NAPA - I attended Raiders training camp on Monday. It wasn’t what I expected. The DJ mostly played rap tracks; no Nat King Cole or the Andrews Sisters. The training staff handed out Gatorades, not Metamucil. And practice ran past 5 p.m., when most of the players should have been hunting early-bird specials at the local Denny’s.
Was this really the Raiders? The team that seems intent on signing every older veteran in the NFL? It must have been, because there was Jon Gruden getting his guys in and out of drills on the field between the Napa Valley Marriott and Redwood Middle School.
Gruden has brought energy and excitement to Raider Nation. He also has brought a few Oldsmobile Cutlasses full of players who are, shall we say, a little gray in the goatee.
“We’ve added a veteran presence,” Gruden said on the first day of camp. “Some people don’t like it, but I like Derrick Johnson, I like Marcus Gilchrist, I like guys that know what the heck is going on. Leon Hall, Reggie Nelson, Emmanuel Lamur, they know this defense as well as (defensive coordinator Paul) Guenther.”
Those are just a few of the men Gruden found playing pinochle in the nation’s rec centers this offseason. Gilchrist, a versatile defensive back, is 29. Hall, a cornerback, is 33. Nelson (the safety who preceded Gruden here but fits right in) is 34. And Lamur, a linebacker, is 29. In some industries, they would be considered vibrant young men. In the NFL, they are “old heads.”
And they are not alone. Other players the Raiders have traded for or signed as free agents this year include defensive tackle Frostee Rucker (34), wide receiver Jordy Nelson (33), offensive tackle Breno Giacomini (32), defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin (32), cornerback Shareece Wright (31), wide receiver Dwayne Harris (30) and running back Doug Martin (29). Raiders team huddles sometimes look like a scene from “Coccoon.”
At least Johnson, the former Chiefs linebacker, is only 14. Wait, hold on. My bad, I was looking at the wrong column on the roster. Johnson has played 14 years. He’s actually 35 years old.
Here’s what Guenther said recently of cornerback Daryl Worley, a relative preemie at 23: “He’s played a lot of football. He’s an experienced guy. He’s big and long.”
No offense, Paul, but you just described Ted Hendricks.
Hendricks, who helped the Raiders win Super Bowl titles in 1976 and 1980, was around for Alumni Day at Napa’s Memorial Stadium on Saturday. So were legends like Clem Daniels, Daryle Lamonica, George Buehler, Phil Villapiano and Lester Hayes. I figured it was a tribute to the men who helped make this franchise great. Now I understand what was really going on. They were looking for tryouts!
There is no doubt who is driving the graying of the Raiders. It’s Gruden. The day he was reintroduced as head coach, he talked about returning to the football of 1998. Turns out he wasn’t cranking the time-machine dial hard enough.
“He’s bringing up film from like 1976, when you didn’t even think they had film,” tight end Jared Cook said Monday. “Like, grainy film where you can barely see the players.”
I get what Gruden is trying to accomplish. He has taken over the core of a roster that went 12-4 two years ago. The Raiders have talent. Anyway, Gruden doesn’t have the patience to develop gangly young players for a couple years. The coach wants to win immediately — a final joyride for the city of Oakland before team owner Mark Davis takes the show to Las Vegas. So he has surrounded himself with athletes who can quickly grasp his scheme, and Guenther’s. Several of the defensive newcomers spent time in Cincinnati.