Don’t be fooled by the muscular physique. Antonio Pierce doesn’t play football anymore. He coaches linebackers for the Raiders.
Even though he looks as if he could still rack up 10 tackles on any Sunday.
“I am in pretty good shape still. I can physically do it,” Pierce said last week, knowing he can credibly demonstrate the techniques he teaches during practice. “That’s kind of a blessing for me to go out there and just walk them and talk them through it.
“But first and foremost, I think they understand and relate to me as a former player but respect me at the same time as their coach.”
The transition seems seamless for the former Pro Bowl inside linebacker, who at age 43 displays palpable enthusiasm about his first NFL coaching opportunity. He was a “coach on the field” during the nine seasons he played for the Washington Commanders and New York Giants.
Why wouldn’t coaching come naturally to a lifelong student of the sport?
“I sat there, and I probably did the hours like the coaches, but I was in the damn building as much as those guys and studying and preparing myself, making sure as a defense we saw things the same way.” he said. “As a coaching staff, you could tell guys one thing, but when those guys get between the lines, they got to see it the same way.
“And for me, that transition I would say has been pretty fairly easy.”
From player to coach
First-year Raiders coach Josh McDaniels brings a championship coaching pedigree to Las Vegas, steeled by six Super Bowl victories as an offensive coordinator in New England, along with three Super Bowl losses.
Pierce captained the first team to beat McDaniels’ almighty Patriots, holding quarterback Tom Brady’s historically great offense to 14 points en route to New York’s stunning victory in Super Bowl XLII.
Count Peyton Manning and Tony Romo among other opposing quarterbacks who tested Pierce’s preparation. Plus two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning, who played five years alongside Pierce — and against him in Giants practices.
“There were a lot of chess matches (when) we played one another,” Pierce said. “So I really prepared myself when I played as a coach.”
But first came a few years as an analyst for ESPN after retirement in 2010. Then four years as a high school coach in his native Southern California.
Then four years as a linebackers coach, defensive coordinator and associate head coach under Herman Edwards at Arizona State.
“Just like you learn how to be a pro as a player, learning how to be a pro coach is the same thing,” Pierce said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in college, but how you prepare yourself, how you detail, how you check all the extra notes, dot the I’s and cross the T’s, those are things that I brought here with me.”
Shaping a culture
Alas, that attention to detail is something Raiders linebackers can draw from, along with the championship pedigree and natural charisma that have helped power Pierce to this point. He says he’s a proud Raiders fan, having grown up in Los Angeles during the franchise’s 13-year run in the city.
Proud coach now, too, tasked with shaping the culture McDaniels wants to build.
Only Denzel Perryman and Divine Deablo return from last year’s group, giving Pierce the chance to mold a relatively new group under the guidance of defensive coordinator Patrick Graham.
“You’re always kind of just ‘OK, what’s next?’ And once that happens, everybody becomes a sponge, right?” Pierce said.
“Everybody wants more information, and that makes the dialogue in the room greater.”
Especially with Pierce a part of it.