The Las Vegas Raiders’ new coaching staff, led by interim head coach Antonio Pierce and general manager Champ Kelly, quickly made their mark on the group.
Not after Pierce declared that expensive but frequently injured veteran quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will be replaced at quarterback by rookie Aidan O’Connell.
“It will be Aidan, going forward,” Pierce said in the introductory news conference on Wednesday. “We just feel like it gives us the best chance.”
Kelly reported that the adjustment was well received in the locker room.
“The guys are rallying behind him,” Kelly said of O’Connell. “They’re excited to watch him get his opportunity. I was there as A.P. was speaking to the team and he had their eyes. There was an energy that was tangible in the room. There was a true excitement and guys are geared up to prepare for this weekend.”
The Raiders (3-5) welcome the New York Giants (2-6) on Sunday at Allegiant Stadium. The Raiders have suffered depressing losses in their last two games. After being promoted from linebackers coach, Pierce played for the Giants in 2007 and won a Super Bowl.
Both the animated Pierce and the more reserved Kelly exuded energy throughout the almost 25-minute news conference, explaining that a change was necessary to correct the team’s culture following the firings of Josh McDaniels and Dave Ziegler as general manager and coach, respectively, on Tuesday night.
“What does that look like? Tough, passionate, effort, energy … we’re on the same page — Champ and myself. Our staff is connected. We had a great team meeting this morning. Everybody was steely eyed and focused. We walked in with a smile on our face. The synergy, the energy in this building, is the personality of our players. We reflect on who we are as Raiders. This is a great opportunity for myself. I’m humbled. I’m honored and I don’t take it lightly.”
The squad did not practice on Wednesday following its Monday night game against the Detroit Lions, thus no players were available.
The Raiders’ offense is among the poorest in the NFL, and they are among the most disappointing teams overall. Despite having All-Pro receiver Davante Adams—who hasn’t caught a touchdown pass since Week 3—and All-Pro running back Josh Jacobs—who hasn’t yet recorded a 100-yard rushing performance—Las Vegas is rated No. 31 in total offense.
Bo Hardegree, who replaced the fired Mick Lombardi as offensive coordinator after being elevated from quarterbacks coach, will be calling plays for the first time in his coaching career.
This begs the question, “What system do they run going forward if the offense was the problem and it was McDaniels’ scheme”?
“They know exactly the task and the plan going forward and what kind of offense we want to portray,” Pierce said. “Are you going to sit there and rip up the whole playbook? No. But you better go through your key guys. I’m not a fool; I’m a player. Remember, I was a player before I was coach. It’s a player-ran business.”
Said Kelly: “I’ve had the privilege of working with Bo in three different buildings [with the Denver Broncos, Chicago Bears and Raiders] now. He’s not afraid of the moment, so we’re confident in him. He’s going to be authentically himself in this situation. So, you’ll see Bo.”
The Raiders’ Week 4 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers featured O’Connell, a fourth-round choice out of Purdue, starting in Garoppolo’s absence due to a concussion. In Las Vegas’ Week 7 loss to the Bears, O’Connell relieved veteran quarterback Brian Hoyer, who had been out for 15 seasons due to a back ailment.
O’Connell has completed 34 of 52 passes, or 65.4% of his total attempts, for 313 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions. His limited playing time has resulted in a 72.0 passer rating and a 7.6 total QBR. Despite losing two of his three fumbles and being sacked seven times, he is said to have a stronger arm than Garoppolo or Hoyer, which is essential for the vertical game that the Raiders lack in their playbook.
Meanwhile, after signing a three-year, $72.75 million free agent contract with Las Vegas in March and having surgery on his left foot right away, Garoppolo is having his worst season as a full-time starter. Despite missing two and a half games due to injury, he is completing 65.5% of his attempts (110–168) for 1,205 yards with seven touchdowns and a league-leading nine interceptions.
In the team meeting, Pierce claimed to have pushed the guys.
“We have the players in this building to win,” he said. “We’ve just got to go do it. Enough talk. Enough sitting here and having these little cliques in the corner. That’s what I told the guys. Put the goddamn pads on. Let’s go out there and work tomorrow and practice and let’s get to it, bottom line, and let’s see where the results go on Sunday.”
After teaching at national powerhouse Long Beach (California) Poly High School in 2014, Pierce—who played nine seasons in the NFL and was named to one Pro Bowl—moved on to Arizona State alongside Herm Edwards four years later. He began working under McDaniels last year, serving as Patrick Graham’s defensive coordinator.
Still, he claimed he was meant to be with the Raiders.
“The short story, the matter of fact is, I grew up in Compton, California,” Pierce said. “I was born a Raider. I was born with the Raiders rolling in the Coliseum in L.A. I was rolling with NWA, talking ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ rocking Raider hats. So, when the opportunity came to work with Josh and Pat Graham and Dave, I jumped on it. So that’s what set me up for this. I was born this way.”