Being an NFL coach these days often has three or four other elements to it. Psychologist is one. Strategist another. But a lot of the job is logistics and planning around the vagaries of a team’s schedule, particularly when that team gets good … and when a coach has to plan for things like altitude and 1,500-mile flights after physical games on short weeks.
What fans don’t know is something I’ve seen happen more and more over the years, and I’ll use Oakland as an example here: When a team has a Thursday game—as will happen in eight days in Kansas City for the Raiders—the coach and his staff have to work ahead before the previous game is played (in this instance, Buffalo at Oakland on Sunday) to prepare much of the game plan and tape analysis for the following Thursday. So much for easy days on Friday and Saturday, which head coaches often use with their staffs to catch their breath before games on Sunday. The Raiders have to use some of what would be down time to break down tape of the Chiefs from the previous three games; the fourth Kansas City game, against Atlanta on Sunday, will be analyzed and added to the game plan so the players can have it early next week.
But Del Rio, aside from the annoyance of a Monday nighter in Mexico City (altitude: 7,600 feet) and physical games against Carolina and Buffalo at home, followed by the three-day-turnaround and a trip to Kansas City for a crucial game, is loving it all. And he tries to transfer that to his players through the verve of his personality.
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“I love this stuff,” he said. “The highs and the lows … it’s like an addiction. I love it because you feel so alive during a game like this one with Carolina.”
In that Carolina game, Oakland:
• Led 24-7. • Gave up 25 points in a row. • Scored the next 11 points. • Won 35-32. • Made Del Rio realize how lucky he is to have this job.
“At one point,” Del Rio said, “Carolina’s running up and down the field on us, and we can’t stop ’em, and I say, ‘We keep fighting. That’s all we do. We pick each other up. You fight and you fight and you pick each other up.
“Maybe I had some other words in there, some colorful language. But that’s what this was. It’s 60 minutes, and you play to the end. You can have one bad quarter, and you can still win.”
It didn’t take long after the win over Carolina for Del Rio to turn his focus to the next 11 days: Buffalo at home, then Kansas City on Thursday night, 1,500 miles east.
The challenge, he said, won’t deter his young team. Though some of the NFL’s slate this year seems to frustrate Del Rio, he said, “I think our team has embraced the idea of respecting all opponents and fearing no one, and embracing the process. So many things we need to correct, and I’m so happy we have guys who embrace getting better, no matter what the schedule is. They grind. They respect the process.
“We’ve already planned that whole thing out, how we’re going to adjust. We’ve had a lot of challenges. It’s hard to find which is the toughest, which is the most demanding—three of four on the road to start the season, three of four on the road to end the season. Two in Florida. Going to Mexico; planning for Mexico. How we recover. How we game plan. Like for the Carolina game—we actually spent time in our bye week [before playing Houston in Mexico] preparing for Carolina.”
When I look at the Oakland schedule, the one thing that looks the toughest of all: The Raiders finish the season with three of four on the road … and all three are their AFC West opponents, and one is a Thursday night game halfway across the country.
“Three of four on the road to end, all in the division,” Del Rio mused. “Nice of somebody.”
In the end, the Raiders should be able to overcome the obstacles; they’re good enough to survive and be a playoff team, which in year two of Del Rio and year three of Derek Carr and Khalil Mack is a huge win.