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Raiders retool with enthusiastic coach
During a sunny first weekend of training camp in Napa, Oakland Raiders coach Hue Jackson made certain his team utilized every second of an afternoon full-pads session.
An NFL padded practice, now an endangered species under the league’s new collective-bargaining agreement with its players, is much too valuable to squander. And overhauling one of the NFL’s most underachieving franchises, in Jackson’s view, requires a total hands-on approach. Mind and body.
Red-zone drills were punctuated by helmet-crunching hits, smack talk and shouts of encouragement and critiques among teammates and coaches. When rookie receiver Denarius Moore broke off a jam from safety Tyvon Branch and hauled in a pass from Kyle Boller with a one-handed sideline circus catch, Raiders offensive coordinator Al Saunders sprinted onto the field to offer instant analysis.
“Attaway! Attaway!” Saunders barked giddily into Moore’s face mask, patting the team’s fifth-round draft pick on the top of the helmet.
Jackson, one of the NFL’s most charismatic coaches, made a similar running beeline toward cornerback Walter McFadden when a bad angle and missed tackle led to a touchdown in seven-on-seven work.
“I need better coverage than that, son!” Jackson bellowed, while McFadden locked eyes with his head coach and nodded in agreement.
In position drills, assistant offensive line coach Steve Wisniewski — yes, “The Wiz”, the retired Raiders’ eight-time Pro Bowler, a 206-game starter at guard and member of the 1990s NFL All-Decade team — stood over his group like a drill sergeant, arms folded.
“Gentlemen,” he bellowed, “It’s a great day to be an Oakland Raider!”
The perpetually rebuilding Raiders, who have stockpiled their new coaching staff with influential franchise legends such as Wisniewski, Hall of Fame defensive back Rod Woodson (cornerbacks) and Greg Biekert (linebackers), are serious about scrubbing clean the franchise’s recent past. That would be the smear left by previous Oakland teams which haven’t produced a winning record since 2002, including seven consecutive seasons of 11 or more losses from 2003-09.
In 2010, a glimpse of momentum and an 8-8 record weren’t enough to save the job of former coach Tom Cable, who failed to get owner Al Davis’ team into the playoffs and did not have his contract renewed.
Jackson was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach. And the remodeling began immediately.
The new “legacy” coaching hires, together with longtime Raiders assistant Willie Brown, not only will impart the Davis-inspired themes of “Pride and Poise” and “Commitment to Excellence,” Jackson promises, but they will imprint those messages on their players.
Jackson doesn’t want the well-known slogans to remain tired clichés. He wants a complete cultural transformation.
“Those mottos are written everywhere,” Jackson said, “but because of the bad times, people don’t talk about them anymore. To me, we have lost our way, as far as that is concerned. Winning breeds confidence. When you lose, you lose that edge.
"This organization has always been about winning. Some of the greatest players in the world have played here. But we’ve forgotten that.”
How could that happen?
“I don’t know why or where it went, but it’s been lost,” Jackson conceded. “To win consistently takes hard work, and the old Raiders understood that — the Wisniewskis, the Biekerts, the Woodsons — those guys understand about work and sacrifice.”
Moore, the playmaking rookie wideout who already is seeing time with the first-team offense, clearly soaks in the messages the Raiders' players-turned-coaches are preaching.
“It means a lot coming from them,” Moore said, “because they played the game before. They won championships. There’s no choice but to listen to them. They know what it takes to be the best, and you want to listen to the best so you can be the best.”
As the Raiders strive to find a place among the NFL’s elite, their team — typically — has undergone plenty of controversial turnover since last season.
Standouts such as All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, former starting quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, guard Robert Gallery and tight end Zach Miller left via free agency.
“Those were great Raiders, everything what you want a great Raiders’ player to be,” Biekert said, “but financially, you can’t keep all of them.”
Alternately, the franchise spent large to re-sign defensive tackle Richard Seymour (two years, $30 million, $22.5 million guaranteed), linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (five years, $48 million, $29 million guaranteed) and cornerback Stanford Routt (three years, $31.5 million, $20 million guaranteed). Davis spent so much, Seymour and Routt already have restructured their new deals to help get the team salary cap-compliant.
Last week, the Raiders replaced Miller with free-agent tight end Kevin Boss, the former New York Giants pass catcher who won a Super Bowl as a rookie, giving him a four-year, $16 million deal ($8 million guaranteed). But will Boss have the same impact catching passes from starting quarterback Jason Campbell as he did playing with Eli Manning?
For now, Boss can say he is impressed with the enthusiasm and sincerity of Jackson. One dinner with the head coach last Wednesday, and Boss was sold on being an Oakland Raider.
“The moment I met coach Jackson, I could just feel his energy and it was just exciting for me,” Boss said. “Within moments of meeting him, I felt on board with his ideas and, like he was saying, his passion for the game, just his energy, is just exciting to be around and just thrilled to be a part of it now.”
In the new Oakland regime, Seymour, Wimbley, Routt and Boss fit the mold of what Jackson and his staff want a Raiders player to be — the exact opposite of forgettable recent wearers of the Silver and Black, big-money busts such as JaMarcus Russell, Javon Walker and DeAngelo Hall.
“We talk about it all the time — we’re trying to get people out of here who are not Raiders,” said Wisniewski, who was careful not to lump Asomugha, Gallery, Miller or Gradkowski in that group. “We don’t mean anything negative about them as people, but we’ll say it: He’s not a Raider, or what we intend a Raider to be.
“This is a constant work-in-progress; we want to bring people in who fit our mold and get people out who don’t.”
So who is a 2011 Oakland Raider?
“We’re trying to preach to our team that a Raider is physical, a Raider is relentless,” Wisniewski explained. “He’s accountable, he’s intelligent, he’s poised under pressure and he gets the job done. Those are going to be our words to describe a Raider, and we just have to keep reinforcing it and holding the standard high.”
The Wiz summed it up pretty well. Now the Oakland Raiders have to live up to that legendary credo, one that has gone painfully awry.
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