The Raiders are doing their best to make sure the unusual times created by COVID-19 are as normal as possible.
In some cases, that means players taking it upon themselves, without the urging or orders of coaches, to be creative in finding ways to be as prepared as possible to hit the ground running when they can finally report to work.
Which is why you will find 20 or so Raiders players gathered at a local Las Vegas-area park on weekdays, Derek Carr and Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow among them, working on pass routes while adhering to social distancing guidelines.
Why other players now living in the area are breaking into small groups and working out together at the home gyms of teammates, like the tight end group led by Darren Waller.
If there is one common message among the Raiders right now, it’s the importance of being self-starters at a time when the supervision of coaches is limited to two-hour virtual meetings four days a week.
”I feel like that is a characteristic of champions,” said Waller. “You know, champions don’t need someone to set their schedule for them or tell them where they need to be or tell them to put in a certain level of effort. That’s ingrained in them. It’s part of who they are. … That’s what we’re trying to get across and stress.”
Officially, the Raiders are continuing their four-day-a-week virtual OTA’s in which players use team-issued computers at homes spread across the country to spend two hours video conferencing with their coaches.
To maximize a restrictive process, coach Jon Gruden and his staff typically break players into groups. Five to 10 players work directly with their position coach. By splitting the meetings into smaller groups, it minimizes some of the technological malfunctions and difficulties that sometimes occur in coast-to-coast video conferencing involving large groups of people.
“Like some people not muting their mikes.” said Tanner Muse, the Raiders’ third-round draft pick out of Clemson. Muse and his fellow rookies came on board with the veterans last week after going through a virtual rookie minicamp the previous weekend.
The process of going from college to the NFL is difficult enough under normal circumstances, but is even more so this year for Muse and the rest of the 2020 rookie class. The key is not using it as an excuse.
“It’ll be really important for us to do extra on our own and really try to buckle down on our prep and our film and our conditioning,” Muse said.
The smaller-grouped meetings also allow players to digest streamlined information geared toward their position and responsibilities. With time of the essence and the tools and methods of instruction extremely limited, maximizing every second of teaching and learning is paramount.
“It’s definitely different,” said new Raiders linebacker Cory Littleton. “We’re still getting some of the work in, but it’s from a different aspect. You’re inside your own house, or wherever it might be that you are situated. … But the one thing I know is, playing football, there is always change. There are always adjustments to make. And as football players, we make adjustments. It’s who we are and what we do.”
In a normal offseason, NFL teams would be doing classroom work at their individual facilities right now, with the framework of the offense and defense getting installed. In a sport for which rosters turn over every year, players would be interacting and bonding.
Shortly after Memorial Day, they would phase in the on-field aspect of the offseason in which the classroom work transfers to the field. And while these sessions are completely voluntary, it goes without saying participation is greatly stressed.
But COVID-19 has completely altered that flow. With the NFL recently announcing virtual OTA’s will run through the end of May — while giving no clear indication of when players and coaches will be allowed back into facilities — there is a chance teams may not get to work together as a full group until training camp starts in late July.
For a Raiders team in which seven new starters and a slew of rotational players will emerge from 13 free-agent additions and a seven-player draft class, the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 could not have come at a worse time.
That is on top of the disruption caused by the move from California to Las Vegas.
“It’s tough, but we are making great use of the time,” Gruden said.
Added new linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, who is participating in OTA’s from his home in Chicago until he can find new digs in Las Vegas: “So far, with what we have been able to do, it’s been great, just learning the defense and trying to get to know some guys and coaches as best as possible.”
In the meantime, a bunch of Raiders players who have already made the move to Las Vegas are figuring out ways to get in their work.
“It’s been a good reminder that in life, not everything is going to happen on our timetable or how we want them to,” Waller said. “So sometimes you have to roll with the punches. We’re definitely getting some practice in on that right now.”