ALAMEDA – Quarterback Derek Carr spiraled the ball with no trace of wiggle. Wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins soared to the top of his leap to make a catch before he splattered into the end zone. Defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin enjoyed a celebratory dance after he knocked down a pass, and cornerback Neiko Thorpe broke one up at the goal line to the approval of his fellow defenders.
It was the last day of a voluntary minicamp for the Raiders, and spirit filled the air, along with a decibel-heavy, rap-laden musical mix laid out by team DJ and coach, Jack Del Rio. The music blasted nonstop through Thursday’s 90-minute practice. Occasionally, when teachable moments presented themselves, Del Rio ordered the music turned down. Finally, you could hear the jets roar from nearby Oakland International Airport.
His first on-field sessions with his team completed, Del Rio declared victory. Everybody on the 74-man roster showed up for three days of workouts, “volunteering to commit to the work that is being done,” he said. The coach hailed the energy displayed by a club that hasn’t had a winning season since 2002. Del Rio’s immediate concern is to change the mentality of a losing culture, to get this group on the attack in everything it does.
“I expect us to come to work every day and give everything we have to our number one goal, which is to win our division,” Del Rio told reporters. “So for me, in everything we’re doing, when we come to work every day, it’s to work with a purpose. It’s to go after each and every day, to not ever get in a position where you’re just coming in punching a clock.”
The Raiders last year labored to 3-13, one of the worst records in franchise history. Oakland fans had cause to feel a little better about their beloveds toward the end of 2014, when the Raiders won three of their last six, including a cross-Bay victory over the 49ers. Lopsided losses in the other three took some of the joy out of the positive finish, and Tony Sparano, Del Rio’s predecessor as interim head coach, was asked to leave.
Then the Raiders’ front office made some plays. It snatched up Del Rio, a former Hayward High School star born in Castro Valley who had been defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos, and it went to work in the free-agent market.
Incoming safety Nate Allen intercepted four passes last year with the Eagles. Center Rodney Hudson started 31 of 32 games the previous two seasons with the Chiefs. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, a tackling machine with Saints, made 144 stops last year for the fun-loving folks in the French Quarter. Defensive tackle Dan Williams started nine games and made 31 tackles with Arizona.
Of all the Raiders offseason moves, the free-agent signing of wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who leaves the 49ers after six seasons for a one-year deal in Oakland, generated the most interest among Northern California football fans.
Crabtree wanted, but could not get, a long-term agreement somewhere. On Thursday, he avoided talk of his wage situation and instead discussed a football restoration with the Oakland franchise that in a former epoch won three Super Bowls in eight seasons.
“It’s a legendary program, man,” Crabtree told the media scrum. “You can get ’em back to the top. That’s a big deal. It’s a challenge for me, and I’m ready to take on that challenge – me and my team.”
Oakland also invested in running back Trent Richardson, the All-American who played on two national championship teams at Alabama, but who will now carry the ball for his third professional team in four years.
Richardson talks of “getting back to the love of the game and having fun,” the way it was in ’Bama. He wants the ball and means to keep it simple: North and south, he said, “not going sideways.”
He is taken by his most recent change of scenery.
“It’s pretty out here,” Richardson said.
Maybe it was the soft sunshine in the beautiful blue Bay sky that had everybody in such a good mood Thursday. The energy and optimism of a new beginning also brightened the Silver and Black outlook. Whether a returning veteran who had endured years of losing, or a free agent looking for rebirth, this was time to buy into this chance at returning the Raiders to relevancy.
Del Rio said it “feels great” to be head coach again. He hadn’t been one since 2011 with the Jacksonville Jaguars, with whom he compiled a 68-71 record but made the playoffs twice in eight seasons.
A former linebacker, Del Rio lives and works with the intensity associated with the position. As head coach, he demands focus of habit and intent at task. His first days on the field with his team, he thinks he sees the dawn of a new ethic.
“I like the way the team has come out and worked,” Del Rio said. “I thought each day we got a little bit better. I am pleased with the growth I saw here each day.”
Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.