Barber: Raiders getting grayer under Gruden

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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.

As Guenther said recently: “Some of the things that come up, whether it be in the locker room or in the meeting room, I may say, ‘Hey, remember when this happened two years ago against Atlanta?’ We recall those things.”

Also, that Single Wing play the Providence Steamroller used to run.

Monday, several players advocated for the Raiders’ get-old-quick scheme.

“Heck yeah, that’s a positive,” said Cook, who is 31. “It helps the maturity of this team. When you got young guys, especially nowadays, these young guys just don’t get what the NFL is about. Even something as simple as veteran presence and veteran leadership, they don’t understand that. Veteran respect, they don’t necessarily get that. So having vets in the locker room and having vets around you that know the role, know how things go and that hold other people accountable — and that’s the biggest thing, accountability.”

“Guys who have been around understand the game,” said Jordy Nelson, who is going into his 11th season. “They’ve been through a lot, so you don’t have to worry about them having to deal with the NFL life or dealing with team travel, all that.”

All true. But there are risks as well. One obvious factor is team speed. Older players are savvier, and frequently just as strong as their younger peers. But they generally don’t run as fast. That (well, and the money) is why NFL teams tend to balance young and old.

And then there are injuries. When I was covering the Raiders full-time from 2003 to 2006, then-owner Al Davis was in full win-now-at-all-costs mode. Year after year, he signed big-name veteran players like Kerry Collins, Ray Buchanan, Ted Washington, Bobby Hamilton, Warren Sapp and Ron Stone. For the most part, they provided that locker-room knowledge that Davis and his parade of coaches sought. Many of them had trouble staying on the field, though.

There’s just no denying that older players get hurt more, and take longer to recover, than younger ones. Every human body has sell-by date.

My guess is that the Raiders won’t be as wrinkly in September as they are now. Gruden will cull a few of his veterans on cut day and give the car keys to the kids. He may even be employing a strategy. Perhaps he wants the wisdom of the aged to rub off on his younger players this summer, knowing that the older guys will be released down the road.

That would be a cruel fate for the post-30 crowd. But at least they’ll have options. While the school borders the training-camp field to the west and the hotel is to the east, just over the southern fence is an old folks’ home called Aegis of Napa. My daughter used to volunteer there, turning a bingo hopper and scooping ice cream.

Frostee Rucker and Jordy Nelson will love it.

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