Before we get going, a reminder of our crew as we continue on our travels from New York to Seattle… via Nashville, Los Angeles, San Francisco and the Napa Valley.
Alex Mason – tea-obsessed, ever-so-slightly sunburned producer of the NFL on Sky Sports who excels at racing to the merchandise stand in training camp and who openly advocates comfortable silences in cars. His handshake game when meeting big-name NFL stars needs some work.
Scott Drummond – no-nonsense, long-snapper-hating man mountain who flits between NFL teams he is going to support depending on how nicely they treat him. A Tennessee Titans fan for two days, Scott is now a fully-signed-up member of Raider Nation… until we get to Seattle!
Neil Reynolds – shiny-headed NFL presenter/anorak who loves room service and NFL Network on the television in equal measure. Had ‘lofty’ status confirmed on tonight’s Air Alaska flight to Seattle by being assigned “the toilet seat at the back” according to the check-in staff.
Sunday was a day filled with football and laughs in equal measure. I’ll get to the on-the-road hilarity (most definitely brought on by sleep deprivation and too much travel) a little later but first let’s talk about the Oakland Raiders, who are keen to put a miserable 2017 campaign behind them with new head coach Jon Gruden at the helm.
On a surprisingly chilly but sunny day in the Napa Valley, a sense of urgency hovered over the Raiders… much like the fog engulfing the Golden Gate Bridge earlier that day as we traversed the world-famous landmark. Ooh, that’s so good it’s almost poetic!
Anyway, back to the Raiders!
Gruden is lighting a fire under this team and keeps stressing “we’ve got to get going… we need to win some football games and get this train on the tracks.” That sense of urgency is why Gruden’s Raiders feature 10 players on the roster with 10 years or more of NFL experience. The high-profile and demanding coach hasn’t got the time to start coaching up rookies and green-around-the-gills youngsters – he wants proven veterans who can win now.
That alone is an indication that the Silver and Black are in ‘win now’ mode.
Five observations from Oakland Raiders training camp
- The Raiders are expecting a big bounce-back season from quarterback Derek Carr in 2018. I have always felt that Carr had the skills – and the gunslinger’s mindset – to be a stud. A sub-par 2017 campaign has not put me off and I think he has the mental and physical make-up to be one of the best in the game. Gruden clearly agrees as he told me on Sunday that he thinks Carr is “great” and “spectacular”. Look for Carr to be given a lot of freedom to change plays at the line this year. He did that a lot on Sunday during Oakland’s first padded practice of the summer.
- Marshawn Lynch is hilarious and clearly moves to the beat of his own drum. While the entire Raiders’ squad was in regulation silver pants with black trim on Sunday, Beast Mode had donned a pair of baggie black tracksuit trousers. He also stretched on his time and when it suited his body, not when the other 89 men on the field bent or moved in unison. He truly is one of a kind on and off the field and will provide the kind of physical toughness Gruden is craving this season.
- Don’t think for one second that Doug Martin is in Oakland just to make up the numbers and serve as the reserve to Lynch. I think Martin is going to have a big role to play in the Raiders’ attack if Sunday’s practice is any great indicator. The Muscle Hamster looks in great shape and capable of making plays in the run and pass games. Add in the explosive Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington and the Silver and Black are going to be just fine in the offensive backfield.
- I loved how detailed the Raiders got with their situational football on Sunday. As Carr took a knee to set up a field goal on the right hash, the PA announcer boomed: “The Raiders trail the Kansas City Chiefs 16-14 at Arrowhead Stadium but this field goal can win the game.” Giorgio Tavecchio then lined up to kick the 40-yarder, only for Gruden to call for the crowd to “make some noise” before delaying proceedings with a time out. The entire Silver and Black defense then ran onto the field, formed a semi-circle behind their kicker and screamed abuse and noise into his ears from just inches away. Tavecchio nailed the kick and repeated the trick from the left hash after another round of stadium announcements, time outs, crowd noise and team-mate banter. I thought that was pretty cool.
- Carr is a star who made big-time throws all morning long and Amari Cooper and Jared Cook caught the eye with touchdowns in team drills, but Gruden is on a different level. On the practice field, you naturally seek him out time and again. Mind you, he is not that hard to find when he has a rather noisy explosion at his players, which happened quite often in Wine Country. When I interviewed Gruden after practice, I felt I was talking to a true superstar on the Tom Brady and Bill Belichick level. He is box office and I think his return to the NFL is going to be one of the storylines of this coming season.
Quote of the Day I
“We need a mindset of mental and physical toughness. Sometimes you have to practice twice a day, sometimes you have to meet late into the night, you’ve got to put your Twitter phones down and put your picture machines away, concentrate and learn what to do.” – Raiders head coach Jon Gruden on what he is demanding of his Oakland Raiders players ahead of the 2018 season.
Quote of the Day II
“Why are you guys arguing about tea bags when you’re driving through the Napa Valley and missing all this wonderful scenery?” – Our clearly bemused driver Gary as the beautiful sights of northern California were ignored while our crew bickered like small children over tea bags. To be honest, he had a point – we barely noticed our surroundings when in mid-row!
Quote of the Day III
“Quite honestly, I was stunned. Obviously, you would want to stay with one organisation forever but it gives you an appreciation for what the rest of the league has to go through at times. Hopefully, I don’t have to go and play for another franchise – I want to stay here and then be done.” – Wide receiver Jordy Nelson on being released by the Green Bay Packers before inking a free-agent deal with the Silver and Black.
Quote of the Day IV
“The Collective Bargaining Agreement makes it tough on coaches and there is not much continuity any more. Players move, free agency is crazy and coaches change teams. Adapt and deal with it or die – I’ve got to prove that I can deal with it.” – Gruden on how the game has changed from when he was last a head coach in the NFL in 2008.
The ‘they do say you learn something new every day’ section
We were driven one hour from our hotel in San Francisco to the Napa Valley on Sunday morning and then made a return journey of similar length to Oakland Airport in the afternoon. During that two-hour round trip and, in no particular order, these are some of the subjects we learned about from our fact-filled driver, Gary…
Mustard seeds… cemeteries… state capitals… house prices… a Flintsone-themed house… fire hydrants… materials used to build the Golden Gate Bridge… a mothballed naval fleet… when Brian Wilson retired… Napa Valley grape management… waving at cops… Oakland Coliseum… refusing offers of cookies… Cranes serving as inspiration for the ATAT walkers in Star Wars films… Chinese fishermen on Baker’s Beach… reservoirs… houseboats… changing temperatures… surfing with great white sharks… preferred types of natural disaster… wild fires… baseball’s strength as radio entertainment as opposed to a TV proposition… famous San Francisco home owners… watching a no-hitter… Tesla production issues… how to avoid a speeding ticket… military disasters… terrible architecture in San Francisco… ice cold water… massive bags of candy… Addison-Lee… Chardonnay Golf Club… clean highways… the zipper truck that changes the number of lanes on the Golden Gate Bridge… where the phrase ‘shoot yourself in the foot’ comes from… the designing of Golden Gate Park… the perils of ignoring the scenery… aviation routes at San Francisco Airport… sand bags… Half Moon Bay… Gary’s mum… Metallica’s fear of flying… pigeon poop… sea lions… San Quentin prison… The Farallon Islands… officer housing at The Presidio… Crissy Field being used as an air field… gun turrets… windmills… the Golden State Warriors moving to San Francisco… the Oakland A’s and their potential for a new stadium and surfers wearing wet suits that are three inches thick!
That is a journey that will never… and I mean NEVER be forgotten. Absolutely priceless!
If you read Saturday’s diary entry you may recall that Producer Alex was running dangerously low on tea bags. You may have read the article and felt a twinge of sympathy for the tea-loving Englishman abroad. Well, don’t bother! The man brought it all upon himself – an accusation that was heartily discussed while rumbling through the Napa Valley (see above) today. It turns out that Producer Alex has been double-bagging. I know, right? Crazy! Two tea bags to every cup… no wonder supplies are so low. So this will be the last teabag countdown of the holiday, err, I mean business trip! The moment Alex runs out of tea bags, there will be no sympathy from the rest of the crew. And you, dear readers, should save your sympathy for someone else. Double-bagging indeed… I’ve never heard anything like it! Any readers who wish to side with Alex should send your comments to email@example.com. Speak to you all tomorrow!