Courageous Jack Del Rio changes culture in Oakland

OAKLAND -- Derek Carr felt the heat, racing away from onrushing San Diego Chargers linebacker Korey Toomer and hurrying a short pass to Amari Cooper that had no chance of being completed. With 1:15 remaining in the third quarter of a game the Raiders trailed by five points, it looked like Oakland kicker Sebastian Janikowski would be summoned from the bench for a sixth field-goal attempt, and 54,275 fans simultaneously let out groans of disappointment.

Then, in an instant, they were reminded who their head coach was, and all was suddenly well in Raider Nation.

And in retrospect, with the home team facing a fourth-and-3 from the San Diego 21-yard-line, had they really expected Jack Del Rio to play it safe? Because five games into what could end up being a special season for the Silver and Black, Del Rio's players and assistant coaches absolutely, positively did not.

As veteran receiver Michael Crabtree would tell me in a private moment at his locker following the Raiders' 34-31 triumph Sunday at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, "You already know what time it is. You already know about Coach. He believes in us, so we've got to have his back. It all goes together. We take care of each other."

On the defining play of Sunday's game, Crabtree took care of his coach -- and his quarterback, who'd boldly checked out of offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's higher-percentage play call -- in a big way. With cornerback Casey Hayward shadowing him stride for stride down the right sideline, Crabtree reached out and deftly cradled Carr's rainbow of a throw a couple of yards past the right pylon, providing what would prove to be the winning points in a topsy-turvy clash between AFC West rivals.

And when it was over, embattled Chargers coach Mike McCoy was being publicly trashed for playing it safe in the final minutes -- attempting what would have been a game-tying field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Oakland 18, only to have the snap slip through the hands of holder Drew Kaser -- while Del Rio's chutzpah was hailed by the masses.

Call him Jack Del Huevos: Beginning with a bold two-point conversion call in the final minute of last month's season opener that gave the Raiders a 35-34 road victory over the New Orleans Saints, Del Rio has infused the Silver and Black with a swagger that evokes memories of the franchise's glory days, and the bravado seems to be contagious.

"Well, I think it probably is], but that's not part of the thinking," Del Rio said after emerging from his private dressing area into an empty locker room an hour after Sunday's victory, which moved Oakland (4-1) into a first-place tie with the defending [Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. "The thinking is, I believe [going for it] is the right thing to do. You've got to have the courage to make the call, and the trust for them to get it done.

"And then, when you do it, and you show them that trust, and they act on it, and they do the right thing -- then it builds your confidence."

If Del Rio and his players are confident that the Raiders can achieve their first winning season and postseason appearance since the 2002 season (one which ended with the brutal Super Bowl XXXVII defeat to former Oakland coach Jon Gruden and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), it's largely because of the young man directing Musgrave's offense. Now in his third season, Carr is a strong-armed passer who has a strikingly advanced grasp of the Oakland attack, and an audacious personality that jibes perfectly with that of his head coach.

After Del Rio left the Raiders' offense on the field for that fourth-and-3 play late in the third quarter, Musgrave dialed up a call that had Crabtree and Cooper running short slants past the first-down marker. Carr (25 for 40, 317 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) surveyed the line of scrimmage, saw the Chargers' defensive alignment and decided he'd take his chances going up top to Crabtree against single-coverage, despite some previous misfires on Sunday.

"Derek calls it based on what he sees," Musgrave explained after the game. "Nice call, Derek."

Suffice it to say that Musgrave -- and Del Rio -- might not have been quite as enthusiastic about the audible as the ball was in the air.

"Oh man, it was (up there) a longgg time," Carr said. "That's one Coach (Musgrave) will be a little upset at me for. He wanted a slant. I wanted him to go deep. I just felt it. I'm sure when he saw that ball leave my hand, he was like, 'What are you thinking?' "

Admitted Musgrave: "We'd already thrown two or three fades out of bounds. ... Oh well, he's the man on the field. You've just gotta go with it."

"It was like, 'No, no, no, no -- yeaaaahhhh,' " Del Rio said, laughing. "At the end of the day, I really felt like it was the right thing to do."

Assessing such scenarios in an environment as high-profile as the NFL, of course, can be a cold and unforgiving endeavor, as both Del Rio and McCoy acutely understand. In a business in which a tipped pass, a controversial call or a replay official's definition of "indisputable" can inform public opinion and reshape career trajectories, the rival coaches left the Coliseum heading down opposite paths -- Del Rio on his way to becoming the organization's most revered power broker since legendary owner Al Davis' passing, McCoy possibly bound for the unemployment line.

With the Chargers (1-4) having previously lost three games in which they were ahead with two minutes remaining (blowing double-digit, fourth-quarter leads against the Kansas City Chiefs and Saints), Sunday's botched snap -- the bookend to Kaser's 16-yard shanked punt on the final play of the third quarter that set up a 32-yard touchdown drive for Oakland -- was not a welcome development for the fourth-year coach. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Sunday morning that McCoy could be fired following Thursday night's home game against the Broncosif things did not go well over San Diego's next two games.

In fairness to McCoy, the Chargers have suffered an unrelenting rash of significant injuries, with key performers such as star wideout Keenan Allen, top cornerback Jason Verrett and running backs Branden Oliver and Danny Woodhead on injured reserve. Pass rusher Joey Bosa, the third overall pick in the draft, finally made his NFL debut on Sunday, having missed the first four games with a hamstring injury following a contract dispute that dragged into late August. Bosa had two sacks and another tackle for loss; he and his teammates played hard to the finish, a sign that McCoy has done a good job of motivating his undermanned team.

And yet, after running back Melvin Gordon was stopped just short of a first down on a third-and-2 carry with a little more than two minutes remaining, McCoy, with the ball on the Oakland 18, elected to play for the tie. Del Rio later insisted he agreed with McCoy's decision, saying, "It was the right thing to do at that time; you're gonna execute that play 98 percent of the time."

Said one Raiders assistant: "That's a good team. I'm not looking forward to playing them again. They're going to win some games."

Yet if nothing else, the optics of Sunday's pivotal moments were bad for McCoy, who has been criticized for being overly conservative. And when the field-goal snap slipped through Kaser's hands in surreal fashion, allowing the Raiders to kill all but the game's final 11 seconds, the second-guessing began in earnest.

Though Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (21 for 30, 359 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions) defended the decision to kick, he may have been a minority among his teammates. Put it this way: Not many people in silver and black were distraught when they saw Rivers heading to the sidelines in that situation.

"I'm glad they did (decide to kick)," Raiders left tackle Donald Penn said. "I was a little bit [relieved]. I talked to some of their players after the game. They wanted to go for it."

Meanwhile, Go For It has become a Raiders mantra, one which Del Rio reinforced with his fourth-down gamble on Sunday. "Yeah, I love that," Raiders linebacker Bruce Irvin said. "He believes in his team. He believes in his players. That's all you can ask for in a head coach."

Said Carr: "That's my guy. He trusts us. You get fired up when a coach puts his trust in you like that."

If Del Rio wanted to establish an aggressive mindset, he couldn't have succeeded more blatantly than he did in the season opener at the Superdome. Trailing the Saints by seven in the final minutes, Del Rio told his offensive players, "Let's go win the game" before their last drive, then backed up his words by going for two, with Carr finding Crabtree on a fade pattern. Two Sundays ago Carr and Crabtree connected again in the clutch, as the receiver's third touchdown catch, with 2:12 remaining, provided the winning points in a 28-27 road victory over the previously undefeated Baltimore Ravens.

Pulling out close games is part of an evolution Del Rio envisioned when he took the Raiders job in the shadow of his hometown following the 2014 season. After a nine-year stint as the Jacksonville Jaguars' head coach, Del Rio had spent the previous three seasons as the Broncos' defensive coordinator, where he came to regard the Raiders as a tragically flawed rival.

Upon taking the job in Oakland, Del Rio understood that changing the culture was his most significant challenge.

"Well, the basic philosophy was that we're gonna learn how to compete for 60 minutes," he explained. "When we were in Denver, we really felt like, 'Hey, they might hang around and be close for a half, but as soon as something goes wrong, they're gonna fall apart.' And it really kinda was true.

"So we had to change that. That's not easy. But the guys understand what it looks like to just stay in and fight. I thought last year we learned that. I think this year we're learning how to not only stay in and fight, but how to execute in those critical situations."

On Sunday, one coach played it safe in crunch time, and his team failed to execute -- and his job status may now be in critical condition.

Meanwhile, Carr and Crabtree combined for a sublime and timely go-ahead touchdown, and the legend of Jack Del Huevos grew.

"I'm not gonna be reckless," Del Rio insisted. "But I'll look for opportunities to do the right thing. I honestly feel like there are times when [being aggressive] is the right thing to do for my team, and you have to be willing to put yourself out there, to have the courage to do what you know is the right thing for your team. And if it doesn't go well, I'm gonna shoulder it. And I'm OK with that."

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.

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