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Among NFL’s elite, Maxx Crosby remains obsessed with improvement

Updated October 22, 2023 - 6:09 am

The surprise was spectacular and the speech even better, still reverently referenced by Eastern Michigan’s football team: An hourlong oration of vulnerability and perseverance from the greatest player in program history.

But the serene July night that Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby spent on campus wouldn’t have happened without an assurance from the coaching staff at his beloved alma mater.

“We had to get permission from his nutritionist that we would have the foods available that he’s supposed to eat at these prescribed times,” said Ben Needham, Crosby’s former defensive line coach.

“He was not going to deviate from his meal plan at all.”

Crosby, on his never-ending quest for peak performance, doesn’t take any detours, committing completely to his craft: Punishing passers and ball carriers alike — and punishing them as much in this his fifth season as any defensive player in the NFL.

Per Pro Football Focus, the 26-year-old Crosby leads the league with 38 quarterback pressures, supplying 5½ sacks amid participation in 97 percent of the team’s defensive snaps.

His continued ascent has coincided this season with an overall defensive improvement for the Raiders, who rank 11th in total defense (315.3 yards allowed per game) compared with 27th (365.6) in 2022.

“He just has such an effect on everybody every day, and then along with that, there’s a lot of pressure because you have to be on every day,” Raiders coach Josh McDaniels said.

“He’s learned to deal with all those stresses of being a great leader, a great teammate, along with being a dynamic elite player. He’s obsessed with being the best version of himself every day, and you see it, and that’s why you see him improve at it.”

‘Be legendary’

McDaniels says obsessed. Needham called him crazy, assuredly though in all the best ways. Crazy about football. Crazy about improvement. As relentless in practice as he is during games.

Coaches at Eastern Michigan would try to quell Crosby’s intensity, barring him occasionally from participating in repetitions if they thought his physicality was gratuitous and unwarranted.

Even with time, some things never change.

Said Crosby on Wednesday: “McDaniels has literally had to beg me to take reps off … Coaches have been having to beg me for years now.”

That’s simply how he’s wired, his circuitry recalibrated by his sobriety; 43 months and counting, thereby increasing the capacity for his pursuit of peak performance. The triangle of sobriety is tattooed under his Adam’s apple, topping a mural of tattoos for which his torso is a canvas.

Among them are portraits of Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, and Kobe Bryant — inspiring the rarefied type of greatness he seeks ultimately to achieve.

Above them reads “BE LEGENDARY” in negative space.

“He’s constantly reminding himself of the mindset,” said CJ LaBoy, his longtime agent and a senior vice president of the Wasserman agency’s NFL division.

The 2023 season began for Crosby when the 2022 season ended, his long hours in the Raiders’ weight room the stuff of legend. He works closely with the team’s strength staff and dietitians.

“You’d think he was coaching because he’s here early, he’s here late, and all the rest of it,” McDaniels said. “Ever since I’ve had an opportunity and the good fortune to be here, he’s been an incredible influence on me, on the people in the building, on the players.”

Conditioning for Crosby this past offseason included lengthy sparring sessions with UFC middleweight champion Sean Strickland and a mini-marathon in Miami with other officials from the promotion he’s organically befriended. He also seeks advice from the likes of performance coach Tim Grover, who famously trained Jordan and Bryant.

Raiders greats Charles Woodson and Howie Long are among Crosby’s other confidants.

”How can I continue to get 1 percent better every day?” he asks himself and those like Grover, Woodson and Long, who possess such expertise.

Through practice and preparation. Training and recovery. The study of film — and other great football players — past and present.

“It’s an everyday process. I do it 365,” Crosby deadpanned. “This is what I train for, these 17 games and some if we get the opportunity to go to the playoffs. People look at me like I’m crazy because I’m playing every snap, but they don’t work like me. So I don’t expect people to understand.”

‘The need to dominate’

But Davante Adams does, for he also shares in Crosby’s obsession — grouping the work ethic and the mindset of his Raiders teammate with that of his own and of his former teammate, future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

“I mean, it’s inspiring, man. No matter if I’m older than them, more experienced or whatever, I look up to a guy like that,” the All-Pro wide receiver said. “I mean, that’s the type of dude — not to blow him up too much — but that’s the type of dude that can play like, God willing, 20 years just because of what he puts into it, how he takes care of his body.

“At this point, it’s like you just shake your head when you watch the tape … That intention and just the need to dominate is unbelievable.”

And dominate Crosby does, despite the double- and triple-teams increasingly employed to slow him. Often to no avail or at the expense of other offensive vulnerabilities.

He’s equal parts power, finesse, and all-out effort all the time, ebulliently packaged within a 6-foot-5, 255-pound frame.

“I want to be the best at what I do, and I think every detail matters,” Crosby said recently. “It’s only Week 6. I don’t train and prepare to be the best player in the first six weeks. I want to be the best for as long as I possibly can. … I’ve got a ton of work to do. A lot of room for improvement. And I definitely plan on, you know, doing that.”

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on X.

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