Del Rio gets a game ball in triumphant return to Jacksonville

Del Rio gets a game ball in triumphant return to Jacksonville

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jack Del Rio spent nearly nine full seasons as Jacksonville Jaguars head coach. He had three winning seasons and two playoff appearances in that time, before he was fired during the 2011 season.

He hadn’t been back to Jacksonville in a professional capacity since, but returned Sunday with a new team ready to face his old one.

The Raiders head coach publicly downplayed the impact of this return, and did so again Saturday in a speech to the team. He wanted players to locked on the game, not storylines surrounding the head coach.

“Jack said to focus on being a great teammate and having each other’s back,” Raiders cornerback David Amerson said. “With him coaching here before, we definitely wanted to have his back. We wanted to get him this ‘W,’ it was big for him and our team.”

As much as Del Rio wanted to turn attention away from his return, coming back to Jacksonville was a big deal.

His family united at EverBank Field on Sunday, a place where they had so many memories as the children grew up. He has friends in town and within the organization. He brought the Jaguars back to relevance, and it has fallen on hard times since he left.

The Jaguars are 18-57 since Del Rio left, mark set after the Raiders’ 33-16 victory on Sunday afternoon.

His players understood the moment and honored it once victory was secure. Quarterback Derek Carr gave Del Rio a game ball after his triumphant return to old stomping grounds.

Jacksonville’s a place Del Rio will remember always fondly.

“(There were) a lot of great memories here,” Del Rio said. “It was a great place to spend nine years raising the family and being blessed with the opportunity to lead the Jaguar franchise. I was very appreciative of that time. I met a lot of good folks here; a lot of good memories, a lot of good friends. It is good to come back here and get a good effort in this stadium.”

That’s as reflective as Del Rio would openly get during this process, which comes as no shock to the players who work with him every day.

“Coach is cool, calm and conservative,” edge rusher Khalil Mack said. “The motto is the same each week, even here (in Jacksonville). We want to come out and dominate. That was the whole focus for him. He didn’t worry about coming back. Everybody knew he had history here, but we were concentrated only on getting that win.”

Quarterback drafted by Jon Gruden in 2008 signs with Raiders


Quarterback drafted by Jon Gruden in 2008 signs with Raiders

Raiders head coach Jon Gruden had a hand in drafting Josh Johnson a decade ago. The agile quarterback and Oakland native was a Tampa Bay’s fifth-round pick in 2008, Gruden’s last year as Buccaneers coach.

The pair will reunite in Johnson’s hometown. The well-traveled quarterback signed with the Raiders on Monday, the team announced.

Johnson will compete with Connor Cook to backup starter Derek Carr, and brings a veteran’s influence to the position group. It likely spells the end of EJ Manuel’s short tenure in silver and black. The strong-armed former first-round pick, who started one game last season, remains a free agent after a year with the Raiders.

This move should make Marshawn Lynch happy. He and Johnson are extremely close and together run the Family First Foundation, a charitable organization that does significant work for East Bay kids. Johnson and Lynch also played football together at Oakland Tech High.

Johnson has played 10 NFL teams prior to this Raiders stop, but hasn’t played in a regular-season game for some time.

Raiders well equipped to 'slam the ball with a beast'


Raiders well equipped to 'slam the ball with a beast'

Raiders head coach Jon Gruden needed specific tools to run his running game. He wanted blocking tight ends and a bruising fullback, relics of a bygone offensive era.

“If Marshawn Lynch is the feature back, I think it’d be nice if we serviced him with a fullback,” Gruden said at the combine. … You need a blocking tight end if you’re going to slam the ball with a beast. So, those are two things that I’m looking for.”

Gruden said he wanted to import some old-school elements to help run with brute force.

Enter free-agent fullback Kyle Smith and tight end Derek Carrier. Welcome back, Lee Smith.

Then, on Sunday, Raiders made another vital move in this old school effort. They cut Marshawn Lynch a $1 million check.

The Oakland native’s roster bonus came due and the Raiders had no problem paying it, the clearest sign Lynch will be the Raiders feature back in 2018.

He’ll have a great chance to thrive in that role. The Raiders have a hulking, expensive offensive line (that still needs a right tackle). They have new ancillary blocking elements, and the centerpiece remains in place.

That last part was expected in recent weeks. The coaching staff, offensive line coach Tom Cable especially, wanted Lynch back. NFL Network confirmed those facts, stating Lynch will be around in 2018.

That was the case, even with Doug Martin’s addition. The former Tampa Bay back is expected to be a backup bruiser, someone who might put DeAndre Washington or (less likely) Jalen Richard’s job in jeopardy.

The Raiders can cut Lynch without a cap hit. Lynch is scheduled to make $6 million in salary and bonuses, with another $2 million available in incentives. The Raiders should hope to pay those; it would mean Lynch is running well.

The Raiders have given him a great opportunity to do so. They have solid blocking and a coach in Cable who helped him succeed during dominant days in Seattle.

Lynch proved he’s still got it in 2017’s second half, with 70 percent of his 891 rushing yards in the final eight games. He struggled early on, and upset some fans by helping the opposition during a scuffle with Kansas City. That mitigated a PR bump the Raiders looked for when signing a popular Oakland native just months after committing to Las Vegas long-term.

Jack Del Rio and staff grew tired of what they perceived as leeway given to Lynch unavailable to others, and probably wouldn’t have kept him on if still gainfully employed.

Gruden seems committed to Lynch this season, though nothing is ever 100 percent with an enigmatic rusher who doesn’t make private thoughts public.

His elusive, rough-and-tumble rushing style fits well with what Gruden wants, though he demands commitment to the team and sport. Sports Illustrated relayed a story of Gruden saying he needed a “full-time Lynch.”

If he gets that, the Raiders run game should thrive.