When a team expects to win but hasn’t, you have to teach it how.
The Oakland Raiders carried high hopes into this season, but most of their players have no idea what it would feel like to make good on them. The Raiders haven’t had a winning season since 2002. Current Oakland quarterback Derek Carr was in sixth grade then.
So when Raiders coach Jack Del Rio told his team to go for two instead of kick a game-tying extra point with 47 seconds left Sunday in New Orleans, it wasn’t just a what’ve-we-got-to-lose moment. It was part of a greater plan.
“He had hinted at it,” Raiders running back Latavius Murray said Thursday night. “He was on the sideline talking it up, like, ‘Hey, we’re going to score, and when we score, we’re going to win the game.’ Like, right now, not later on or in overtime, he meant. So we were excited and we knew the momentum was on our side.”
The win moved the Raiders to 1-0 -- a first tangible step toward their goal of winning the AFC West and making some noise in the playoffs. But Del Rio’s decision -- a clear statement that he expects his team to be able to make plays that win games -- was the latest lesson in how to win for a group that can’t get enough of them.
“For me, I’ve never experienced it myself,” Raiders fullback Marcel Reece said last month at training camp. “But I’m a student of this game. So my three years with Charles Woodson, I sat down and picked his brain for everything he had.”
This is the eighth year of Reece’s NFL career -- all with the Raiders. He has never finished above third place. Woodson, the veteran defensive back who retired this offseason, spent the final three years of his 18-year career in Oakland after seven in Green Bay that included a Super Bowl title. Earlier in his career, Woodson was on the Raiders teams that made the playoffs three years in a row and reached the Super Bowl. So his presence the past three seasons was a big deal to those Oakland players who haven’t known the feeling. Same goes for Justin Tuck, who won two Super Bowls with the Giants before finishing his career in Oakland the past two seasons.
“When Charles Woodson talked to me about their championship run in Green Bay, and the last two speeches he ever gave that team before they won that Super Bowl, I felt like I was there,” Reece said. “When Justin Tuck was telling me about his second ring and how he had two sacks against Tom Brady and that confetti was falling on him, I felt like I knew what it felt like to get that second ring.”
Young players such as Carr and Khalil Mack have shown the ability to perform at a high level. But they don’t yet know, first-hand, what it’s like to win. Picking the brains and the memories of those who’ve done it is a vital part of the process, and adding Super Bowl-champion free agents Bruce Irvin and Kelechi Osemele this past offseason continues that process.
“We added those guys because they’re good players and we think they can help us, first and foremost,” Del Rio said last month. “But there’s no doubt it helps to have guys who know how to win and can draw on that experience.”
But nothing helps like what went down in the final minute Sunday in New Orleans. You can listen to all the Charles Woodson/Justin Tuck Super Bowl stories you want, but the only thing that teaches you what winning feels like is actually winning.
“You get that winning feeling, you get those emotions, I think it carries over and you expect to do it,” Murray said. “Last year, we did some good things, but maybe if we were in the same situation, that team would have come up short. This year, the mindset is knowing how to win. Obviously, getting it done in that situation, now we know, when we need to make plays like that, we’re a team that knows how.”