Things did not go well for Raiders rookie John Simpson when he was asked to step in at left guard to allow Richie Incognito a rest day at practice last Wednesday.
“We put him in some tough spots and he had his struggles against Datone Jones,” coach Jon Gruden recalled. “But he learned some valuable lessons.”
If Jones was the bus driver taking Simpson to school, Gruden was the strict dean delivering tough love to the rookie.
“I can’t say I’ve been harder on any other rookie in the last couple years than John Simpson,” Gruden said. “Because we drafted him with high expectations to come in here and be a player for us.”
That time happened to come sooner than the Raiders anticipated.
Incognito aggravated the Achilles injury he was trying to play through and Simpson was called upon to make his NFL debut on “Monday Night Football” against the Saints just a week after he was inactive for the opener at Carolina.
“When Richie told me to start warming up, I honestly thought he was joking,” Simpson said. “He was like, ‘No, I’m serious.’ It instantly snapped in me. I couldn’t let anxiety take over and let anything distract from how I play. I just had to go in there and talk to myself to quiet my mind and let myself know I belong here and I can do it.”
Left tackle Kolton Miller was impressed with the rookie’s performance from his perspective lining up next to him on the line.
“For a guy coming in all of a sudden in the middle of a game, you’ve got to step in and step up,” Miller said of Simpson. “We communicated a lot during the game and got him on the right page. I think he’ll be even better this week if he has to go in.”
That’s a distinct possibility.
Incognito, one of the best guards in the league, was placed on injured reserve Wednesday. That should push Simpson into a prominent role for at least the next three games, though guard Patrick Omameh has also been elevated to the active roster for depth.
There is plenty for Simpson to build on. He played the final 69 of 80 total offensive snaps on Monday night. The offense didn’t miss a beat with him in the lineup. The Raiders scored 34 points and improved to 2-0 with the upset win.
Gruden said Simpson was thrust into a difficult situation, lining up against David Onyemata and Sheldon Rankins of the Saints, “two of the best interior defensive players in the game.”
He performed well, Gruden said. “I give Rodney Hudson and Kolton Miller a lot of credit for playing really well next to him, but it was a good start for John Simpson.”
The praise from Gruden had to feel good for Simpson, a fourth-round pick out of Clemson.
As a 6-foot-4, 330-pound athlete who can move like a much smaller man, Simpson has rarely been challenged on the football field.
He was a four-star recruit out of North Charleston, South Carolina, and chose Clemson over Florida, LSU, South Carolina and Alabama.
He appeared in nine games as a true freshman on a national championship team despite battling injury, eventually becoming an All-American and winning a second national title.
“It’s been really easy for me going through high school and college,” Simpson conceded. “Now I’m on the NFL level and everybody is great. (Gruden) has definitely been hard on me and I think I need that. I tell him whenever he comes up to me that I really appreciate it. I think that’s really big because everyone needs a coach like that to push them the extra mile.”
Of course, there is still plenty of work to be done. Pro Football Focus wasn’t kind to the rookie in its analysis of his pass blocking on Monday, though he did score much higher in the run game.
Quarterback Derek Carr’s opinion of Simpson’s performance was more favorable.
“You have to let that guy get a feel for the game,” Carr said. “Against that front, you can’t just go to seven-step drops and chuck deep balls and see if he can hold up. That’s not going to give the kid any confidence. We have to be able to work him into that. … He was playing so well at times that we were able to tell him, ‘Hey, if we get certain looks, let’s do this.’ We could trust that he’d hold up.”
That trust will be tested with Incognito down for the time being. But Gruden said Simpson’s ability to pick up on the adjustments that needed to be made when Carr would audible at the line of scrimmage was an an encouraging sign.
Wednesday marked exactly a week since that fateful practice where Simpson’s struggles drew the ire of Gruden.
The rookie has come a long way in those seven days. The Raiders hope his journey has only just begun.