Every year we say the Raiders look different. That there's a different energy in practice. And that may be true when you compare the energy from the first practice of this year to the last of the previous year. In that respect, everyone should be more energetic. That being said, this year is very different. For real different.
For instance, the media guys typically take some gentlemen's wagers in training camp as to when and who will get in the first scuffle. That day typically doesn't happen until the first day in pads and there are certainly some usual suspects who will be ruffling some feathers fairly quickly.
That wager is never taken for offseason practices. Simply because you don't see players get heated like that in offseason non-contact practices. It became apparent very quickly on Tuesday that there would be no warming into the level of energy Norton Jr wants to see from his new defense.
"I think that you really need confidence," said Norton Jr. "If guys are talking, if guys are communicating, in my experience, the more confident players are talking about ball. The more confident players are making plays. The more confident players are enthusiastic. That's in my experience. Any time I see that, if I feel that, if they are talking about it and they can feel the juice and feel the chatter when you walk up to a practice and you can feel the energy, in my experience, that turns into winning football."
Few have attached to Norton Jr's philosophy than returning linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong. In Tuesday's practice, he was jawing with other players and scuffling on several occasions. He has gotten a lot of good mention from his head coach recently and that has undoubtedly contributed to the swagger he's been showing on the practice field while filling in for Sio Moore, who is recovering from offseason hip surgery.
Armstrong is thriving under the tutelage of Norton.
"He's just allows you to be yourself," said Armstrong. "He's out there, he's just like us. He might talk more than us. He's yelling and screaming more than the players are, so he gets everyone into it. He makes practice fun. He brings the energy every day. You're not going to look at him and go, ‘Oh man, where's coach at? You don't hear him today.' He's going to be out there in your ear and I think that helps me a lot, to just be yourself and play ball."
New middle linebacker Curtis Lofton has had a similar experience with Norton.
"OHHH! That's how I'd describe it," Lofton said of Norton's style of coaching. "We take the personality of our defensive coordinator. He has a ton of energy. We're going to be stingy. We're going to dictate the offenses. It starts right now. We're going to do it day by day and be consistent with it. That's what we're focusing on doing right now."
"You think sometimes that this is going to be the day that he doesn't have [that energy] but he brings it to us every single day and we love it. We feed off of it."
"I am who I am," Norton responded. "I've coached and played the same way. Early on in my coaching career, I learned that I need to approach games, approach practice, approach meetings just the way I played the game - just hard and give it everything you have. I think the players appreciate that. Over my time as a coach and player, players appreciate the honesty. You give them everything you have, and a lot of times the players, they have a tendency to become like their coach. I wouldn't mind guys having a lot of energy, feisty, smart, enthusiastic, really care about what they're doing, giving everything they have. I like to have players like that."
Where this defense, and Armstrong in particular, have to be careful is when to be aggressive and when to turn it off and move onto the next play. This is something Lofton understands as an 8-year veteran middle linebacker who joined the Saints in the wake of the ‘Bountygate' scandal.
Classically, the Raiders once embodied aggressive, in-your-face defenses. It's not dissimilar to the style the Seahawks played in their ‘Legion of Boom' defense while Norton was linebackers coach there.
The key is discipline. The Raiders of old wouldn't be able to exist in today's NFL with far more strict policies and punishments for unsportsmanlike conduct and unnecessary roughness.
If there is one unit that has the talent right now to bring the energy and aggressiveness between the whistles without showering the field with yellow hankies, it's the linebacking corps. It starts there. Right where former linebackers Jack Del Rio and Ken Norton Jr like it.