Raiders have Jack Del Rio to thank for instilling winning culture

KANSAS CITY -- It was a four-year plan that, when it was instituted back in 2012, really had nothing to do with Jack Del Rio. Maybe that's why it seems like the Oakland Raiders are a year ahead of schedule.

The way owner Mark Davis and general manager Reggie McKenzie plotted things out, the first two years in the wake of Al Davis' death would be a "deconstruction" of the Raiders, with McKenzie tearing the roster apart and starting anew while dealing with many "out of whack" contracts.

Then the next two years would be the reconstruction, making Oakland a desirable destination for free agents along with McKenzie unearthing jewels in undrafted rookies and hitting pay dirt in the draft.

So here, in Year 5, the Raiders' rise and return to relevance after 13 non-winning seasons was preordained, right? They are supposed to be 10-2 and holding the No. 1 seed in the AFC heading into the final quarter of the season with a huge prime-time showdown at the 9-3 Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday night, no?

Well, that's where Del Rio enters the picture, albeit a tad tardy on the master schedule.

That's because the four-year plan hit a snag with McKenzie's first coaching hire -- the untested Dennis Allen, who was not ready for the task and did not necessarily command the respect of a roster that, to be fair, was not all that good.

So after a pair of 4-12 seasons and an 0-4 start in 2014, Allen was fired. Following interim coach Tony Sparano's tomfoolery of burying a football to symbolize a team burying bad mojo, Davis and McKenzie went back to work. The Raiders, after all, were entering the fourth and final year of their plan and time was running out.

Sure, coaches had talked about "changing the culture" in Oakland for years, ever since Jon Gruden was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002. From Bill Callahan's "dumbest team in America" rant to Norv Turner's painfully awkward two-year tenure to Art Shell's unfortunate one-year "fox in the hen house" return to Lane Kiffin being eviscerated in Al Davis' awesome overhead projector presser that included an intermission to Tom Cable's sanguine "We're not losers anymore" proclamation after going 8-8 in 2010 to Hue Jackson's epic meltdown to Allen's uninspiring visor and sharpie, it's been quite the chaotic ride.

But none actually pulled the culture change off until Del Rio -- who grew up in the shadow of the Oakland Coliseum in nearby Hayward and shared the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with the Raiders in college at USC -- arrived last season.

After taking the moribund Jacksonville Jaguars to the playoffs twice and rebuilding the Denver Broncos defense as its coordinator, Del Rio gets it when the Raiders espouse the notion there are 31 teams in the NFL and then there are the Oakland Raiders.

Change the culture? You could say Del Rio, who has pictures of the Raiders' Super Bowl-winning coaches, John Madden and Tom Flores, hanging in his office as inspiration, simply dug the team's swashbuckling nature up again as if it was Sparano's football.

Going for a do-or-die two-point conversion in this season's opener at the New Orleans Saints? Yeah, that was Gamblin' Jack of the River.

Maybe that's why Del Rio smiled and answered quickly when asked his reaction to people saying he changed the culture in Oakland.

"Well, I agree with them," he said with a laugh. "That's one of the things that we did. But it's not me alone; it's us, it's what we have done. It's what all the people in this building, everybody plays a part, you know? That's what I believe in. It's an inclusive kind of deal.

"I provided a vision, I provided that. But beyond that ... we're all in it. And I mean that sincerely. We're all in it. We're all in it and we all play a small part of it and together, collectively, we can do special things."

Still, players who were in Oakland before Del Rio arrived say there is not one specific instance where the script flipped. Rather, it's been a mindset shift, such as how they dealt with travel and games in the Eastern time zone.

Consider: From 2009 through 2015, the Raiders were 1-18 in games played three time zones away. This season they are 6-0 in games played away from Oakland, counting the Mexico City "home" game.

"My rookie year, [Allen] switched up the schedule and kind of like manipulated the mind," All-Pro defensive end/outside linebacker Khalil Mack said. "You wake up later and all that stuff.

"But Coach Jack was like, 'F--- it. You adjust the time on your own and you ride it out ... grind it out.' And that's a different mindset."

Running back Taiwan Jones, the lone remaining position player on the roster drafted by Al Davis, credited Del Rio's transparency.

"When Dennis Allen was here, I can't remember too many conversations we had," Jones said. "I mean, we spoke, but it was real short. With Jack, we joke around, we talk, and I know how he feels about me ... that's big. Something as small as that, it makes a difference for players."

Being known as a player's coach can be a double-edged sword, though, as they can be seen as being too close to the players, much like Al Davis worried about his son being cutthroat enough to run the team.

"He doesn’t want to get involved in football," the elder Davis once said of Mark. "He used to know all the players. He still does. They were his vintage -- Cliff Branch ... Fred Biletnikoff, all those guys. He never understood how I could let someone go. He just doesn't want to get into that part of it."

Which is why Davis stepping aside and letting Del Rio and McKenzie handle the football aspect of the organization has worked out, even as they parted ways with a Davis favorite in Pro Bowl fullback Marcel Reece this season.

In fact, it was Reece who hailed Del Rio in training camp as being the catalyst for culture change, just as Madden did a few weeks ago.

"The team just needed a man; they needed an adult running them," Madden told the San Jose Mercury-News. "They [tried] the young guys, the new guys, the inexperienced guys, and that didn't work. When Jack Del Rio walks into a room, a man just walked in the room."

A man with a hearty NFL resume, one that includes 11 seasons, a Pro Bowl nod and one gnarly story to tell about the time he got into a knockdown, drag-out fight with Chiefs legend Otis Taylor during the 1987 strike. Del Rio, in his first season playing for the Chiefs, scrapped with Taylor, an older team employee who was leading replacement players outside the facility, and pictures of the brawl -- Del Rio's fashionable mullet and all -- were immortalized in the pages of Sports Illustrated.

Mack howled when he saw the images, saying Del Rio's passion has not faded since that nearly 30-year-old incident.

"You could tell he was a heck of a ballplayer," Mack said. "He played at a very high level, so he knows what it takes and he knows the attitude and he can see and feel the different things from his players. He just has a total awareness."

"He understands what we're going through," Jones added. "He's willing to take our feedback and he gave us ownership of the team ... that's why people bought in. We were able to see the change. He wasn't just talking."

Nor were members of Del Rio's coaching staff, eight of whom also played in the NFL and whose resumes might be even more venerable than that of the head coach. Guys such as Hall of Famer Rod Woodson, Super Bowl champs Ken Norton Jr. and Bill Musgrave, Pro Bowler Rob Moore, All-Pro Marcus Robertson, and lifers such as Mike Tice, Bernie Parmalee and Jethro Franklin.

The experience has caught the players' attention.

"They've been there before," said long-snapper Jon Condo, who joined the Raiders as a practice-squad signee when Shell was the coach in 2006. "I think the players, especially in the meeting rooms, they can respect that. It's not just some guy who's never played football before."

Del Rio is only the third Raiders head coach in franchise history to have played significant time in the NFL or AFL, along with Shell and Flores.

"Sometimes you get some coaches that have never played," Condo continued, "and then some players know that and then they start second-guessing, 'Who's this guy? He's never stepped on the field in his life.'"

Not so with Del Rio's staff.

"You talk about cool dudes?" Mack mused. "All throughout the staff, former players who just know how it's supposed to feel, how it's supposed to be and the energy that's supposed to be around the football team is exactly what they brought."

Condo also credited Del Rio with evolving the team's off-the-field attitude, specifically in bringing in ultra-secretive strength and conditioning coach Joe Gomes.

"Before, we'd just go in the weight room and lift," Condo said. "But now there's a nutritional aspect. We wear heart monitors, sleep monitors. He's trying to find the narrowest edge that we can have on our opponents."

Del Rio had his own plan. Last season, he wanted the Raiders to learn how to compete. This season, he wanted them to learn how to win. Check and check.

"When he showed up, it was like, 'Man, this is awesome, because this is exactly the things we've been talking about,'" quarterback Derek Carr said of Del Rio and the pledge he and Mack made as rookies in 2014. "Our whole class, we just wanted to go out and show people how to work and how to compete. We didn't care how old we were ... we didn't care about any of that. We cared about winning and one day winning here.

"That was really important to us, and when coach Del Rio showed up, man, that spark kind of lit the fire."

That fire helped the Raiders win games they would have lost in previous years. It made winning a habit. It had everyone believing that, for the first time in more than a generation, the Raiders are an elite team.

It's that old chicken and the egg argument, as in what comes first -- the winning or the culture change?

"Guys always talk about that, that you have to win first [but] I don't think I agree with that," said Del Rio, who inherited a 3-13 team and led them to a 7-9 record in his first season. "I think you change the way you look at yourself. You change the way you look at each other. Then, through that process and through the challenging every day and committing yourself every day and the unselfishness and all those things, doing it because it's right and really, truly committing to excellence ... when you start doing those things, then the wins come.

"I don't think you wait until you win to join up. What we have is buy-in."

The Raiders, for the first time in recent memory, have a bona fide culture change that was part of their master plan all along. They just had to take a detour or two and find the right coach to get there.