Exhibition games may be meaningless, but they still present a small measure of reality. Raiders fans saw Amari Cooper’s talent and Derek Carr’s growth. They heard the pop of the offensive line as it created running room for Latavius Murray. They felt the sting of the defense holding the other guys to three points.
This week, the Raiders whooped and laughed when they returned to practice. They exhorted each other in warmups, turned up the intensity in one-on-one drills, joked among each other in the post-practice cool-down.
New coaches, new players, new enthusiasm created hope at the beginning of the season. Last Friday night, they turned their belief into a public record. Now they have a sliver of accomplishment. Energy has created substance that has created new energy.
The quality of the work was stronger following the day off. So that’s what we’re looking for.
Jack Del Rio, Raiders coach
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“I thought we came back from time off today as well as we have in camp, coming back with focus,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said after Tuesday’s workout. “The quality of the work was stronger following the day off. So that’s what we’re looking for.”
The Raiders haven’t made the playoffs since 2002, but they changed their attitude when they hired Del Rio. Then Del Rio changed it some more when he hired an up-tempo offensive coordinator in Bill Musgrave and a fiery defensive coordinator in Ken Norton Jr.
Free-agent signings improved the team just about everywhere. The Raiders got better along the offensive line, at wide receiver, in the defensive line, at linebacker, in the secondary – and in its mentality, with a pickup that brought in a winning sensibility as well as a new starter at weak inside linebacker.
Malcolm Smith filled both of those holes in the Raiders’ roster, having played in the past two Super Bowls as a member of the Seattle Seahawks and winning the MVP trophy in the first of them.
As a free agent, Smith had his options in the offseason. He picked the Raiders as “a team on the rise,” he said, and he has a few thoughts on what they need to do to elevate.
“I think the championship mentality has to happen every day,” Smith said. “You’re not going to get to January and say, ‘OK, now it’s time to turn it on.’ It has to be something to be instilled in us now.”
Smith’s talk of playing in January might jar observers of the Oakland franchise that has undergone 13 years of demoralization. But for Smith, winning is the only reality he knows, having spent eight of his past nine years playing under Norton and Pete Carroll, first at USC and then Seattle.
Eight years with those guys at those places gave him insight into the mindset of a winner.
“It’s a daily intensity that turns into a confidence and a kind of swagger that develops where you can go into a game and not be tense,” Smith said. “You can relax a little bit and kind of let it flow, let it rip. It’s something that Jack also talks about. We want the hard day to be here so we can get out there on Sundays and things kind of happen smoothly and easily for us.”
Smith said that after spring workouts and three weeks of training camp, he sees the inner game of winning taking hold with the Raiders.
“I’m not used to too much different,” Smith said. “I’m sure for some guys it’s hard to believe you can be good when you haven’t been good. It’s just a daily process.”
The team looked smooth and relaxed Friday night, in a small success that increased expectations.
We’ve shown we can be good. How consistently can we be good? That’s something we’re working towards, and we’ll see throughout the year.
Malcolm Smith, Raiders linebacker
On Saturday night, the Raiders go on the road to play the Minnesota Vikings, with two more exhibitions to follow before they open the regular season Sept. 13 at home against the Cincinnati Bengals.
“Now the pressure kind of gets on us,” Smith said. “We’ve shown we can be good. How consistently can we be good? That’s something we’re working towards, and we’ll see throughout the year.”
Smith, 26, a four-year NFL veteran, knows there will be losses and adversity. But he sees the Raiders as a work in progress, “working on getting to a special place.”
The Raiders so far have demonstrated attitude and energy that can get them to the postseason. When they put themselves on display for the first time this preseason last week against the Rams, they did more than just win a game. They looked good winning it.
The coach liked what he saw, but he wants to keep the early success in perspective.
“We feel good about who we are and where we’re headed and how we’re going to do things, and how we’re going to do it together, for each other,” Del Rio said. “Beyond that, we’re just going to keep grinding, keep working at it, try to improve, recognizing where we are now. We’re at the bottom of this mountain. We’ve got a long climb ahead of us, a lot of work to do.”
Del Rio does not want the Raiders at this stage to get too caught up in results. But the one they got Friday night showed the Raiders have advanced out of the conceptual stage.
When it comes to them being a vastly improved team, they are for real.