The head coach of the Oakland Raiders, Jack Del Rio, has his young team dreaming, and achieving, big things.
While searching for their 8th head coach since 2003, the Oakland Raiders interviewed a slew of candidates and were linked to several more. Mark Davis and Reggie McKenzie eventually hired Jack Del Rio for the job on January 14, 2015.
Del Rio, a Bay Area native and lifelong Raiders fan, was considered a favorite from the onset. His track record as head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars was more positive than negative, but there were still plenty of questions. He certainly wasn’t a slam dunk hire.
Del Rio’s eventual choices for offensive and defensive coordinators were no slam dunks, either. Bill Musgrave had already been fired once by Del Rio in the past, and while the fan base was excited about bringing in Ken Norton Jr. from Seattle, his only coaching experience was as a linebackers coach.
But what has been a slam dunk is Del Rio’s success in Oakland thus far, especially in 2016.
However, it was Del Rio’s first season as head coach of the Raiders that set the stage for what was to come. Although Oakland finished that season 7-9, and the drought of non-winning seasons and no playoff appearances both continued, it was obvious the Raiders were close to turning things around. For the first time since 2002, they were close to being a competitive football team.
Of the nine losses, five of them came by 6 points of less. Specifically, those losses were by 2, 6, 3, 5 and 6 points, in order of when they took place in the season. That’s an average margin of only 4.4 points.
Fast forward to 2016, and the Raiders are now winning the majority of those games — not losing them. With the close wins coming by 1, 7, 1, 3 and 6 points, Del Rio and the Raiders have turned a weakness into a strength. They’ve learned — and are still learning — how to win close games.
That progression has been quicker than anyone could have expected. Anyone outside of the organization, at least.
You see, the Raiders weren’t supposed to be where they are right now. At least if you ask most pundits. This was supposed to be a team that would finish at about 9-7, and hopefully with some luck, sneak into a wild card spot.
But status quo’s, like rules, are meant to be broken. And that is exactly what this team has done in 2016.
No example of this stands out more than Week 1, on the road against the New Orleans Saints. Having just scored a late touchdown that would tie the game with a PAT, Del Rio challenged the status quo.
Instead of tying the game up, “BlackJack” Del Rio sent his offense onto the field to attempt to take the lead. A Carr to Crabtree fade route later, and the Oakland Raiders were 1-0.
That type of confidence in his team sent a clear message — the Raiders were here to win games. Point. Blank. Period. And that confidence has carried on throughout the season, with a few more successful 4th down/two-point conversions leading this team to various victories.
The saying goes — in order to achieve it, you have to believe it. And that’s one of the many areas where Del Rio comes into play. He has his young team both dreaming, and achieving, big things.
At 7-2, the Raiders are in sole possession of first place in the AFC West. They are tied for the most wins in the NFL, and ESPN has them ranked 3rd in their latest power rankings.
Boasting the best offensive line in the NFL, a franchise quarterback that leads a dynamic offense, and an improving defense with one of the best players in the league as its anchor, anything is possible.
As a team that was just hoping to get into the dance, so to speak, those aspirations are now much bigger. They don’t just want to go to the dance — they want to be crowned as the Homecoming Kings.
And thanks to how this team is playing — take the thorough dismantling of the Denver Broncos as an example — those aspirations feel closer to reality than pipe dream.
After the big win in primetime, Del Rio had this to say:
"“Certainly we’re making progress. Like I said, I think we all understand, that locker room understands, we all have work to do. Things we want to be better that we need to be better at as we go through this year. Tonight, a really solid performance, a big win at home. … We’re growing to expect success now. We know we’re a good team. We focus really hard on the preparation throughout the week. The guys were really on point like they have been each week. The process of preparing to play well is critical. That’s where we’ve been able to hone in and make improvements. Get some of the details down and put together solid performances.”"
So when someone wants to know what “changing the culture” really means — well, this is it. But even though the Raiders are winning, they understand that there is still a lot of work to be done. Which is something Derek Carr spoke on recently, saying that the team hasn’t completely changed the culture…yet:
"“We haven’t done that yet, but this is the process that it takes to get there. Coach Del Rio has done a great job of giving us a vision and a format of how that looks because he’s been there. He’s done those things. It takes a little bit of both. It’s us making it up in our mind, obviously, as players, but it takes a vision and a plan laid out by our leader. I think it’s just a perfect mesh of both.”"
Carr is the voice of the team, and his thoughts often echo those of his head coach. Something he spoke to in that quote.
Many things could be pointed to as a sign of a team that is on the verge of something special. The Raiders are checking all of those boxes, including not settling at the first sign of success.
To understand the big picture is something that many coaches and athletes say, but few really mean. It’s easy to get up in front of the media and say all the right things, but it’s another to really mean those things.
Win or lose, Del Rio’s message is consistent. It’s about the process, not the results. And the right process, the results will come.
"When things don’t go the way you want, each man looks and sees what he can do better. We’re going to ask each guy, every player, every coach, to do something, do one thing better this week than you did last week. Collectively, we have a really good process. Get back to work and I expect to be better. This is a group I believe in”"
The above quote came just a day after Oakland’s embarrassing 26-10 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
So when Del Rio says things like this, the reason why you know he really means it, is become of his actions. Like the two-point conversion to Crabtree to open the season. Or a 4th & 1 deep throw to the end zone, or a two-point conversion to Amari Cooper, and several other examples.
And it’s not just his offense that he believes in, it’s the defense. And it’s not just the players that he believes in, but the coaches.
When the Raiders defense got off to a historically bad start, Del Rio had every opportunity to either fire Ken Norton Jr., or to take over control. And no one would have blamed him.
But he did neither.
Del Rio benched Sean Smith in the first game, and could have left him there. He could have benched several players, but he didn’t. He could given up hope on D.J. Hayden. He could have replaced Latavius Murray as the starter.
Jack could have done a lot things, but time and time again, he has shown faith in his players and coaching staff.
The words are great, and they make for nice quotes. But it’s the actions that tell the story. And with a young team boasting a 7-2 record, Oakland’s story is just getting started.