint why I came here, that aint in my heart, and that aint what I want, so I don't think that's the course of action that we should take because I think that when that do happen, most of the time it's because we done chalked it up for a loss and just let the season be whatever the season is. And that aint in my heart."

The 33-year-old veteran had gone through the longest losing streak of anyone on the Raiders team because he had come from the Texans who had lost 13-straight the previous season. The losses were wearing on him.

Not long after that conversation, the Raiders flew home and promptly fired Dennis Allen.

The coaching change seemed to only prove Smith's feelings on the matter correct for the next couple months with the Raiders losing six more games. But with the team's first win of the season came relief and optimism returned for the weary former Pro Bowl defensive lineman. And he began buying into Sparano and the direction of the team.

Breaking a 23-game losing streak improved Smith's outlook tremendously. He became the most vocal proponent of the message Sparano was offering him and his Raiders teammates.

"I would guess it's the way the team received and respected him, and the way he was able to change the mindset and get us into an environment where you want for more," Smith said Monday. "I think early on in the year, people could have easily gave up. It could have easily went south real fast to the point where you're one of those teams that goes down in history for not winning a game, and I did not want to be a part of that. With all that was going on and all that he did, I think that it's a tremendous change of the mindset of the players. Everything else, I don't know much about. But us - a different mindset. To see that we played every game to its end as hard as we could is a testament to that. We didn't ever give up."

And his thinking that ousting Dennis Allen midseason would have been "accepting being a loser"? He has done a complete 180 on that one too, saying that 0-16 would have been on the horizon had Sparano not taken over for Allen when he did.

"Definitely. It could have easily went [0-16]," said Smith. "If everybody wouldn't have bought in, if he wouldn't have been able to relate to players enough to get them to buy in, it would have done exactly that."

You can't blame Smith for being burnt by his previous experiences on losing squads and with coaching changes. And sure, the Raiders didn't exactly turn things around completely and make a playoff push or anything. It proves that the Raiders had flamed out under Dennis Allen and the spark that Sparano gave was just what they needed. Otherwise it could have been uglier. Hard to imagine, I know.