PHOENIX — Jack Del Rio began the first day of the rest of his new Luck-Be-A-Lady life by answering questions no other NFL coach has ever had to answer.
Well, what happens in 2020 when his Raiders players have the option of staying up all night in Las Vegas and/or patronizing shows called “Zombie Burlesque” or “Topless X Country?”
The Raiders’ head coach was ready with some answers Tuesday when he met with reporters–even if many of those answers amounted to him admitting he has a few years to figure it out.
As approved by NFL owners on Monday, the Raiders’ franchise will relocate to Nevada in 2020 after a new $1.9 billion stadium is constructed. That gives Del Rio time to develop a strategy for how to approach the upcoming stretch of . . . weirdness and whack.
“It’s a little unique,” Del Rio said. “There isn’t a handbook out there. If there is, please send it to me. There isn’t one out there. But we will draw on the experiences and the wisdom we have in our group, and do the best we can to put a plan together and execute it.”
It’s safe to say that no coach in NFL history has ever faced a stranger unique challenge than Del Rio. It’s a three-pronged challenge, really. The first prong will be dealing with the next two or three seasons in Oakland — or someplace else — and possibly playing in front of crowds upset and angry about the franchise leaving the East Bay. The second prong will be preparing the team logistically for the move to Nevada. The third prong will be developing a strategy for keeping young athletes on point in Las Vegas and away from any temptations.
All while trying to win a Super Bowl. Which is a reasonable expectation with the current Raiders roster.
So let’s start with the first prong. Del Rio issued a statement after Monday’s announcement that expressed both sadness about the team leaving the Bay but excitement about new opportunities in Las Vegas. But he is smart enough to know he’ll have to manage his players’ focus over the next few seasons — and perhaps have to deal with crowds at the Coliseum of uncertain emotion.
Is it possible that the Black Hole will become less Black Holish? Will there be empty seats? Will the Raiders’ home field advantage diminish–or vanish?
“I can’t answer that definitively,” Del Rio said. “I would say I doubt it. The first thing we have to do is play well. That’s where it starts. So I’m banking on us doing well. If we do well enough, people will be excited to watch it. There will be a certain number of people that are disappointed to the point that they can’t come and support any more. Which is understandable. We’ll just see where that number is. If that number grows to a lot, then we’ll adjust that line of thinking. But I’d be surprised. . . I’m sure there are some people who are angry and can’t get over it. But I think there’s a large group of who are true Raider fans and it doesn’t really matter to them where we’re playing.”
And how does Del Rio plan to address the players about how to approach the upcoming next few seasons?
He’s thought about that, too.
“The No. 1 thing I think you have to do as a player–or a coach–is talk to your wife and kids and educate them,” Del Rio said. “Everybody needs to understand what the landscape is. To me, once you get that part settled, then you can settle back into your job and what you need to do. I don’t think you can dismiss that aspect of it. There are wives at home right now that are asking their husbands and the husbands don’t have those answers.”
Del Rio then correctly pointed out that the average NFL roster turns over 25 to 35 percent of its personnel in a given calendar year. If that average holds up, it means less than half of the current Raiders will ever play a game wearing Silver and Black in Nevada.
“So the reality is, I’m going to go talk to guys that may never make it to Las Vegas . . . about Las Vegas,” Del Rio said. “That’s why we need to focus on where we are right now. We need to focus on what the 2017 schedule is. When it comes out, we’ve got to attack that thing and lay out a plan. So he first thing I want them all to know is, just remember the 30 percent rule. Don’t worry about that, worry about your job so you can be a part of it in two or three years. Worry about the here and now.”
His concern is not misplaced. The most comparable situation to the Raiders’ upcoming stretch occurred in 1995 when the Houston Oilers announced they were going to become the Tennessee Titans in Nashville. The team’s plan was to mover there in 1998 when a new stadium was scheduled to be completed — but in the interim would keep playing in Houston. However, when home crowds in 1996 at the Astrodome slipped to beneath 20,000, Oilers owner Bud Adams decided to play the 1997 season in Memphis. Except that Memphis citizens didn’t turn out because they were peeved that Nashville was getting the team permanently. So when the Nashville stadium project was delayed another year, the Oilers/Titans wound up playing at Vanderbilt University’s stadium in 1998.
Most significantly, on the scoreboard, none of those three Oilers/Titans teams were winning ones–before the Titans jumped up to a 13-3 record and a Super Bowl appearance during their first season in the new Nashville stadium. There is no definitive proof that the here-to-there-to-somewhere-else movement of the team’s home games had anything to do with not winning during the in-transition seasons. But it will be something to watch. Del Rio notes that the Raiders have already navigated a few seasons about rumored moves to Los Angeles or Vegas and still performed well. But we’ll see.
“I think it’s important to focus on things that we have some control over,” Del Rio said. “We have to focus what we’re about, where we are, giving maximum effort. That has to be the forefront of everything we’re doing right now. We want to make sure we put out a good product and play good ball and make our fans proud now. And hopefully, they have enough fun that they might jump on a plane and come see us in the future.”
Yes. About that future.
“I don’t know a lot about Las Vegas,” Del Rio said. “I’ve been two different times. Golfed a little, gambled a little and saw some shows. The shows were the part my wife and I probably appreciated most. Again, in looking for the future, it’s exciting . . . All of that is there. But that’s kind of down the road for me right now.”
Del Rio does realize that the team’s new city may present special, um, provocations for 21-year-old football players with money to spend. He may have to institute certain rules.
“There has been an initial thought about what may or may not need to happen,” Del Rio said. “Then again, it may be very similar (to Oakland). I think the biggest difference is, (Las Vegas) doesn’t shut down. Well, I played in New Orleans as a rookie. You had to learn that there, too. That city doesn’t shut down, either. New York stays open pretty much through the night. So it’s not the only city that has a segment that doesn’t go to bed. Obviously, as a coach, your team needs rest and that’s something you pay attention to. But I’m not sure, when you really get into it, that it’s much different.”
Well, later in the day, we did get an example of how it might be different.
Tuesday afternoon, a story broke that a Nevada brothel owner plans to open a Raiders-themed “Pirate’s Booty” operation with special accommodations for members of the Raiders roster. This led to Roger Goodell, at his NFL meetings roundup media conference, answering a question about whether the league might have to formulate a brothel-visiting policy for the league’s players.
Goodell smiled at the question but replied with a straight face. He said the appropriate review of policies will take place every year, as always. There’s already a rule against players visiting sports books–which is wise, since gamblers will be able to wager on Raiders’ home games as they play down the street. But will those gamblers attempt to find out where Raiders’ players are hanging out and try to get an inside feel on how to bet? What do you think?
It’s going to be an intriguing next four years. Coach Del Rio, enjoy writing that handbook.