In a corner of the Raiders locker room, the stalls of AJ McCarron and Brandon LaFell sit side by side, two players who share the connection of having reached the absolute pinnacle of their sport — only to have everything come crashing down in a 1-7 season for the Raiders under Jon Gruden.
McCarron, 28, was the on-field leader of an Alabama team that went 36-4 in games he started with back-to-back BCS national championships under Nick Saban.
LaFell, 32, won a BCS title with LSU in 2007 and a Super Bowl championship following the 2014 season with the New England Patriots, catching a touchdown pass from Tom Brady to open the scoring in a 28-24 win over the Seattle Seahawks. His coach was Bill Belichick.
Given that McCarron is the backup quarterback to Derek Carr and that LaFell has been inactive four times in eight games, it’s not as if either man is going to have anything critical to say on the record.
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But by the same token, both could have taken the “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything it all” route and declined comment. Neither did.
McCarron, acquired for a fifth-round draft pick from Buffalo at the start of the regular season, saw his first playing time of the season in a 34-3 loss to the 49ers. With Carr having already been sacked seven times, McCarron came in to mop up, completing 1 of 3 passes for eight yards and getting sacked once himself.
“Of course it sucks getting in at that kind of time in that situation, but I always have fun,” McCarron said. “I love playing the game. That’s why I do it. I always have a smile on my face when I’m playing. It’s just the way I am, the way I’ve always been.”
Smiles, perhaps, but the it’s been no laughing matter. LaFell was signed as a free agent on Sept. 3 after having played for Carolina, the Patriots and Cincinnati.
“It’s very difficult,” LaFell said. “I tell every guy, as soon as you win the Super Bowl, the only thing you can think about is getting back. That’s your only desire. That’s what feeds you every day, to come out, work every day and try and get back there. Having this season like we’re having right now, it’s really tough.”
McCarron conceded he’s someone who hates losing more than he loves winning. He got an early lesson duirng his first loss as a starter Alabama. He went to a local restaurant after losing to LSU, and couldn’t help but notice a teenager sitting with his father seemed to be giving him the evil eye.
After his meal, McCarron found a note on his car from the youth, expressing his disappointment at how poorly he’d played.
“There’s always going to be fans that take everything to heart, but that poor kid took that loss pretty hard, I guess,” McCarron said.
End results aside, LaFell thinks the approach to practice has been good and that players take things seriously in Oakland much as they did with New England.
“In both places we had guys that love to practice,” LaFell said. “I tell these guys, the teams I’ve been on that won and made it to the playoffs. they didn’t mind practicing and practicing hard. They didn’t mind doing tough things when tough things needed to be done.”
While Alabama is among the top recruiting schools each year, McCarron believes it goes further than sheer talent.
“It’s not just recruiting, it’s recruiting the right guys, and that relates to here,” McCarron said. “It’s about getting the type of people you want to be around, day in and day out. I can see that they’re doing that, and you can see coach Gru is going to have this thing on track.”
In terms of drive and determination, McCarron said he sees some of the same things in Gruden he did with Nick Saban at Alabama.
“It’s in the way he grinds and goes about his daily process,” McCarron said. “They’re totally different in terms of schemes and stuff like that. Saban’s a defensive guy and Gru’s an offensive guy, but the way they grind and how much they put in their craft, trying to make the team the best it can possibly be, it’s similar.”
LaFell came to the Patriots at a time when a system of approach had already been establish, as opposed to being on the ground floor of the current Raiders remodel.
“We’re just getting started here, so it’s kind of hard to compare to what was built over there way before I got there and was a 10- or 15-year process as opposed to coach (Gruden) just getting here,” LaFell said. “I we can find a way to start turning this around this year, then we can head into the off-season and just continue to build from there.”