ALAMEDA – The Raiders had a rough 2017 season. The Silver and Black fell well below AFC championship expectations, with a 6-10 record that made heads roll.
Head coach Jack Del Rio was fired after the regular-season finale and replaced by ever-popular Jon Gruden, who returned to coaching (and the Raiders) from the broadcast booth.
Gruden's energy and passion for NFL football is well documented, and has not diminished after nine years as Monday Night Football color analyst. That's evident in practices, where he can be heard across the field shouting instruction, praise and critique.
Several players have talked about Gruden's intensity and penchant for making charges uncomfortable, points made clear watching Tuesday's OTA practice session. Gruden's personality is also having profound, positive impact on guys who weathered last season's disappointment.
Spirits, it seems, have been lifted. Tight end Jared Cook, for one, feels rejuvenated.
"Absolutely," Cook said. "You kind of enter it cautiously a little bit at first. But, I think he definitely has guys buying in. I mean, I bought in for sure, because he knows what he's talking about. You can tell a difference in a coach that knows what he's talking about and a coach that does not. He knows what he's talking about."
Gruden has guys excited about the future of the franchise, an improvement after Del Rio's staff couldn't stop a downhill slide and lost parts of the locker room in the process.
"You can kind of lose your insight on to why you fell in love with (the game), why you really like it, especially when you're losing," Cook said. "It's hard to come to work every day with a smile on your face when you're losing, right? And when you're winning, winning fixes everything, right? So, it's good to have somebody, no matter what, he always focusing on the next play.
"He always focuses on the future, never the past. It's always about what can you do for us next. It's onto the next, it's onto the next, focusing on positivity, focusing on doing your job right and focusing on having fun. Being in the league, it can kind of skew your perspective, but it's good to have somebody that brings a new energy and a new outlook on things."
Gruden has created a new vibe around the Raiders facility, aided by an influx of veteran talent. Cook says players on offense and defense are communicating more, trying to help each other thrive when it really counts.
Gruden and staff have kept players on their toes in meeting rooms and practices. They will acknowledge mistakes and criticize them openly, but do so in a constructive manner.
A coaching staff change seems to have helped the Raiders move beyond last year quickly. The Silver and Black were considered a legitimate AFC title contender following a 12-4 campaign in 2016, but fell flat after a strong start.
"Last year was hard … I'm so glad that is done," quarterback Derek Carr said. "I do feel better, physically, mentally, emotionally, feel better. It's hard. The NFL is hard. It's hard to lose, especially when certain things you're just like man, why is this happening? You try and work longer hours. You try and work harder and you can't figure it out. It does feel nice to hit the reset button, start over.
"Me and Coach Gruden, he said it to hit the reset button and then we have hopefully 10-plus years to let's just ride and figure this thing out, grow every year and do this thing. When a coach comes in and just does that for everybody, not just me, but for everybody, it's just that weight is lifted off. It's like, ‘OK, that's done. Whatever that was, let's just move forward. Let's just have fun together and work hard.'"
These Raiders are getting the Gruden of old. While his offense has changed some since he last coached Tampa Bay in 2008, his devotion to the game and the NFL coaching process has not waned.
Offensive coordinator Greg Olson should know as he was on the Buccaneers staff during Gruden's final season, and sees the same fire then and now.
"The passion is unmatched," Olson said. "I think that he's that same person. You'd think that maybe it'd slow down over 10 years. I think he's very driven. If anything, maybe it's even stronger now. His will to win. His will to prepare. His will to present. Just every day, the energy that he brings to the staff and to me, to the team, it's Jon Gruden. It's who he is. That has been real fun to be around."
-- Receiver Amari Cooper (hamstring), cornerback Nick Nelson (knee) and defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes (knee) worked on the side with a trainer during practice.
-- Safety Reggie Nelson and Jordy Nelson were not on the field for Tuesday's voluntary OTA session. Receiver Seth Roberts was also absent. All three have been regular participants in the offseason program.
-- First-round offensive tackle Kolton Miller saw significant reps on Tuesday, including some with the first unit. Third-round tackle Brandon Parker continues to work on the left side, primarily with the second unit.
Both rookies have been praised for their work this offseason, though true evaluation won't come until pads can be worn in training camp.
"Both of those tackles that we drafted, extremely athletic," Olson said. "They bend very, very well for men their size. They move extremely well for men their size. More than anything, it's been their athleticism."
-- Safety Obi Melifonwu, last year's second round pick, got some work in team drills, an important step for a player who has missed significant time with hip and knee injuries. He was only active in individual drills during an OTA last week open to the press, after which Gruden highlighted the fact Melifonwu hasn't been on the field much.
-- Left tackle Donald Penn continues to rehab back from foot surgery, and took reps in individual drills. He wasn't active during full-speed team drills.
-- Running back Doug Martin showed burst and explosiveness during Tuesday's practice, and has impressed the coaching staff to this point. A solid offseason could help carve an important role in this Raiders offense.