Jakc Del Rio

The Silver and Black At Long Last Are Back

More than a dozen years. Fourteen painful seasons of futility, to be exact, both for the proud and storied Oakland Raiders organization and its colorfully loyal fan base. But there is a long-overdue dawn of a new day in the Bay Area, thanks in large part to the hiring of Jack Del Rio two years ago.

When Del Rio was inked at the beginning of 2015, the move was greeted with disparate viewpoints. Sure, it felt somewhat poetic, the guy from nearby Hayward, Calif. taking the reins of the franchise he’d rooted for as a kid. Still, the move was largely hailed by critics as a “safe” choice, code for the Raiders no longer being able to attract one of the game’s rising young assistants.

When Del Rio left his gig as the Denver Broncos’ defensive coordinator to return home, his new job was one few of his peers wanted. A steady flow of mishaps, both on-field and off, will have that kind of effect on a job’s appeal. This was a coaching graveyard, with a row of headstones featuring the names of Norv Turner, Art Shell, Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable, Hue Jackson and Dennis Allen. Never one to duck a challenge, though, Del Rio leapt at the opportunity to flourish where his predecessors had floundered.

From Allen and interim coach Tony Sparano, Del Rio inherited a squad that had won just three times in 2014. But there was young talent, such as QB Derek Carr, WR Amari Cooper and DE Khalil Mack, that needed to be molded into champions. And that’s where Del Rio, who years earlier had taken the sagging Jacksonville Jaguars to two playoffs in his nine seasons, would become the orchestrator of a football renaissance in Oakland.

A conservative hire to some, Del Rio has so far been a perfect hire for the Raiders.

In 2015, Oakland laid the foundation by winning seven games, its most victories in four years. This past season, the Raiders built on the ground floor with a campaign that caught even the optimists a little off guard. They went 12-4 to clinch a winning record and a playoff berth for the first time since 2002. And who knows what might have been had the franchise not been snakebitten with injuries late in the year?

During a Christmas Eve victory over Indianapolis, the unthinkable happened. Carr was awkwardly sacked by the Colts’ Trent Cole, suffering a devastating broken fibula that would prematurely end his magical season. A week later, backup Matt McGloin was lost to a shoulder injury, meaning the Raiders would be forced to enter the postseason with untested rookie Connor Cook behind center. It was too much to overcome for a team that had ridden the offense throughout the breakthrough season.

The Raiders dropped their final two games, bowing to the Houston Texans on the opening weekend of the playoffs. But the disappointing finish and the Carr injury did absolutely nothing to siphon air from what Oakland has accomplished in two seasons with Del Rio at the helm. What the franchise achieved in 2016 will go down as the ground floor on which a bright future will be built. And it’s the basis for Del Rio to capture the 28th Greasy Neale Professional Coach of the Year Award.

There is no shortage of terrific coaches in the NFL, brilliant tacticians who can push the right buttons to outsmart opponents. And while Del Rio can match wits, especially on defense, with any of his peers, it’s the warchest of intangibles he brought to Oakland that has made all the difference in the world to the Raiders. Good coaches tinker with the X’s and O’s to gain an edge. The transformational ones make young athletes rethink what’s possible.

Last season in Oakland happened because Del Rio is succeeding at the most difficult task for any leader, in or out of sports. From the inside out, he has methodically changed the culture of an organization that had long grown stale and accustomed to losing. Pre-Del Rio, mediocrity permeated through the hallways of the organization. The Raiders, once a symbol of intimidation and excellence, had regressed into an unfortunate punchline. Post-Del Rio, though, Oakland is suddenly one of the NFL’s most upwardly mobile franchises.

Del Rio is a player’s coach, and not in the pejorative tense that suggests a lack of discipline and accountability. Quite the contrary. No, he’s a player’s coach in that he intimately understands the rigors and the challenges of being a professional athlete. He relates, because he was once them, both as an All-American linebacker at USC and as a decade-long pro with five different NFL teams. Del Rio has walked many miles in his players’ cleats, commanding the respect and credibility of those players who appreciate the rare connection they have with their coach.

In surprisingly short order, Del Rio has also infused a fresh jolt of energy into an organization that sorely needed it. The Raiders had been mired in a protracted lull, the byproduct of the incessant losing and the revolving door on the sidelines. But Del Rio ushered in a completely new mindset, fueled by his passion for the game and his desire to find an edge where others may not bother to look. Plus, he listens as much as he talks, further tightening the bond between players and coach.

Five years ago, shortly after the passing of venerable owner Al Davis, new owner Mark Davis and GM Reggie McKenzie plotted a detailed gameplan for guiding the Raiders out of their extended funk. And while there were obvious stumbles in the early going, the new leadership team struck gold with the hiring of Del Rio, the adult the organization needed to help turn all of Oakland’s young talent into seasoned winners.

Del Rio grew up rooting for the Oakland Raiders. He’s still rooting for them, though now he has a seminal role in their return to relevance. The marriage is turning out to be the perfect union of a roster flush in emerging talent and a proven coach who’s older and more nuanced from the Jacksonville days, yet no less passionate about the task at hand.

In 2015, the budding Raiders learned how to compete. In 2016, they learned how to win consistently. Del Rio has helped foster a new mindset in Oakland, while connecting with his players on a deep and personal level. The organization appears to be on the move—literally—with Las Vegas the favored destination. Metaphorically speaking, though, the only direction from here is north now that Del Rio has installed a winning culture and ended the Raiders’ 14-year playoff drought.

Award Profile

Winner: Greasy Neale Award – 2016 Oakland Raiders