NAPA — When practice ends, that’s when some of the most critical teaching starts for the Oakland Raiders.
Proven veterans like Justin Tuck, James Jones and Charles Woodson can often be seen pulling aside young players to answer questions and offer tidbits on the intricacies of the game in a manner no coach can.
“Sometimes we don’t always speak the right language as coaches,” coach Dennis Allen said. “Those guys have a great ability to relate to each other. Sometimes we might speak in a certain language and a veteran player can maybe bring it back down on a level that’s a little bit easier to comprehend or understand.”
Instead of rebuilding through youth, Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie spent the offseason adding older players with Super Bowl pedigrees to help change a losing culture built over the last decade.
It’s a move right out of late owner Al Davis’ playbook. Davis often looked for veterans who had worn out their welcome on one team to help build some of the Raiders’ most successful teams.
The Raiders hope this year’s additions of players like Tuck, Jones, Maurice Jones-Drew, LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Smith, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown can have a similar impact to the one Jerry Rice, Rod Woodson and Bill Romanowski had in helping Oakland win the 2002 AFC championship.
“I see a lot of similarities in it,” said Woodson, a young player on that team more than a decade ago who was brought back last year for his leadership.
That 2002 team that made it to the Super Bowl before losing to Tampa Bay is the last successful one in Oakland. Since then, the Raiders have gone 11 straight seasons without a winning record or a playoff berth, including back-to-back four-win campaigns under the leadership of McKenzie and Dennis Allen.
The focus those first two years was tearing down the team and getting rid of out-of-whack contracts and putting the salary cap situation back in order.
With money to spend this offseason, the Raiders used most of it on players in their 30s with a history of success in their past and questions about how much they had left for the future.
“Every team wants to get younger, they push a lot of the older guys out, guys who can still play the game,” said Woodson, who had that happen in Green Bay following the 2012 season. “I don’t think there’s any question that (experience) is undervalued. So it’s going to be our job, to show that, ‘Hey man, our best days are not behind us just because other people say our best days are behind us.'”
The offseason moves didn’t generate much excitement around the NFL, with many critics saying the Raiders put together a Pro Bowl team, only from 2009 instead of this year.
Most of the new additions were unwanted by their former teams, who either believed the players were on the downside of their careers or not worth the hefty contracts they earned with stellar play in their 20s.
“They can criticize all they want,” defensive tackle Antonio Smith said. “But Tuck, me and Wood outstat probably 80 to 90 percent of the younger players. So as long as we keep producing, age don’t mean anything. If I can still disrupt and help my team, I don’t care how old they say I am. … Wisdom is a lot better than young legs.”
That wisdom trickles down to the younger players like first-round linebacker Khalil Mack, who is soaking up all the knowledge he can get as a rookie.
Mack said Tuck has taught him the importance of using his hands as a pass rusher and Woodley has shown him how to be more physical matching up against big tight ends.
“It’d be dumb for me to not ask questions especially knowing the skill level they play with and they’re pretty much the best in the game when it comes to pass rushing,” he said. “I have to ask those questions.”
Mack is far from alone, with Woodson giving advice to defensive backs, Jones pulling aside young receivers and Smith and Tuck tutoring up-and-coming defense linemen on the tools of the trade.
As much as the veterans were brought in to instill a winning culture and teach young players in Oakland, that won’t end up mattering much if they still can’t play at a level at least close to where they were when they were making Pro Bowls and winning Super Bowls.
“I can sit up and talk you all deaf all day,” Tuck said. “None of that is really going to mean much until we go out there and do it, just like I can sit here and tell them, well this is what we did to win championships. None of that is going to mean much until I can go out there and show them and that’s about it.”