Raiders coach Jack Del Rio is an East Bay native who has a strong attachment to the area and a special affinity for the franchise and its fans. He has been very clear about that. But he also has a job and a boss, and in light of the landscape-shaking developments of the past several months, his job is a lot tougher than it was a few months ago.
Where is home now? Where is the heart now? How will Oakland fans react when the games begin, realizing as they do, that the Raiders are here today, but gone tomorrow – in two seasons or three at the latest – and off on the NFL’s big gamble in Las Vegas?
Politics. Loyalty. Conflicting emotions. Lame-duck status. Del Rio is forced to dance around several uncomfortable issues while waiting for left tackle Donald Penn to sign, a backup quarterback to emerge, Marshawn Lynch to adjust after a one-year retirement, and questions at inside linebacker and right tackle to be resolved.
The party line for what will be the Raiders overriding storyline for the foreseeable future almost sounds, appropriately enough, like a terminal diagnosis: Seize today and refuse to fret about tomorrow.
Oh, and hug the pooch.
“I talk to people about it all the time,” Del Rio said Saturday after the opening practice, “and I say, ‘An NFL season is almost like how you look at dog years. It’s like, add seven (years) to it. We’re going there in like seven years. We are about investing in the here and now. Obviously, there are people in our organization that have to work on things that pertain to that. But that’s not where we are. The players and coaches, we’re locked in. Our focus is on being as good as we can be here and now. Right now we are in Napa, and we need to get our work done in Napa. And then we’ll be the Oakland Raiders this year.”
The scene Saturday at the practice facility situated only yards from the Marriott Hotel, in fact, was familiar and routine in some respects. The stands were crowded with Raiders fans in assorted t-shirts and baseball caps, taking photos, cheering when Derek Carr connected with Amari Cooper or Sebastian Janikowski booted a deep field-goal attempt.
Several former Raiders watched from the VIP section before retreating to the hotel patio area for the annual alumni buffet, with Jim Plunkett, Raymond Chester, Daryle Lamonica, Tom Flores, Bill Romanowski, Ted Hendricks, Willie Brown and Jim Otto among the attendees.
Yet it still felt odd and strange and a bit ominous. The media representatives included a columnist, beat writer, photographer and videographer from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the city’s morning newspaper. Four of the outlet’s journalists are expected to provide coverage from all Raiders games. Reporters and cameramen from two southern Nevada television stations also were present, with the visitors contributing to the exceptionally large post-practice presence.
Carr even did a double-take when he walked to the podium near a side fence. “Wow, a lot of people,” the four-year veteran said. “More than my rookie year.”
Asked how he was approaching the unusual set of off-field circumstances, the Central Valley native laughed, and as he frequently does, responded with both his words and his hands. “This is ... there is not a book on how to do this situation,” he began. “No one has done it yet. This is a weird deal, right? But we are so focused on what we are doing, that it doesn’t matter. We can talk about it high, low, whatever you want to do. But at the end of the day we show up and play football. Like I said. That’s years down the road. My kids will be a lot bigger by then. There are a lot more things I want to do here first before we get to that.”
Carr’s list included remaining healthy, trimming body fat, improving as player. But it starts with remaining healthy. Before fracturing his right ankle in Week 15 against the Indianapolis Colts, the former Fresno State standout directed seven game-winning drives and led the Raiders to a 12-4 record and their first playoff appearance in 14 years.
Penn’s absence didn’t appear to be unduly alarming, though that will change if the holdout persists. The left tackle protects the quarterback from blindside hits, and as Penn and Carr can attest, it only takes one mistake – one sack – to end a season. Penn’s Pro Bowl season effectively ended when he failed to block the Colts’ Trent Cole, resulting in Carr’s injury and the only sack he allowed all year.
Penn is seeking a boost to his $5.8 million base salary, which is almost half of what the league’s elite left tackles will earn in 2017. Carr, who said he spoke privately with Penn and credited all his offensive linemen for protecting his “tail,” declined to discuss his teammates’ status. But he knows the deal, this Raiders deal.
For any Super Bowl run in Oakland, the Raiders need to maximize their personnel (see Penn), keep their quarterback healthy, make a significant leap defensively, and avoid the type of distractions that can undermine even the most stable environments. And to be sure, other than the offense and the head coach, there is little that is stable or enviable about the Raiders’ current predicament. And imagine. We haven’t even discussed karma yet.