Barber: Raiders-Chiefs will mark end of a dirty era

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ALAMEDA — With five seconds left in the first half of the Raiders’ season-opening game against the Broncos on Monday night, Denver kicker Brandon McManus lined up for a 64-yard field goal, which would have tied Matt Prater for the longest in NFL history. McManus’ kick was square and true, but it fell to earth perhaps a yard short of the crossbar.

Might McManus have made history under normal conditions? We’ll never know, because the circumstances of his attempt were anything but normal. In fact, they were virtually prehistoric. That kick was attempted off the dirt infield of the Oakland Coliseum, a notoriously difficult place to kick a football. Long snapper Casey Kreiter’s feet were planted right about where second base would reside during an A’s game.

Your chances to witness this sort of athletic fusion cuisine have nearly expired. Sunday’s contest against the Kansas City Chiefs will be the last Raiders game played on dirt at the Coliseum, and likely the last in NFL history.

After hosting the Chiefs, the Raiders will embark on a curious stretch of schedule that includes four away games, a “home game” in London and a bye week. They will not play in Oakland again until Nov. 3. Baseball will be done by then, even if the A’s play a seven-game World Series.

So if you watch the Raiders-Chiefs game, take a moment to honor the swath of sand, silt and clay that arcs across the otherwise green field like an open wound, stretching from 20-yard line to 20-yard line and bleeding past the Raiders’ bench area. Oh, and throw in the warning tracks that cut the corners of the west-side playing field inside the 5-yard lines and larger fractions of the end zones.

“These guys can tell their grandkids, ‘You know what? They used to play baseball and we used to go out during the baseball season and play on the dirt. Literally,’” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said on a conference call this week. “I think there’s something to that.”

Among Raiders coaches, there has been no consensus on the merits of the dirt. Jack Del Rio wasn’t a fan. “It should be grass all the time,” he said in October 2017. “Hopefully, they’ll get that rectified going forward, because frankly it’s a little embarrassing to play on the cinder block. We tolerate it when we have to, but we’re definitely looking forward to having a full field of grass.”

Jon Gruden, on the other hand, is on the record saying he’d like to see some dirt at every NFL stadium in America. Because he is Jon Gruden, it’s hard to tell if he was serious or putting everybody on.

Queried on the topic Wednesday, Gruden said, “It’s a big advantage. Our guys love it so much.” Here he made Ironic Gruden Face. “It’s like I used to play when we were in Tampa. It was a 120-degree heat index, and everybody said it was an advantage to us.”

But then the coach added: “You know what? I like the old elements of football. I’ve been accused of being old school. I know a lot of friends like me that like watching a football game on the dirt.”

Of course, Gruden has never had to lace up pads and play football on a major-league infield. To the men who do, the experience is no blessing — for two primary reasons.

The first is footing. Football is a game of planting, accelerating and making quick cuts. Those activities are not enhanced when the playing surface is made up of a million tiny pebbles. It’s worse for speed positions, and for defensive players, who do not enjoy the element of surprise.

If it’s hard for an offensive lineman who has to fire out and hit the man across from him, it’s a little harder for the defensive lineman trying to hold his ground.

“Oh, yeah,” said former offensive tackle and current radio analyst Lincoln Kennedy, who played his home games in Oakland from 1996 through 2003. “There was a couple times when they would come and they would try to dig in with their feet, like a sprinter does with his cleats. And it was funny to me. Because we would work so hard at pushing those guys around, or getting them on skates. And to me it was like a pig in mud. That’s the way I looked at the dirt, just frolicking around in the mud.”

With all that frolicking going on, you’d think an offense would take advantage of the Oakland infield. But Gruden wouldn’t bite when I asked if he ever calls plays to suit the surface.

“No, I’m not that smart. ‘Here we are at the 36-yard line, let’s put the ball on the other hash.’ No,” he said. “Kicking game, maybe. You probably want to place the ball in the grass if you can.”

Ah, the kicking game. More than any other activity in football, the snap, hold and kick of a field goal or extra point are products of robotic repetition. These guys hate randomness. And for the placekicker, it’s all about the plant foot.

“A lot of your power comes from your plant,” the Raiders’ Daniel Carlson said. “You’re able to pull those hips and that leg through it. So on that dirt, you’re not really stuck into the ground quite as well. … I would say sometimes that plant’s just a little iffy.”

If McManus looked comfortable on that 64-yard attempt, it wasn’t by accident. The outlet 9News Denver reported that a week before the Week 1 opener, the Broncos kicker grabbed long snapper Kreiter and his holder, Colby Waldman, and took them to Coors Field, home of baseball’s Rockies, to practice 33-yard PATs and longer field goals on both the infield dirt and the grass-dirt seams.

Carlson could relate. This offseason, between OTAs and training camp, he and his Raiders holder, A.J. Cole, met on the baseball field at Auburn University to do the same thing. Then, the week before the only preseason game in Oakland this year, they drove over to the Coliseum and practiced some more.

“If it’s your first time, you’re gonna be thinking, ‘Well, I’m not sure how this is gonna go,’” Carlson said. “Even now, I would rather be kicking on grass. But I guess I’ve convinced myself whether I’m on the dirt or the grass, I’m gonna kick the same exact way.”

There’s another thing football players don’t like about the Oakland dirt. It hurts. Like, a lot.

In the hours before the Monday night game, former Cal running back Justin Forsett tweeted: “If anyone wants to know what it feels like to fall on that dirt in Oakland Coliseum: Go outside right now, sprint as fast as you can in the middle of the street, once you get to full speed jump up as high as you can and belly flop on the pavement.”

Forsett, who played two regular-season games and one preseason contest on that tarmac as a visiting player, got a lot of response, including from other NFL veterans. David Nixon, who spent part of the 2009 season with the Raiders, replied, “When I played there, I was told the field crew scrapes off all of the excess dirt from the baseball games, which makes complete sense why it’s basically pure rock/concrete.”

Pain is an every-week occurrence for NFL players, but the sandpaper effect of the Oakland infield tends to stand apart.

“I was telling people, I said, man, the ground hurt more than the tackle,” Raiders rookie running back Josh Jacobs said with a laugh.

“That stuff is like road rash, for real,” quarterback David Carr noted. “I wish they’d soften it up, but I guess it needs to be a fast track.”

Defensive back T.J. Carrie, now with the Cleveland Browns, had a more graphic memory from his four seasons in Oakland. He bears a scar on his left wrist, courtesy of the Coliseum dirt.

“It cut me right down to the white meat,” Carrie told The Athletic last year. “We’d always say, ‘white meat, white meat. That baseball field is undefeated.’ We’d say that because if you slipped and fell on that dirt running at full speed, it was going to be so bad it was going to go down to the white of your meat.”

Football on dirt used to be commonplace. That was true in the early days of the NFL, when teams would often rent space at venerable baseball parks like Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds. And it was certainly true after American cities chose practicality over beauty in the 1960s and 1970s and greenlighted a wave of dual-sport stadiums. According to Josh Dubow of the Associated Press, 10 NFL teams played some home games on dirt in 1981 — including the 49ers at Candlestick Park — while six others played on artificial-turf fields shared with baseball teams.

As football-only stadiums gradually replaced the circular cookie cuts, infields became NFL rarities. When Marlins Park opened in Miami in 2012, Oakland was left alone to play in the dirt. The connection was so iconic that, for a while, Electronic Arts gave users of the Madden NFL video game the option of playing the Raiders on a field of e-dirt.

Kennedy, the decorated tackle, never minded sharing an infield with Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez, but he admits to feeling like a second-class citizen whenever he traveled for road games.

“As far as the dirt infield is concerned, it was almost like an eyesore,” he said. “Because in my travels, you would go around to see all these other stadiums — these palaces, if you will — and then you come here and you’re the one that has to share a baseball infield.”

Soon the Raiders will have their own palace. It is currently under construction in Las Vegas. And despite Gruden’s reveries, it will not boast a giant patch of dirt in August and September. Of course it won’t, because player safety has to come first.

But once again the march of modernity will erase something weird and quaint. Seeing that infield in the shadow of Mount Davis, the Raiders sideline arranged in front of a disguised pitcher’s mound, Sebastian Janikowski testing his footing before a field-goal attempt that should be happening on a patch of green — it was an experience unique to Oakland.

And let’s be honest, there was something fun about it.

“It kind of takes you back mentally to, as a kid growing up, whether it’s baseball or in the backyard playing football,” wide receiver Hunter Renfrow said, “just having fun out there with your brothers and your friends, and playing kickball in the dirt. Just competing.”

And only occasionally exposing the white meat.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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