There’s no arguing who the main attraction will be in Napa the next three weeks.
Not the eccentric Marshawn Lynch. Not face of the franchise (player-wise), quarterback Derek Carr. And certainly not the team’s best player, Khalil Mack, because he might not be there at all.
There may not be a NFL head coach with more eyes on him this time of year than the one making his triumphant return to his old stomping grounds.
“I think the one thing that will take them by surprise is the star life quality that Gruden has and the relationship he had with the fanbase when he was here,” former Raider Charles Woodson told reporters at Jon Gruden’s Raiders introduction. “They haven’t seen that. So he’ll be the most popular guy on the sideline.
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“It won’t be Derek Carr. It won’t be Khalil Mack. It’s going to be Jon Gruden.”
Fans will flock to Napa for a glimpse at the players, yes, but more so the man leading them. I mean, no current players showed up to Ricky’s Sports Theatre and Grill in San Leandro last Friday for fan appreciation day. Yet did you see how many fans flocked to that parking lot? Well over 500 (that’s all Ricky’s could fit) for a coach who hasn’t won a game for the team since Jan. 12, 2002?
My beat partner Jerry McDonald, who covered the Raiders for us during Gruden’s first stint in Oakland, made a good point to me the other day. He said training camp practices were “like a church” from 1998-2001. No fans lining the fields and two-a-days for Gruden to implement his system.
Now Gruden has one practice per day. He’ll carry high intensity, exuberance and everything you’ve come to love about Gruden the broadcaster as he crams and crams and crams in the limited time available before games begin. If you don’t think he’ll play to the crowd, too, just watch the clips from his pep rally last week. He loves the Oakland fans, and they love him right back. Besides, these might be the only few weeks they’re filled with optimism watching these Raiders. Gruden knows that, and he’ll take advantage before his team has any losses that could dampen his fireworks display.
Rookies and a handful of non-rookies reported Monday to Napa, and the remaining players report Thursday. The first practice open to media begins 9:15 a.m. Friday. Gruden has spent the last several days barking orders at Carr throwing to the likes of Marcell Ateman, Keon Hatcher, Marcus Baugh and Paul Butler. There’s a chance all four miss the 53-man roster. Not that Gruden tempers his demeanor for the depth chart bottom-feeders, but you can expect him to ratchet it up a couple notches when Amari Cooper, Jordy Nelson and the rest of this year’s high-profile names stroll into town.
“Come out to training camp and watch for yourself, will you do that?” Gruden asked the sea of black at Ricky’s last Friday. “… There’s nobody like you, and I just have to tell you it’s great to be back, man.”
We can all agree Gruden’s return to the field for the fans isn’t the biggest storyline surrounding the Raiders entering camp. It’s clearly the absence of Mack, arguably the best defensive end in the league, as he awaits a new long-term contract extension and the hefty payday that will come with it. Multiple reports Wednesday, and even before that, indicated the two sides aren’t close on a deal.
There’s a good chance Mack doesn’t show for the fans in Napa before the team returns to Alameda on Aug. 16. If he does by some miracle, he’ll be a strong contender for biggest attraction.
With the overwhelming likelihood he won’t, fans will fixate on the rock star head coach. Just as Charles Woodson told everyone Gruden’s first day on the job.