NAPA –- The Raiders were terrible when Charles Woodson started his second stint with the team that drafted him 1998. They were fresh off a 4-12 season, in the midst of a deconstruction phase to get right with the salary cap.
If the 2013 talent level was a gas gauge, the Raiders were in the red. Dangerously low. Head coach Dennis Allen was inexperienced and, in hindsight, in over his head.
It would take a few years until the Raiders’ arrow started pointing up. Woodson agreed to come back in 2014 and again this season, during which he will turn 39, for a few reasons. His body felt good. He still loved the game in both practice and play. And he wanted to do something positive with the end of his NFL career.
He’s already got a Super Bowl ring from Green Bay, but Woodson wanted to help guide the Raiders back to respectability. That was virtually impossible the last two years. This season, he believes the Raiders can actually do that.
"The optimism is always there, but this year is really a clean slate," Woodson said after Friday’s training camp practice at the Napa Valley Marriott. "There are new coaches, a bunch of new players and there’s a new attitude. Everything is new around here, and we’re optimistic about what we have going on. We’re working hard every day and trying to get better. We feel good about the progress we’ve made up to this point."
A lot has been written about the positive environment in this camp, but there are more concrete factors to support Woodson’s belief that better days are on the immediate horizon. The Raiders have a coaching staff that has energized the franchise and the fan base. And, probably most important, is that the talent level’s improved.
“I think it’s been great to add talented people at key positions, through free agency and the draft,” Woodson said. “We have guys who can be potential game breakers for us, and that’s what you need in this game.”
Much of that talent is young. That means an elder statesman like Woodson, someone players truly admire, must be a role model.
"It’s pressure, man," Woodson said. "I'm trying to do the right things, trying to say the right things. I do my best. But it’s the same for each generation. When I came in, I was, you could say, hard-headed. Young guys now are the same way. For those guys, you just hope that they can understand earlier better than later, because you don’t know how long you’re going to be able to play this game before you ever get it. Like I said, try to do the right things and try to say the right things to these guys, so they can have a good example to follow.”
Players need to follow Woodson's lead and pieces need to complete a puzzle during the preseason to produce early wins that lead to a better record. That’s been easier with head coach Jack Del Rio and his staff, which has tons of NFL experience.
“When you have a coach that played the game and understands the scrutiny put on you as a player, it’s a big help,” Woodson said. “He knows about the bumps and bruises you take and the experience of a training camp. It brings validation for that guy and what he has to say. There’s an automatic respect for a person who has been in that fight.
“The guys are responding well to that. Our teaching level has been at an all-time high. Guys know where they’re supposed to be at all times, and that will be beneficial for us when the games start to count.”