ALAMEDA, Calif. — It’s fairly common for an NFL coach to cut short his team’s schedule during organized team activities, a reward for all the work done.
Even so, Raiders players couldn’t be too sure.
Jon Gruden arrives at work before most on the East Coast pour their coffee. This offseason, he is installing a complex offense, and on-field access to players is more limited under the 2011 collective bargaining agreement than when he last coached in 2008.
“If there is anyone I wouldn’t expect it from,” tight end Lee Smith said of an off day, “it’d be him.”
This week, Gruden notified his team that its 10th and final OTA practice would be canceled. Instead of the Thursday session, the Raiders hosted eight high school football teams from the Oakland area to compete in a 7-on-7 passing league tournament. Players served as coaches while Gruden and his coaching staff monitored and officiated the event.
Perhaps, no one should have been too surprised.
Gruden has been vocal about his love for football. He has expressed commitment to restoring relevancy to the Raiders, who have managed one winning season under nine head coaches in 15 seasons since their 2002 run to the Super Bowl.
But he’s also been adamant about the Oakland community.
Gruden and special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia were on the same Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff from 2002 to 2008. Bisaccia joined the Dallas Cowboys in 2013. A year earlier, the franchise began “Cowboys U,” a similarly formatted 7-on-7 passing tournament involving local youth and the team’s players as coaches.
Gruden asked Bisaccia to help launch “Raiders U.”
“We had multiple conversations about it over the last five years,” said Bisaccia, whom Gruden hired in January. “Certainly, when we got back together, he wanted to do something that we could give back to the community within a 30-mile radius, whatever we could get to, and give our players an opportunity to coach, to see what it’s like to be on that side.”
Quarterback Derek Carr, running back Marshawn Lynch, wide receiver Jordy Nelson and linebacker Kyle Wilber were among the Raiders players to serve Thursday as a team’s head coach. In the morning, the player-coaches participated in a draft, selecting teammates to have on their staff.
Smith, for example, was one head coach. He made safety Erik Harris his first-round pick, wanting a defensive back’s expertise in the pass-happy tournament to complement his offensive mind.
Wilber’s team, from Dublin High, defeated Lynch’s squad, from Kennedy High, in the championship game.
It’s unclear if this event will continue annually through the Raiders’ 2020 scheduled relocation to Las Vegas.
“A lot of us really were surprised,” running back Jalen Richard said of the schedule change. “Obviously, Coach Gruden, he is really fired up about football, always about getting better. You come in the building at 6 o’clock in the morning, and he’s in here (wired). ‘I had too much coffee. My bad.’
“For him to do this, it shows how much he cares about the city of Oakland. … To do this with the kids is really cool.”