Didn’t think anything could possibly be more strange than last year’s daily Napa soap opera featuring Antonio Brown?
Welcome to Raiders training camp 2020, where the enemy is unseen and has Jon Gruden more concerned than the feet and helmet of his short-lived prize acquisition.
As a result, if any players should stray from their homes nearby the Henderson, Nevada practice facility for a taste of the nearby Las Vegas nightlife, they’re going to hear about it from the head coach as well as an established set of team leaders.
“We have a players committee with great leadership here that understands that one mistake can be our demise,” Gruden said at his introductory press briefing via teleconference. “One mistake can bring us all down, and in a real bad way and it’s not just football. It can create a terrible illness. I want to dominate when we leave the building. We want to crush this virus.”
Rookies have arrived, veterans are undergoing testing, and will be until mid-August until the Raiders and the rest of the NFL does anything approximating full team squad football.
Gruden, who other than a couple of one-on-one interviews has stayed in the background since the NFL draft, acknowledged the serious of resuming football in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m no different than everybody else. It’s been hard not to worry about my kids, my mom and dad, my family, my brothers, my friends, all of our players,” Gruden said. “I’m really worried about Las Vegas. I love this place. We were eager to have the draft here, we were eager to make some friends, have some exciting times as we make our move. (We have) the best stadium, the best facility I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’ve seen a lot having been in broadcasting.
“I miss being around people. I’m a handsy guy. I like to hug people and high-five. It’s been tough on America. It’s been tough on the world and I just want to keep reiterating that to our players. We have to beat the virus. That’s our challenge right now.”
Toward that end, it’s been an encouraging start in that no Raiders player has opted out of his contract or ended up on the COVID-19 reserve list. Every team will have its own set of challenges, some more than others.
“We’re not the lone ranger. Everybody in the league is going through this,” Gruden said. “We have to do the best we can. It’s not going to be an equitable, fair season. Some teams are going to be hit hard by this virus. Some teams might not. Some teams might have fans, some teams might have cardboard cutouts. I don’t know. but we’ve just got to deal with it, try to be creative. Fortunately I think we’ve got a great coaching staff that can really teach the game. That’s what I’m relying on most.”
For now, Gruden will have to be satisfied with getting to know some of his most important players, including a linebacker they will pay up to $36 million over the next three seasons.
“I’ve never met Cory Littleton. Never met him,” Gruden said. “We paid this guy a lot of money to be our feature defensive player.”
Among the topics Gruden addressed Thursday as the Raiders hope to go from 7-9 to the postseason:
Jon Gruden’s first camp press briefing on zoom. #Raiders pic.twitter.com/KtKvvkdOCo
— Jerry McDonald (@Jerrymcd) July 30, 2020
Overcoming themselves in short yardage
Gruden has heard and read all about the deficiencies of quarterback Derek Carr when it comes to putting the ball in the end zone.
And he realizes things would look a lot different had the Raiders been better than an inexplicable 1-for-8 scoring touchdowns from the 1-yard line. Like maybe the difference between 7-9 and being a 10-win team.
“We stunk last year — I stunk — inside the 1-yard line,” Gruden said. “That would really help our offense if I can call some better plays and give these guys a chance inside the 2- or 3-yard line. That’s where your points per game and all the statistics will improve.
“We got stuffed twice in Green Bay, we got stuffed in Denver. We got stuffed in Tennessee and that’s my fault. We’ve got to address our tight, tight, tight goal line offense.”
Putting together a defense with all the new faces
Littleton is joined by Nick Kwiatkoski as a starting linebacker. New arrivals on the defensive line are Maliek Collins inside and Carl Nassib on the edge. Rookie Damon Arnette or veteran Prince Amukamara will likely start opposite Trayvon Mullen. New faces at safety include Jeff Heath and Damarious Randall, while Johnathan Abram started as a rookie but was lost for the season in the opener.
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther will have to sort it all out, but the influx of talent is a good problem to have.
“It will be a challenge,” Gruden said. “We’re going to try our best to put them under as much pressure as possible with formations, different tempos and try and get them ready. They’ve got to open on the road against a new coach, a new quarterback and a lot of unknowns (in Carolina). Then early in the season I think you’ll see Tom Brady and Drew Brees and I know they’re going to turn up the tempo and turn up the heat on us.”
Safety Johnathan Abram (24) was lost for the season on this play against Denver in last year’s opener.
Disrespecting the flags
The Raiders committed 128 penalties last year, with 42 coming on offense and 128 on defense. There were 41 pre-snap penalties — signifying instant failure.
“Where we rank in this league in terms of defensive penalties is a reflection of me and we have to fix that, and we’re going to fix it,” Gruden said. “(Defensive line coach) Rod Marinelli is going to be a big part of that. Staying onside. Some of those penalties are ridiculous and they’ve got to be solved.”
The Marcus Mariota factor
Derek Carr is entrenched as the starter, but for the first time since his rookie season, there is a backup who could at least make things interesting in Marcus Mariota.
“The No. 1 thing with Marcus was to get healthy,” Gruden said. “He had a shoulder problem. He had an ankle problem. It’s a real credit to him to get that injury rehab done during all of this social distancing and the distraction of finding a doctor and being safe. He did a great job getting himself healthy and learning our system and that will give him a chance to be Marcus Mariota.”
It was Carr, however, who took charge of some players-only workouts once he moved to the Las Vegas area. Gruden was careful to maintain plausible deniability regarding workout sessions that weren’t allowed in official team setting.
“I didn’t have anything to do with it,” Gruden said. “I don’t know anything about those workouts. It’s a credit to Carr, a credit to his passion for the game.”
Integrating the rookies
Even with no offseason, no exhibition season and limited practice time, Gruden plans on getting his seven-member draft class into the fray as soon as possible. Wide receiver Henry Ruggs III should start right away, and Arnette could as well. Jack-of-all-trades running back Lynn Bowden, wide receiver Bryan Edwards, linebacker Tanner Muse, guard John Simpson and cornerback Amik Robertson could all have major roles, although Simpson would likely play only in the event of injuries to starting guards Richie Incognito and Gabe Jackson.
“We’ve been good at fast-tracking players at every position, Gruden said. “You could say we’ve excavated the land here in terms of the roster the first year, but we’ve built it back with young players like Maxx Crosby, Cle Ferrell, obviously Josh Jacobs and Hunter Renfrow. Kolton Miller started as a rookie. Brandon Parker started as a rookie. We’re not going to be afraid the young guys but they’ve got to earn it.”
Defensive tackle P.J. Hall, defensive end Arden Key and to a lesser extent defensive tackle Maurice Hurst will be counted upon to make quantum leaps in terms of quality of play. Hall was a second-round pick in 2018, Key a third and Hurst a fifth in Reggie McKenzie’s final draft as general manager.
“Arden’s got to stay healthy. P.J. Hall came in overweight last year. Mo Hurst has had some good moments, but we need these guys to burst on to the scene, no question. Getting Rod Marinelli is the best thing I can do to allow that to happen.”
Hall gave no indication of his weight on Twitter other than he has a heavy foot after getting a “Welcome to Las Vegas” moment that included a speeding ticket.
A cop had the audacity to tell me “Welcome to Vegas” and hand me a speeding ticket right after 🥴
— PJ Hall (@Pjjwatt) July 30, 2020