Sometimes we forget football is a game. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be exciting and competitive and exhilarating. These Raiders forgot that last season. It stopped being fun.
When the game stops being fun, there isn’t a lot to play for. Some see it as a ‘chicken or the egg’ thing. Did the losing make it not fun or did the lack of fun lead to the losing? Personally, I think it starts with the latter and then snowballs and until you can no longer tell which came first.
What I see at Raiders training camp could reinforce that belief.
At first I wasn’t quite sure what to make of how the Raiders were holding training camp. There aren’t nearly as many team sessions as I’m used to seeing. In any given practice, there has been maybe three full 11-on-11 team sessions. This seemed odd, especially in light of how much Gruden has lamented the lack of practice time with the new CBA since he last coached.
But it soon came clear what is happening. That’s when the signs started to appear. Things like Gruden saying of Defensive Coordinator Paul Guenther “creates a lot of problems” and his defensive players are “going to be a problem for us for the next few weeks.”
What’s this “they” and “us” talk? You’re all on the same team, aren’t you? Well, maybe once the season starts. But in practice, it’s Gruden’s offense vs Guenther’s defense.
For these two veteran coaches, every practice is like a scrimmage. Gruden is preparing the offense on one field while Guenther is preparing the defense on the other. They talk about their plans ahead of time, then they split up to implement their schemes before pitting their squads against each other, trying to trip the other up.
“Yeah, he’s heavily involved in the offense,” said Guenther. “Obviously, we communicate every day with what we’re doing on defense. I pretty much stay on everything that’s going on over there. Again, we communicate each and every day on what is going in. We’re working together in practice and making sure we’re getting the proper looks for Derek [Carr].”
It’s a chess match for the coaches every day. They tests the players’ ability to retain information and execute it on the fly and in the moment against an opponent that is legitimately unaware of what is coming.
“Coach Gruden is going to challenge everybody,” said tight end Jared Cook. “He lines you up and he sends you through a gauntlet of plays and he expects you to get every single one of them right. He’s always challenging you to get better. He’s always challenging you physically, but mostly mentally. He wants to make sure that every time you line up on Sunday that your mind is in the right place, you know where to line up, and you know how to do your job and do it well.”
It’s clear the players are loving this challenge. You can see their excitement and jubilation with every success and frustration with every mistake.
Cook sees a completely different quarterback in Derek Carr from last year to this. The fifth year quarterback has taken his command of the offense to another level, channeling the spirit of Gruden’s voice in these competitions.
“Against this guy, he doesn’t give up anything for free,” Carr said of Guenther. “You have to earn everything and just the mental side of things for me and Coach Gruden to against him and try to figure him out, try to gut him and try to give him a bad night of sleep, make his meal taste a little worse at lunch, that’s what we’re trying to do every day. I just love that mentality. Coach Gruden is on me all the time instilling that, ‘I want to kick Coach Guenther’s butt every day.’ I think he wants to embarrass us as well. That little rivalry, that little work is the same.”
After day three, I checked in with Coach Guenther to see how his meals have been tasting this camp.
“After today’s practice, I’ll probably skip lunch, which I could probably use skipping lunch,” Guenther joked. “It’s good competition. Jon and Derek are teaming up. It’s fun each and every day to go out and compete against. He’s a hell of a player. He gets them in and out of plays all the time. Good plays, which is good for our defense because it’s a great challenge every day because he’s one of the best at it.”
This approach only works with two savvy and smart coaches who can be trusted to carry a full squad with no additional instruction. And when is the last time you saw a coaching staff in Oakland with that ability?
We know Todd Downing couldn’t handle the offense. Ken Norton Jr couldn’t handle the defense on his own and Del Rio wasn’t as hands as Gruden. Before that it was rookie head coach Dennis Allen. Before that, Al Davis ran this team. So, basically the answer is never.
The result is, more so than ever, these Raiders players come out to the field for every single practice and for every single play wanting it. Sometimes the offense wins, sometimes the defense wins. And if all goes well, in the end, everyone wins.