NAPA, Calif.—Sometimes you watch a football practice, and there’s great mystery about what the offense is trying to do, what sort of trickeration the coordinator wants to pull against the defense.
Then there’s the first play of training camp with the pads on … that’s a big deal for both the offense and the defense. Each side want to show from the first snap of camp to the last snap of practice in Week 17 that it’s the superior entity. Much anticipation, like horses at the starting gate.
Ones versus ones, first team against first team. Tension.
So we come to the first snap of 2017 in pads at Raiders training camp. Monday. High noon. Blazing sun. Cloudless. Perfect camp day, around 83 degrees. “People come here from all over the world for the wine,” Khalil Mack said. “But not us. For us, it’s the grind. Today is the grind.”
A full house of black-clad fans, so many in LYNCH 24 jerseys or BEAST MODE T-shirts. It’s the homecoming of Marshawn Lynch—the first time anyone had seen him in pads in 19 months, since the end of the 2015 season in Seattle, when his career fizzled. Under the Napa sky, Lynch lined up, single back, behind Derek Carr. The quarterback barked the signals. Even the lone child in a stroller—predictably in a silver-and-black T-shirt—knew what was coming.
Carr took the snap under center, swiveled, and handed to Lynch, who juked a bit and was stuck in traffic at the line on a play where the defense is supposed to stand the ballcarrier up by not tackle him—and while the traffic stalled, Lynch put his head down and plowed through the defense and sprinted upfield 20 yards.
“BEEEEEEEEEEASTmode!” came the sound from the crowd, followed by a loud cheer.
Play two: replay, only to the left. Lynch, stuck in traffic, legs churning, nosing for a little crease, and then finding one when the defense slackened, and he was gone up the left side.
Now do you have any question what the Raiders have in mind for the 2017 season?
Watching from the sideline, GM Reggie McKenzie, who met with Lynch last spring and answered the prayers of every Raider fan, dealing with Seattle to acquire the Oakland native, looked on, and approved.
“One of the reasons we brought him here was the toughness,” McKenzie said later. “That weighed heavily. The mentality. The presence. That toughness. We didn’t want just him to be Beast Mode; we wanted this entire team to be Beast Mode. You saw on those plays what he‘s going to bring to us.”
What’s interesting about the Raiders right now is they’ve got answers in so many areas. At quarterback, with Derek Carr, the highest-paid player in NFL history. (Carr on his $25 million a year contract: “Now that was a shock.”) At linebacker, with the returning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Khalil Mack. On both sides of the ball, with a talented supporting cast.
Before they climb Mount Belichick, the question is whether the Raiders can conquer their own division first. Mention the Patriots around here and all you get is respect, not the idea that these guys can kick New England’s rear-ends. The reason: The Raiders haven’t even established themselves as the undisputed power in the AFC West. Last year they finished tied with Kansas City at 12–4 and ceded the division to the Chiefs on the tiebreaker. Coach Jack Del Rio was adamant about Oakland’s AFC West status while walking into practice Monday.
“We understand the Chiefs beat us twice last year,” Del Rio said. “We went 3-3 in our division. We’ve got a lot left to accomplish. That is part of our culture here. We’ve only gotten started here. We got a lot to do.”
Lynch will help. Here are the three big points I heard Monday around the complex about the former Seahawks back:
• He was tired of Seattle, and he wanted to come home. When you’ve finished in a place, and you’re fed up (whoever’s fault it is), it’s over, and you’ve got to move on. That’s what Lynch wanted to do, and that’s what the Seahawks wanted to do.
• There was no other team he wanted to play for. If he couldn’t play for Oakland, he would have stayed retired.
• When the GM of the Raiders, Reggie McKenzie, met with Lynch before signing him, he had to hear that Lynch was into the Raiders to win, not just to come home and finish his career in his hometown. “It took about five minutes,” McKenzie said. “Marshawn said, ‘This is why I want to come and play in Oakland,’ and he listed all the reasons why, and I just thought, ‘Okay, I’m good. We don’t need to meet anymore.’ ”
• He’s been a tremendous worker.
“Honestly,” said Del Rio, “what I wanted to know was, Is he really committed to doing things our way? He is. Is the passion for real? It is. He loves our city. He loves our organization. Having grown up here, I know what that is. I can sense it. And he has it—he has that love. There’s a little special spark, playing for your hometown team.”
And so the Raiders cut it loose on Monday. The main foreseeable problem on the playoff express is the absence of holdout left tackle Donald Penn, who is top-12 in the NFL at his position. The Raiders will scotch-tape the tackle spot for a while with journeyman Marshall Newhouse, who is, to put it charitably, a stopgap guy to finish a game. He is not a starting left tackle in a division with four of the best pass-rushers in football (Von Miller, Justin Houston, Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram). So there’s a month to figure that out. But McKenzie might have to throw some money at Penn; there is no way Oakland will want to risk another injury to Carr.
But the Raiders won’t have it easy. They’ve basically got a nine-game road slate, with a four-hour trip to Mexico City to play the Patriots in addition to their regular eight regular roadies. “Look at our schedule,” Del Rio said. “East coast, NFC opponents. East coast, AFC opponents. Mexico City for a home game. We’re playing on Christmas night in Philly. But that’s okay. The whole idea is to commit to returning this franchise to what it once was. We were down a while. We’re on a mission to bring it back to excellence, and to sustain that. We’ve got a ways to go, but we’ll work.”
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