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Barber: Raiders' circus comes to Napa

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NAPA — the circus came to napa on friday. it will be performed consecutively for the next three-and-a-half weeks, with a few days off for rest (and football games). Animal acts are mostly a thing of the past, but this one will have acrobats, fire breathers and clowns.

Barnum & Bailey have nothing on Gruden & Mayock.

The Raiders had already put the “camp” in training camp a year ago. Jon Gruden’s presence will do that for a football team. Gruden is a born showman, and a revered figure among Bay Area sports fanatics. He was bound to make Training Camp 2018 a spectacle.

As it turns out, the Raiders were just warming up for 2019. What’s bigger than red-faced Jon Gruden pacing the practice field in Napa? Red-faced Jon Gruden pacing the practice field in Napa, with six NFL Films camera crews and 14 additional robotic cameras following the team’s every move for this year’s edition of “Hard Knocks” on HBO.

As a very subtle NFL Films placard hanging just outside the practice field stated: IN BEING PRESENT AT THIS LOCATION, EACH PERSON IN ATTENDANCE IRREVOCABLY CONSENTS TO BEING FILMED OR VIDEOTAPED AND RELEASES ALL PRODUCERS AND USERS OF SUCH FILM OR VIDEO TAPE FOR ANY LIABILITY FOR LOSS OR DAMAGE TO PERSONS OR PROPERTY OR FOR INFRINGEMENTS OF ANY RIGHTS, AND EXPRESSLY AUTHORIZES AND PERMITS USE OF HIS OR HER NAME, VOICE OR LIKENESS AND ALL REPRODUCTIONS THEREOF IN ALL MEDIA FOR ALL PURPOSES THROUGHOUT THE WORLD IN PERPETUITY WITHOUT LIMITATION AND WITHOUT COMPENSATION THEREOF WHATSOEVER. THANK YOU.

No, thank you! It isn’t everyone who gets a chance to be background scenery, without compensation thereof whatsoever, for a no-pads Gareon Conley interception.

“The reason you go away to training camp is to get away from all the distractions,” Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said Friday. “Get together, bond, learn your assignments. No distractions, no intrusions. Hard Knocks is an intrusion. But it was handed to us, so it’s up to us to deal with it. I think we’re really dealing with it in a professional way.”

Yes, but it’s easy to maintain professionalism when you haven’t had a single official team practice or meeting yet. We’ll see how composed everyone remains the first time Gruden jumps on quarterback Derek Carr for getting rid of the ball too quickly.

Gruden and Mayock, the ringleaders of this circus, addressed the media in the Carneros Ballroom at the Napa Valley Marriott, where the team stays during camp. Despite its grand name, it was a small conference room. The coach and GM entered from a side door that was all but invisible in the soundproofed wall. It was a nearly perfect entry. All they lacked was a crackle and a poof of smoke.

Hard Knocks has a history of delivering theatrical television. Like when Rams defensive end William Hayes pooh-poohed the existence of dinosaurs, or when Bengals linebacker James Harrison got 300 acupuncture needles in his neck, or when Jets cornerback Anthony Cromartie attempted, and failed, to name all nine of his children.

Expect the Raiders to render all of those moments forgettable. It’s almost as if Gruden and Mayock assembled a cast specifically to drive up ratings.

Their wildest acquisition was Richie Incognito, who didn’t even play football in 2018. Incognito was involved in one of the most sordid scandals in recent NFL history, as the main instigator in bullying — and occasionally dropping racist epithets on — fellow offensive lineman Jonathan Martin in Miami. During his brief retirement, Incognito was arrested for threatening to shoot people at a funeral home in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he had sought to decapitate his dead father. He also allegedly punched a hole in his 90-year-old grandmother’s wall while in a violent rage.

I don’t mean to mock a man for his apparent struggles with mental illness. I just wonder whether an NFL locker room and football field are the best places to get your mind straight.

The NFL suspended Incognito two games for his legal transgressions. Fortunately for HBO’s ratings, he can practice with the Raiders and attend team meetings throughout the summer. His banishment doesn’t begin until the regular season.

Then there is veteran linebacker Vontaze Burfict. During his seven seasons in Cincinnati, Burfict was fined at least 11 times for kicking, stomping, spearing and otherwise violating his fellow NFL players during games. He was also suspended twice, once for hitting a defenseless receiver and once for failing a PED test.

“Vontaze Burfict is going to be the straw that stirs the drink,” Gruden said. You have never seen a drink stirred so violently.

HBO’s biggest asset, though, is wide receiver Antonio Brown. He is an incredible player, one of the best of his generation, and the Raiders got him for third- and fifth-round draft picks. Great move. Brown is also a distillation of every stereotype of the gaudy, self-absorbed, modern-day NFL receiver. He has never met a camera he didn’t love, or a Twitter battle he was unwilling to embrace. He could become a Hard Knocks legend.

Brown celebrated the occasion Friday by posting video of a morning Napa Valley balloon ride. He did not, as some reports stated, “arrive at training camp in a hot air balloon.” He landed in an open field, as most of the tourists do.

“Is he okay? That’s all I want to know,” Gruden asked. “I expect a lot more drama from No. 84, I really do. I told Antonio try not and yell at Derek, yell at me when you have a problem. Then he started yelling at me and I said, ‘Don’t yell at me, yell at (Greg) Olson, he’s the offensive coordinator.’”

Mayock and Gruden both praised Brown’s legendary work habits, as they love to do. What they failed to mention was that he would begin training camp on the Non-Football Illness list, a detail that ESPN’s Field Yates reported approximately two hours after the Raiders press conference ended. Someone had asked the GM about injuries, and Mayock noted Denzelle Good and Keith Smith. Not the star receiver.

Why not just break the Brown news while Mayock had an audience? Because there is no showbiz in that. The Raiders are embracing their return to unpredictable flamboyance, a trait that had largely disappeared since they traded Gruden to Tampa Bay 17 years ago.

None of this means the Raiders will be a good team. It has been 36 years since they won the last of their three Super Bowl championships, and there is little to make us believe they will end the drought this season. But hey, that’s all right. Three rings is just about right for this circus.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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