Raiders edge rusher credits Ken Norton for putting him on right career, life path

Raiders edge rusher credits Ken Norton for putting him on right career, life path

Bruce Irvin pays close attention to his team’s offseason moves. Raiders fans know that. That’s why they call the explosive edge-rusher “Baby Reggie (McKenzie)” for trying to fit top free agents in silver and black. Sometimes it helps. Sometimes, other money talks.

Irvin follows personnel decisions and what they mean, regardless. Always has. That was certainly true in his second NFL season, when the Seattle Seahawks signed defensive lineman Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in free agency.

The previous year’s first-round pick spent his athletic life on the defensive line. He had eight sacks as a rookie in 2012, but knew Bennett and Avril meant fewer opportunities to impact the quarterback.

“Those guys played my position,” Irvin said. “When they got there, I knew they were coming to play. That put me on a backburner.”

Irvin wasn’t happy about it. Not mad necessarily, just depressed.

That didn’t change when Ken Norton Jr. offered a lifeline. The respected Seahawks linebackers coach asked Irvin to join his position group. Norton saw athleticism, savvy and passion in this lump of clay, something he could mold and then refine into a top-flight player.

Irvin wasn’t so sure.

“My exact words were, ‘I ain’t smart enough,’” Irvin said. “’There’s too much thinking. I’m not smart enough to do that.’”

Norton was shocked by that response.

“What’d you say?” Norton said, per Irvin’s recollection. “Don’t ever let anyone else in the building here you say that. You can do anything, and I’m going to hold your hand every step of the way, until you get the hang of it.”

Norton stuck with Irvin through good times and bad, and there was plenty of both. Norton never gave up on a once-troubled youth who has turned his life around and devotes significant time, effort and funds toward charity work. Norton didn’t turn his back after Irvin was suspended for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. And, over time, he turned Irvin into a quality NFL linebacker.

That’s why Irvin jumped at the opportunity to honor Norton as part of this year’s Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards, an annual event where top Bay Area athletes recognize coaches important to their lives on and off the field. Irvin presented Norton at a Friday night gala in San Francisco, an event to be televised Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area.

Irvin followed Norton from Seattle to Oakland in the 2016 offseason – ‘I heard in his voice he needed me down here’ – and again thrived under Norton’s leadership.

That won’t continue in a professional capacity.

The Seattle linebackers coach turned Raiders defensive coordinator isn’t around anymore. He got fired late last season, a few weeks before Jack Del Rio’s entire staff got let go. Norton was ever-so-briefly a 49ers assistant, before returning to Seattle as Pete Carroll’s defensive coordinator.

Norton’s new career path hasn’t changed Irvin’s affection, respect or appreciation for someone he considers a mentor, a coach, a father and an uncle.

“Ken Norton is all that in one with me,” Irvin said. “I love him and his family…Him not being around here (in Oakland) anymore doesn’t change a thing.”

The bond is strong thanks to Norton’s unwavering support of a unique personality.

“He’s a bully and a best friend. He’s intimidating and really nice,” Norton said. “He’s every extreme. People are supposed to be one or the other, but Bruce is all of that. On top of all that, he’s probably the best athlete and friend you’ll ever have. It was easy early on, and then it became a solid relationship.”

Irvin and Norton first met at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut. Norton and Carroll were part of a contingent recruiting Irvin to USC. He went to West Virginia instead, but those coaches eventually landed their guy at No. 15 overall in the 2012 draft.

Seattle gave him No. 51, a number Norton wore during an illustrious 13-year career that included three Super Bowl championships. The bond hadn’t formed yet, but the link was there.

It was forged during Irvin’s position switch.

“When I first got in his room, I had no clue,” Irvin said. “I didn’t know how to get in a stance. He was basically teaching a newborn baby how to walk.

“It started off bad, and that was also the year I got suspended four games. That set me back even farther. When I got back, he never judged me. He just put me back in the rotation.”

The suspension created some tension, frustration, and some pushback. Irvin knew he’d miss the first four games of 2013, but was allowed to participate in offseason and preseason activities. Norton prepared then reserve Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith – he spent two seasons in Oakland – to start. Irvin was talking trash to Smith in a preseason meeting, saying Smith’s starting job would only last as long as Irvin’s suspension.

Norton didn’t tolerate that.

“Man, Norton got on me so bad,” Irvin said. “I can’t use the words he said, but the message was, ‘Don’t act like you’re too good. You can always be replaced.’ We got into it then, but that might’ve been the last, or only argument we got into.”

Boundaries were established, as a real respect was forged. Norton kept Irvin on a proper path after returning from suspension by letting him in. Norton created an open-door policy at home, allowing Irvin to join his family for holidays. He counseled him on a decision to get married. He brought Irvin to Oakland and a great situation working opposite Khalil Mack.

Irvin understands that, and is forever grateful.

“All this football stuff could end tomorrow,” Irvin said. “The relationship I have with Norton, that’s forever, man. The guy has molded me into a great man, a great father and a great pro. Any chance I get to talk about him or help him out, I’ll do it. He’s one of the reasons why I’m here.”

Does Gruden see Lynch, Crabtree on Raiders in 2018?


Does Gruden see Lynch, Crabtree on Raiders in 2018?

Jon Gruden doesn’t love offseason restrictions on player-coach interaction. They weren’t so strict when Gruden last coached nine years ago, but the new collective bargaining agreement prevents the new Raiders head coach from extended contact with his players at this stage in the NFL’s downtime.

He has, however, run into several Raiders stopping by the team’s Alameda complex.

Count running back Marshawn Lynch and receiver Michael Crabtree among them. Conversations with those talented, yet mercurial players will be key as Gruden and general manager Reggie McKenzie decide how best to use the salary cap.

Both guys have a long history of NFL production. Both guys are getting up there in age, and have some drawbacks. Both guys can be cut without a salary cap hit.

Gruden had nice things to say about both guys in a Wednesday interview with the Bay Area News Group.

He was asked directly if Lynch will be on the 2018 roster.

“I don’t know,” Gruden said. “I bumped into him. Some of these players that live locally do come to the facility to get a workout, see the trainer. I’ve been downstairs and met several guys. I have talked to Marshawn briefly. We’ll see. We’ll keep everybody posted. Right now, he’s our leading ball carrier. He’s our back, and we’re counting on him. Hopefully we get an opportunity to work together. That’s a man that has a lot of respect in this league as a player and I certainly have respect for him also.”

Lynch started slow but finished strong, and was the team’s best skill player in the season’s second half. He’s contracted to make up to $6 million in 2018.

Crabtree came up later in a discussion of what he likes on the roster.

“I got to bump into Crabtree,” Gruden said. “Hopefully we can get the best out of Crabtree and his career.”

Crabtree is coming off a down year following two stellar seasons in Oakland. He had just 58 catches for 618 yards – he still had eight touchdowns – but his targets and snaps decreased the last two weeks. He seemed at odds with the previous coaching staff, a group that was dismissed at season’s end.

Crabtree is set to make $7 million next season, though none of it is guaranteed.

Gruden meeting reinforces T.J. Carrie's desire to remain with Raiders


Gruden meeting reinforces T.J. Carrie's desire to remain with Raiders

PALO ALTO – Raiders cornerback T.J. Carrie became a father on Super Bowl Sunday. Newborn son Elijah Carrie has been the sole focus these last few weeks, as T.J. learns on the job how to be a dad.

Pardon him if he hasn’t thought much about impending free agency. The 2014 seventh-round pick turned full-time starter has a rookie deal expiring soon, with a raise on the horizon following his best season as a pro.

That’ll come in March. Early February, however, has kept him otherwise engaged.

“I’ve been so busy with my little one, and I haven’t been getting any sleep,” Carrie said Thursday. “Learning how to be a dad has been so engulfing that I haven’t delved into the details of what free agency will mean to me.”

Soul searching wasn’t required to realize his dream scenario. The East Bay native wants to stay in Oakland, with a Raiders team he loved as a kid.

“My intention is to be here,” Carrie said. “I’m a Bay Area guy, a hometown kid. I couldn’t see myself being anywhere else. This is a passion for me. I dreamed about playing for the Raiders for such a long time. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to play there for four years, I want to finish (with the Raiders).”

Carrie wants to work with a new Raiders regime. He visited the team’s Alameda complex on Wednesday and met with new head coach Jon Gruden and defensive assistants. The interaction left Carrie wanting more, furthering his belief that be belongs in Silver and Black.

“Coach Gruden is very energetic,” Carrie said. “He’s a coach that likes to have fun but it a very business oriented guy. There are a lot of things, I imagine, that are going to change, just from the way he has done things. It’s going to be different, but I embrace it. It’ll be very challenging entering into a new regime, but there are a lot of positive factors involved with it.”

The Raiders don’t have many cornerbacks under contract come mid-March. They released David Amerson, and could do the same with Sean Smith later this offseason. Gareon Conley should start at one spot, but everything else is wide-open entering free agency and the draft.

Carrie could find value on the open market after recording 70 tackles and nine passes defensed in 16 starts. He’ll explore his options further next month, before free agency begins in earnest March 14.

“I know March is really when it starts to go down,” Carrie said. “My son will be a little older then, so I can focus more on free agency and make some more decisions.”