The voice underneath the straw sunhat boomed across the Raiders practice field. It’s the one you hear loudest and most often – the one that injects energy and enthusiasm into what had been a dead franchise.
Ken Norton Jr., the team’s new defensive coordinator, exudes electricity and seeks to transfuse it into his players. He sprints across the field to high-five one guy who knocks down a pass and screams at another who did something wrong. Norton also takes a few moments to confer with head coach Jack Del Rio. But on the practice field, Norton mainly acts as the cheerleader-in-chief, and his ability to feed passion to his players is what Raiders fans will remember most if the team becomes a winner again.
“Nice job, 24,” Norton yelled to Charles Woodson when the veteran defensive back broke up a pass Tuesday during a seven-on-seven drill. Not satisfied with the emotional reaction, Norton boomed to the guys on his side of the ball, “When you see a guy make a helluva play, can you let him know he just made a helluva play?”
The Raiders changed their world when they landed Norton. You can’t downplay the significance of hiring Del Rio, whose biggest move was snagging Norton from his old job as linebackers coach of the Seattle Seahawks.
In Norton, the Raiders got a guy who has a 23-year record of winning championships and supercharging everybody around him.
Three months before the season begins, the Raiders already feel him.
“It’s different because of how fired up he is every day,” Woodson, an 18-year NFL veteran, said. “Every morning you walk in, he’s the guy you’re going to hear – you know he’s in the building. I think the guys have responded to him, responded to his style.”
As an inside linebacker with the Cowboys and 49ers, Norton in 1992-94 played for three consecutive Super Bowl champions. In 2004, Pete Carroll – his one-time defensive coordinator with the 49ers – hired him as an assistant at USC, where he helped the Trojans win one national championship and three Rose Bowls over the next six years. When Carroll left USC for Seattle in 2010, he brought Norton along to coach the linebackers for a team that eventually won its own Super Bowl. In both places, Norton coached star linebackers such as Lofa Tatupu, Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Bobby Wagner.
Anybody who watched Norton play with the 49ers or Cowboys knows the jolt he gives a team. You saw it every time he attacked the goal post after a big play as if it were a punching bag, belting it with hooks and crosses in a tribute to his late father, Ken Norton, a top heavyweight contender who once beat Muhammad Ali and broke his jaw.
The son’s enthusiasm as a player lives on in his style as a coach.
“Early on in my coaching career, I learned I need to approach games, approach practices, approach meetings just the way I played the game, just as hard, and give it everything you have,” Norton said.
Norton thinks players “have a tendency to become like their coach.”
“I wouldn’t mind guys having a lot of energy – feisty, smart, enthusiastic – who really care about what they’re doing, giving everything they have,” he said.
His history with Carroll raises a question about why he left Seattle. The inquiry becomes more pointed since the Seahawks defensive coordinator last year, Dan Quinn, split to take over the head job in Atlanta, a hiring the Falcons announced Feb. 2. You’d think Quinn’s departure would have created an opening for Norton to become Carroll’s defensive coordinator. But on Feb. 7, it was the Raiders who named Norton as their coordinator.
At least one Seattle media outlet reported the day before the Raiders’ announcement that Seahawks defensive backs coach Kris Richard, an architect of Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” secondary, was in line to replace Quinn. Sure enough, the Seahawks on Feb. 9 announced Richard’s promotion.
Norton said his departure for Oakland worked out best for his professional growth and development.
“I’ve always had the philosophy: just change and grow and keep on growing,” Norton said. “I needed to move on and grow. I felt it was time.”
Del Rio and Norton have known each other since they played linebacker together in Dallas in the late 1980s. Del Rio called Norton’s hiring “a good get for us.”
Last year, the Raiders’ defense ranked 21st of 32 teams in the NFL. They hoped to improve it in the offseason by signing free agent tackle Dan Williams, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and strong safety Nate Allen. They already had a few promising youngsters such as Khalil Mack and established veterans like Woodson and defensive end Justin Tuck.
Now it’s up to Norton to give his guys fire and confidence.
“If you can feel the juice,” he said, “if you can feel the energy, in my experience, that’s turning into winning football.”