4 & Out: Jack Del Rio responsible for Raiders’ growth
The Raiders are on a tear. They’re something else, something they haven’t been in my lifetime.
I’ve covered this in a column already, so that’s not something that will be discussed now. But I do want to touch on some things, what the team looked like from 2013 to now, the attitudes, personalities, and the goings on from behind the Plexiglas of the Coliseum press box.
One thing that has stuck firmly in memory is Terrelle Pryor sitting at the team’s podium during the 2013 season, saying that winning a fourth game was going to be easy. He was prepping for the Eagles and coming off a win at Pittsburgh.
Pryor was asked about his competitive nature, and he filled the quote sheet with crap only he believed. He finished his presser and went into the locker room, where the media followed. His next discussion piqued my interest even more.
Pryor didn’t understand why Mac Dre had such a following in the Bay Area, especially 10 years after the rapper was gunned down in Kansas City. I mentioned to him that he would best serve himself by not wondering that verbally, at least in the Bay Area. Players in the league are paid for being popular, beyond their football salaries.
It’s easier to understand why Mac Dre is still so popular when you’ve grown up on the grooves he made, but this story has a deeper layer.
Pryor didn’t ask that, he didn’t look deeper and find the answer. Sure, that’s a simplistic look into Pryor, and his interest in music shouldn’t be an indictment on his play. But this is how he seemed to prepare, how he carried himself. Which is why, despite saying that it’s easy to win a fourth game, he’s never won a game at quarterback ever since.
Oakland won one more game after Pryor was benched three weeks after the victory at Pittsburgh, but with Matt McGloin under center.
The Raiders spent that ensuing offseason searching for more talent, and that’s what they got, even though the record book won’t show it. They brought in Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley, along with several others.
But the coaching staff was losing the locker room as every snap slowly turned into a loss, followed by more. By the time Dennis Allen was fired as head coach, somewhere around half the roster didn’t like him as a person or a coach, and most of the roster had lost their respect for him.
That goes for coordinators Greg Olson and Jason Tarver, who seemed to fail at every turn.
A few others in the Raiders locker room refused to maximize their talent and ability, namely linebacker Sio Moore, who was explosive, twitchy and instinctive, yet failed to put extra time into film study and prep work.
When the Raiders hired Jack Del Rio in January 2015, a new culture was created. It’s not only that the Raiders have more talent now than they did, an unquestioned fact, but there was also a shift in effort. A translation of resources, and a few front men who played several years in the NFL.
Guys bought in, they did more than they had prior, and the results showed it.
There wasn’t any bravado or projection of confidence like there was during the 2014 training camp, there was humility and probably an equal amount of frustration to happiness.
Del Rio managed to get the roster to look deeper, into themselves and the game of football. And after a 7-9 season with plenty of ups and downs, the Raiders banished the Denver Broncos in front of a national audience, and stand tall at 7-2.
“Certainly we’re making progress. Like I said, I think we all understand, that locker room understands, we all have work to do. Things we want to be better that we need to be better at as we go through this year. Tonight, a really solid performance, a big win at home. … We’re growing to expect success now. We know we’re a good team. We focus really hard on the preparation throughout the week. The guys were really on point like they have been each week. The process of preparing to play well is critical. That’s where we’ve been able to hone in and make improvements. Get some of the details down and put together solid performances.”
The roster is better, with both veteran additions making their impact and growth from players like Derek Carr and Amari Cooper. But this happened because Del Rio created a certain balance which can’t be defined by Webster’s dictionary, but can be felt like a hit from Khalil Mack.
One heck of a coach.
He can’t be started in your fantasy league. That guy at the office who is supposed to manage social media accounts probably doesn’t follow him on Twitter.
But Marquette King is another major reason why the Raiders have been so successful this season. An impact player that has a whole lot of fun and allows the Raiders defense some pretty cushy defensive starts with his 49.1 yards per punt average, fifth best in the league.
King’s attitude towards can probably be summed up in a single quote that he gave following the shellacking issued to the Broncos — which included a number of incredible plays by the special teams unit:
“A lot of people around me keep me from getting hit, or help to pin the ball inside the 10 or wherever it needs to be, so it’s not just me.”
King, though, leads the NFL with punts of 50 yards or more (21) and placed the ball within the 10-yard line during the third quarter Sunday, his fifth such kick of the season. And the defense turned it into another three and out.
Another third quarter punt was downed inside the Denver five yard line.
Championships have been won based on winning the field position battle, and the Raiders are the best at this game. There’s no doubting that they might have lost at least two of their seven wins this season if they hadn’t won in that category. The opener at New Orleans, and their next road win at Tennessee.
They needed King to loft the ball high and far, and the coverage unit needed to do their part.
And by keeping the opponent inside their own 20-yard line, the Raiders don’t just force a long field. They limit the other team to what plays can be called, and force situations where route trees need to develop quickly. This limits the chance for a big play to occur.
It’s a major reason that the Broncos couldn’t gain a first down until their fifth possession of the night, and it shouldn’t be surprising that Denver’s first new set of downs came after their best starting point of the evening.
King has always been among the most talented punters in the league, but something changed when the Raiders brought former 49ers special teams coordinator Brad Seely over and made him their own. King detailed a few differences:
“More confident. He’s so cookie cutter to where any little thing I do, he’s going to find something wrong. I come back, like he’s not gonna find something today, and then ‘oh, the drop is too high. It came off your foot wrong.’ And I’m like ‘dang. Alright, I’m gonna keep trying until I get it right.'”
Seely made the 49ers special teams unit the league’s best when he started there in 2011, and though the offense was anemic at best for the bulk of that season, the 49ers were in prime position to win the Super Bowl.
King doesn’t look at film the same way a quarterback does, but he does watch film. He wants to check for tendencies of a return man, things like whether a returner runs better starting from one side of the field or another.
Another thing he’s done well this year is dance. He’s a man who clearly loves to have fun, whether it’s dressing up as a Power Ranger and taking pictures on top of a San Francisco building, or pretending to ride a horse after pinning the Broncos back near the one yard line.
King says it’s confidence, some of which he’s gained after spending so much time with Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski:
“I got it from SeaBass. His confidence, like just being around him, he’s got a mindset of ‘man, I’m the best kicker in the league. Nobody is better than me.’ I took that mindset, and I try to create who I want to be.”
Staying the course
Something that Del Rio has instilled in the roster is that they can’t get caught up in the hoopla, they can’t read into what’s being written or said by media, that they have to keep grinding.
It sounds easy, but it’s got to be one of the hardest things to do in professional football. One of the hardest sports to remain in.
Tackle Donald Penn said that the win against the Broncos was a great victory, but that the Raiders have a long way to go:
“It’s a long season. They did a lot of talking all week, but I said we don’t talk with the media. We talk with our play. With our pads on and we showed that today.”
Austin Howard, too, was reserved when asked what being atop the AFC West means:
“It will mean a lot more after the season when we’re still number one.”
The Raiders are really trying to remain grounded, and they’re clearly succeeding. Most teams who remain good over a long period of time are just the same. The New England Patriots, or Green Bay Packers. The Broncos of 2015, and the Kansas City Chiefs.
These are teams that have remained contenders for the last five seasons, and the Chiefs are the only group that have been without a top flight quarterback.
Oakland is doing a fine job of mimicking the winning attitude that these other organizations have developed, and installing this is a likely reason that Del Rio has been so successful with lesser rosters in the past.
Now, the Raiders have a bye week to get healthy and clean up some more things. But it’s also a test, since the win over Denver also means that they’ll be plastered over the front page of every sporting news outlet in America.
Time will tell if they can maintain, and like I mentioned above, that’s one of the most difficult things to do in a very difficult profession.
What 7-2 really means
What 7-2 means for the Raiders is a legitimate shot at the postseason. They have seven more games, and winning four of them creates a likely postseason scenario. There’s room for collapse, but I like their chances.
It also means that teams are going to begin to key in on them, trying to find their weaknesses.
Other AFC contenders will be devoting more time to stopping them — whether it be by taking away the shallow routes where Carr has been so successful at utilizing when he’s under pressure, or loading up the run through the defensive interior.
There’s certainly other things that keener eyes will notice, and that’s where the Raiders are now. They’re not the team looking to stop another, they have a target on their backs.
It also means that a championship is possible. Very possible.
When looking at other teams to have this kind of success, there’s no real comparison to be found that illustrates odds. Sometimes a team goes 10-6 on a 4th down run that picks up 29 yards, just one more than was needed for a first down like the 2012 Baltimore Ravens, who went on to win it all.
Other times, a team like the 2007 Patriots doesn’t lose one single game — until they lose the Super Bowl.
What’s so excellent about football is that it’s the ultimate team sport. Basketball is five men with certain jobs, but given the limited roster, it’s more easily projected than others.
Baseball is mostly the pitcher, catcher, and batter.
Football, though, included 22 men on every single play, with 140 or so plays every game. That’s a lot of moving parts.
So what 7-2 means is that the Raiders are 7-2. Sure, a playoff berth is very possible. Perhaps a trip to the AFC Championship, and maybe more.
But it also means that the Raiders are 7-2, and perhaps a major injury or two, could cause the engine to seize up, or perhaps the wheels just begin to rattle loose.
Football is tough to prognosticate.
But there’s little doubt that the Raiders are going to win a few more games, maybe more than a few if things go right, and will be playing into January. That’s what 7-2 means.
Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Raiders football.