HENDERSON, Nev. — It was a different vibe at the Las Vegas Raiders facility Thursday, when the team held its first practice under interim coach Antonio Pierce.
From warming up to the musical stylings of seminal rap group N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” to All-Pro receiver Davante Adams taking running back Ameer Abdullah to school in the locker room’s new mini-basketball hoop to offensive linemen wrestling each other WWE style to even, yes, a new starting quarterback in rookie Aidan O’Connell, it was a new day.
All less than 48 hours after the Raiders fired Josh McDaniels and Dave Ziegler as coach and general manager, respectively, and replaced them with Pierce and Champ Kelly.
“Don’t get it confused,” Adams cautioned. “It’s not a celebration that we have a new coach and there’s been changes made. We, obviously, think it was time, one way or the other, it was time for some sort of change. Just to bring a little juice in and revitalize the team a little bit. So, I think that’s kind of the mindset we’re having, just trying to have fun and enjoy our time in this building because I think as we speak to each other, it’s been too much of, this has just been feeling like work too much and not having enough fun.”
Adams went on to thank McDaniels and Ziegler for trading for him.
“As I’ve said countless times, I want to be a Raider,” Adams added. “So I want to try to make this work and do everything I can to keep it going now.”
Pro Bowl edge rusher Maxx Crosby also thanked McDaniels for pushing him to be a better leader but added that he simply wanted to win.
“I want to be in a great environment,” Crosby said. “I want to show up to work every single day and feel great energy. I feel like that’s more important than anything. At the end of the day, you’ve got to enjoy this. If you don’t, you’re not going to have much success and it’s already hard enough to go out there and do what we do. So, if you’re walking in the building, not enjoying it, it’s going to be even harder.”
In Pierce, Crosby said he feels a natural leader, a former player who was a Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl champion with the New York Giants, the Raiders’ opponents on Sunday at Allegiant Stadium.
“Guys relate really well,” Crosby said.
Perhaps none will have to vibe with Pierce more than the new starting quarterback.
Rookie O’Connell is at the center of the biggest on-field change for the evolving Raiders and was tapped by Pierce and Kelly to replace high-priced but oft-injured and ineffective thus far Jimmy Garoppolo.
“Obviously a little crazy, just a lot going on around here and nothing I’ve been part of before,” O’Connell said of the past few days. “I had one coach my whole time in college, so it’s all pretty foreign to me. Just trying to take it day by day, really minute by minute and try to enjoy it as much as I can.
“Definitely overwhelming to know the guys have my back and are super supportive, both vocally and how they treat me. So that gives me a lot of confidence in myself and I appreciate that a lot from them.”
O’Connell started the Raiders’ Week 4 loss at the Los Angeles Chargers, when Garoppolo was out with a concussion, and also played in relief of Brian Hoyer two weeks ago in the blowout defeat at the Chicago Bears, with Garoppolo sidelined by a back injury.
The fourth-round pick from Purdue has completed 65.4% of his passes (34-of-52) for 313 yards, a touchdown pass and two interceptions for a passer rating of 72.0, a total QBR of 7.6. But he has also been sacked seven times, losing two of three fumbles.
“It was obviously a crazy few days and so I found out yesterday,” O’Connell said of being named the starter going forward. “These conversations happen quick because we’ve got to get going and start getting the work and so they’ve, again, voiced their confidence in me and been super supportive of me from A.P. to Champ and Bo [Hardegree, interim offensive coordinator], all alike. So again, just them being confident in me and showing that verbally, has been huge for me.”
Former Pro Bowl receiver Hunter Renfrow also alluded to a “different energy” under Pierce.
“We’re not walking on eggshells everywhere,” said Renfrow, a forgotten man in the previous offense.
“I mean, I think there was things that McDaniels did really well, right? I’m not going to sit here and say he was a bad coach. He’s very good … but I think with A.P. being a player and just having different energy, it’s just different. And we have a basketball [game] going on in the locker room now, trying to have a little fun. Just trying to get back to having fun as a kid and playing the game. Well, I think that’s been his message.”
Another change? The Raiders on Thursday signed linebacker Jaylon Smith off the New Orleans Saints’ practice squad. He was a second-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 2016 out of Notre Dame and was named to the Pro Bowl in 2019.
Pierce was the Raiders’ linebackers coach before being elevated by owner Mark Davis. And it was Davis who told ESPN he didn’t necessarily want Pierce to “coach” the team, so much as he wanted him to “lead” the players.
And that was fine with Adams.
“You need somebody that knows how to lead men, and that’s not me saying that Josh wasn’t that guy, but that’s just what [Davis is] obviously alluding to because I think Josh was great at leading men,” Adams said. “He had the right idea and, what he was looking for out of this team, I totally agree with everything that he wanted us to do. It’s not like he was sending us out there with bad intentions or not with our best interests at heart.
“But A.P. is not going to get in there and say, ‘Run this play for ‘Tae,'” Adams laughed. “He don’t know any of our plays. He’s over there coaching linebackers and dealing with the defense. So, I think it’s more about just having him shape our minds, getting us ready to go out there. I mean, I’m already ready to run through a wall for that man, so it’s a good feeling.”
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