ALAMEDA – Bruce Irvin was upset the Raiders fired defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. The prolific edge rusher made that clear shortly after the Norton news broke, with a tweet that contained one word, written in all caps.
BULLSHIT— Bruce Irvin (@BIrvin_WVU11) November 21, 2017
Irvin’s reaction was no shock. Irvin and Norton Jr. are extremely close, dating back to their days in Seattle. Irvin was a 2012 first-round pick and Norton his position coach, someone who taught him how to be a complete linebacker and stay away from off-field issues that plagued him so.
Irvin signed a four-year deal with the Raiders in 2016, in large part, to reunite with his old friend and mentor. Norton joined head coach Jack Del Rio’s original staff back in 2015, and was let go following a Week 11 blowout loss to New England in Mexico City.
Seeing Norton sacrificed for team-wide defensive failures was a difficult thing for many, Irvin the most.
“Ken Norton’s like a father to me. He has changed my life in so many ways, not only on the field but off the field,” Irvin said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Bay Area’s Fallon Smith, on this week’s episode of Raiders Central. “It was a tough situation. I basically came to Oakland for him, and he was let go. But I do believe it’s a production business and, and we weren’t getting it done. He knew that, and understands the business part of it. If you don’t produce, you won’t have a job long.”
Understanding the situation didn’t numb the sting. Never shy about expressing himself, Irvin made his feelings public.
“The tweet was just me,” Irvin said. “I’m a very outspoken person, anyway. I’m going to say what I want to say when I want to say it. I was mad at the moment, but I talked to Jack and he understood. He didn’t hold anything against me. He just gave me a few days, and it blew over.”
Anger subsided. Some guilt remains.
Norton was extremely popular in the locker room. While there was some sentiment there that he became a fall guy, defensive players believe they could’ve done more to keep Norton’s job.
“Definitely. Guys like me, Reggie and Khalil, we definitely felt like it was on us that we had lost our guy,” Irvin said. “It is what it is. We all understand the business part of it. We didn’t produce and it cost him his job. We have to keep fighting and keep playing. That’s what he’d want us to do.”
Del Rio hoped to create a spark by letting Norton go. That has happened. The defense has eight sacks and three turnovers in consecutive wins under new defensive play caller John Pagano. Irvin in particular has been strong. He has 10 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles in that span.
The team's defensive efforts against lackluster quarterbacks Paxton Lynch (Denver) and Geno Smith (New York Giants) should be graded on a curve, but it’s a positive step nonetheless for a Raiders team now tied atop the AFC West.
Irvin was asked if Pagano’s influence or improved execution has produced better play.
“It’s a little bit of both,” he said. “Guys saw the Norton situation, and that kind of got guys fired up, I would say, and more focused. Once again, I think guys are looking at that situation and thinking, ‘Man, we can get fired, too.’ It’s not only coaches. It falls on the players, too. It was a wake-up call for us, and guys really started to hone in and get in their books. We’re practicing better, and it’s starting to translate on Sundays now.”
While Irvin believes Norton should still be employed here, he has been impressed by Pagano in his expanded role.
“He has done a great job,” Irvin said. “He’s a guy who knows football. He was in San Diego for 15 years. He has done a great job of letting me and Mack just go. That’s what we’re good at, just going for it. These past few weeks he has done a great job dialing up blitzes and sending us, knowing his personnel and what guys are good at and letting them do what they’re good at.”