BAGSHOT, Surrey, U.K. — Antonio Smith snuck away from the Raiders team hotel Tuesday night. To Jack’s Fish & Chips. He’d call it a late-night craving, except the veteran defensive tackle’s body didn’t really know what time of day it was.
Team curfew was at 11 p.m. That’s 3 p.m. Pacific Time. Practice the next day would start at noon, or 4 a.m. Pacific Time. In between, Smith didn’t get a wink of sleep. When he walked into the team meeting Wednesday morning, he realized he wasn’t alone.
“Half the people in the meeting room walked in like zombies," Smith said. “Coach noticed it right away. He said, 'You’re going to have to bear with me. Stand up. Take a break. Walk around. Have more coffee.' ”
This is exactly why the Raiders arrived in the U.K. on Monday morning, for a game to be played Sunday evening against Miami. They made the eight-hour time zone leap in two intervals: First, to last Sunday’s game against the Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., then directly across the Atlantic on a postgame Sunday night red-eye. This is the itinerary blueprint followed by West Coast teams playing in the International Series—and yes, there already is a blueprint, for pretty much every aspect of the NFL’s London experience.
The Raiders, though, have been particularly unsuccessful when traveling east for games—they have lost 15 straight in the Eastern time zone. The extra time to acclimate for a game played even farther east is necessary. It required planning dating back to February, and a massive shipment by boat that set sail for London from the Port of New York back in August.
Oakland’s headquarters right now are at Pennyhill Park, a sprawling five-star hotel about an hour outside London, one of the options the NFL showed teams during a March scouting trip. As the designated home team for Sunday’s game, the Raiders got to pick first, and chose the property that is also the home base for the England Rugby Team. The rugby pitch on the grounds was converted into Oakland’s practice field (and was promptly re-manicured by a trio of lawnmowers the minute practice ended).
The posh Pennyhill Park Hotel outside London is where Derek Carr and the Raiders have set up shop for the week. (Tim Ireland/AP)
Conference rooms were turned into position group meeting rooms in chandelier-adorned hallways. The locker room is actually bigger than the one at the Raiders’ Alameda facility—a giant, white “marquee,” the British word for a cross between a mobile home and a tent, which is positioned in a parking lot. Around most corners are hydration (Gatorade) and caffeination (coffee, tea, espresso machine) stations. The man overseeing the operation for the Raiders is Pete Caracciolo, who is in his 17th season as the director of team travel and football operations. Before that, he worked in production, ordering and shipping for a Long Island-based printing company—three skills required for setting up a temporary base in London.
“Yes, it is a lot of work for a week," said Caracciolo, who consulted his brother, Matt, previously the director of football operations for the Patriots during their London trip in 2009. “Because after the week, it is over. But I would definitely welcome the opportunity to do it again.”
Caracciolo skipped the stop in Foxborough and traveled to London last Friday with three staffers. His first order of business: find everything they shipped. Computer paper has different dimensions in the U.K., so they sent over 10 cases of 8.5x11-inch paper for printing documents such as play sheets. They sent at least 600 outlet plug converters, and a couple hundred cases of water and Gatorade, distributed to each of Oakland’s stops (Pennyhill; the downtown hotel they’ll stay at Friday and Saturday nights; and Wembley Stadium). Bulky items that are more available in the U.S. are sent by boat, because it’s cost-effective and saves space on the team plane.
“But," Caracciolo points out, “there is nothing you can pack to overcome jet lag."
Since the team landed at Gatwick airport at 8 a.m. Monday, the plan has been to follow a normal game-week schedule, but on London time. The players did a team run Monday morning, out on the rugby pitch when they arrived at Pennyhill, to shake off the exhaustion and loosen up after a long flight. The goal was to stay up all day and conk out at night, but that was easier said than done.
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Smith couldn’t fall asleep until after 4 a.m. Tuesday, then he slept for nearly 14 hours. When Tuesday night rolled around, he wasn’t the least bit tired. Later on Wednesday, when afternoon meetings broke at 4 p.m., one assistant coach teased a young player filling up a large cup of coffee in the hotel lobby. “You’re too young for that,” the coach said. “I’m doing all I can not to take a nap!” the player responded.
Given the run of losses on trips east, coach Dennis Allen has tried fiddling with the team’s schedule before. For the season opener against the Jets, the Raiders traveled to New Jersey on Thursday. For the Foxborough trip, a game they came very close to stealing from the Patriots, they left on Friday. This week, both the Raiders and their opponent will be adjusting to a new time zone, and the Raiders will have four more days than the Dolphins, who will arrive on Friday morning.
“They think it’s going to be the best for them," Smith said, “but we’ve got other plans."
Perhaps an entire practice week on the road will be the formula that spark the 0-3 Raiders to their first win. Despite the jet lag, there is a looseness among the team that hadn’t been there the past few weeks, team staffers observed—especially from Manchester native Menelik Watson, who was the most engaging with the media he’s been since losing his starting right tackle job this summer, and even Allen.
Pennyhill, with a golf course, a spa and the setting of a country estate, is a good place to get loose. There’s an upstairs lounge where veterans Justin Tuck and Charles Woodson watched old Western movies one night. Central London is just far enough—a 50-minute train ride—that many players have been staying in. And there are still four more days for the players to properly set their body clocks.
“If there was a team in London, I’m gonna come be on the team in London, so I don’t have to acclimate,” teased Smith, still groggy. “I’ll be alright. This is lovely."