- Jim Trotter, NFL
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NAPA, Calif. -- At the end of each evening, before his unit breaks for the night, Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver calls a player to the front of the room. He then gives the player the floor, allowing him to address his teammates about whatever is on his mind. Sometimes the speeches are about football. Other times they are about life. The subject isn't as important as the fact that the player has an opportunity to show a personal side to the men alongside whom he will battle for the next seven months.
"They can say whatever they want," Tarver said. "They can even tell the coaches to get out. I just want them to be able to say whatever is on their heart. Everybody will get a turn here in the next month. ... You learn something about the player. You learn something about the group."
It's also a way to accelerate the bonding process on a team that will have at least 11 new starters from the 2013 season opener, including seven on defense. It's a continuation of what the Raiders did during the offseason, when head coach Dennis Allen arranged for players and coaches to attend a Golden State Warriors game, new quarterback Matt Schaub organized a dinner for the offense, and the offensive linemen attended a baseball game together.
After nine years with the New York Giants, the Raiders brought in defensive end Justin Tuck to provide leadership as well as big plays. But Tuck didn't say much during offseason workouts. Instead, he observed his new teammates and took notes.
"I just kind of watched guys and paid attention to what triggers certain people," Tuck said. "During training camp, I've kind of gone over my notes as far as how I can approach guys to get the best out of them. You know, the thing that triggers them to say, 'I'm going to go out here and work my butt off.' For some guys, it's money. For some guys, it's legacy. For some guys, it's fame. For some guys, it's the love of the game. That's why I was a little bit laid back in my transition out here. But it's time to start picking it up now."
The Raiders have more talent than at any point since general manager Reggie McKenzie arrived in 2012 and hired Allen to oversee a slow, painful rebuilding project. Tuck, defensive end LaMarr Woodley and rookie linebacker Khalil Mack give them legitimate pass-rush threats. Free agents Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown give them experience at cornerback. Strong safety Tyvon Branch provides playmaking ability after missing all of last season because of injuries.
The goal now is to turn five fingers into a fist, the strength of which depends largely on how deeply the players bond.
"That's why we've done things like going bowling together, or getting together with guys at their houses," Schaub said. "You want to get to know each other personally, because that's what wins you an extra one or two games a season -- that tightness."
Allen has tried to bring players together as often as possible without appearing contrived. He loves the idea of training camp being away from the year-round training complex, because it forces players to spend time together. He also jumped at an opportunity to travel to Oxnard, California, for joint workouts with the Cowboys, because it would serve as a road trip. He's even having the team travel across the country on a Thursday for the season opener against the Jets, instead of the traditional Friday travel for East Coast games, because it's another bonding opportunity, not to mention a chance for players to acclimate to the time change.
"The stronger the bond, the easier it is to see and work toward that vision of being a tough, physical football team that plays smart and understands situations in the game," Allen said. "I want this team to understand that we've got the ability to make a lot of noise in this league. I firmly believe that. But that's not going to happen just because we say we want it to happen. It will only happen because we put legs on that dream."
Tarver, who also "buddies" young players with veterans to increase learning and accelerate bonding, borrowed the idea of having a different speaker nightly from his tenure at Stanford, where coach David Shaw did the same thing. The exercise was valuable for coaches as well as players, because it helped them understand players in a personal sense.
"Everybody's got different backgrounds," Tarver said. "Letting your thoughts out is one of the hardest things to do in any profession, because some people just talk all the time, and you don't know what their real thoughts are, and some guys hold everything in. This is a middle ground for whatever is on your heart."
The key, though, is how the words are received by players.
"It has to resonate, just because it's a players' team; it's a players' game," said Tuck. "All of us come from different backgrounds. All of our motivations are different. All of us have had certain things happen in our background that someone can relate to. Somebody's story might not relate to me, but it might relate to Charles Woodson or Woodley or Antonio Smith. You never know what those words can mean to somebody.
"A lot of times it might have to do with football, but it also has an underlying meaning of life. ... I think those words go a long way toward building a lot of chemistry and continuity among teammates."
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