Raiders OTAs: Team culture making football fun again amidst focus and hard work

Raiders OTAs Antonio Pierce
Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Like other professional sports leagues, the NFL thrives on measurable success. Winning takes precedence over everything else. Yet, as the Las Vegas Raiders OTAs enter Week 2 in Henderson this week, they might have scored their first win of 2024.

That win? It’s fun to play football again.

“Yeah, my mentality, my attitude this year – nothing wrong with last year, but it’s just different this
year, it’s different,” second-year tight end Michael Mayer said. “I’m way happier, I’m way more positive. I love to be out here on this field. Last year, maybe there were some days I didn’t want to come in or something was going on, like I flipped the script. It’s time to dig down and play some ball, win some ball games and do what I need to do for this team.”

Mayer was definitive when asked if having Antonio Pierce as head coach instead of Josh McDaniels, who was fired midway through the 2023 season.

“I don’t know. It could have something to do with it, yeah,” Mayer said with a smile.

Related: Raiders OTAs 2024: Must-watch storylines and key position questions

Raiders OTAs under Pierce have a different feel and mood

Raiders OTAs Antonio Pierce
Credit: Mark Aguirre/Las Vegas Raiders

Just 12 months ago, the Raiders OTAs under the guidance of head coach Josh McDaniels. Despite being widely respected as one of the NFL’s top assistants for years, McDaniels’ tenure with the Raiders ended abruptly after just eight games into his second season.

Following a significant breakdown in team dynamics, McDaniels was relieved of his duties following a loss on Monday Night Football in Detroit during Week 8. The Raiders swiftly appointed linebackers coach Antonio Pierce as his successor—a former NFL standout with limited coaching experience. While many had initially written off the season as lost, Pierce’s arrival brought about a remarkable shift in team morale, ultimately leading to him shedding the interim tag after the season ended.

While the Raiders’ mood, focus, and emotion were undoubtedly markedly different under Pierce in the final nine games of last season, how would that translate moving forward with rookies and recently signed free agents? So far, it appears to have picked up right where it left off. Raiders OTAs in 2024 are a much different affair than under their previous coach.

According to those witnessing it on the ground, Pierce is leading the charge with innovative approaches that have injected new life into the Las Vegas team.

“Everything seems faster-paced, more energetic and more enjoyable than in the past,” Raiders beat writer Vinny Bonsignore wrote last week. “There is a ton of chatter among players and the staff, and Pierce isn’t afraid to show his emotion by emphatically pointing out positive reps. It has rubbed off on the players, who don’t hesitate to celebrate a big play or touchdown. No one is going through the motions.”

Bonsignore also noted that the methods used to engage the Raiders roster have progressed. He said Pierce implemented a real-time teaching method that transforms periodic breaks into mini-classroom sessions. Big screens on one sideline allow players to review practice footage during hydration breaks, turning them into immediate learning opportunities. This approach reduces the need for extensive post-practice film sessions, making the review process more efficient — eliminating the notoriously long days under McDaniels.

Related: Raiders Schedule Release: Las Vegas opens season in LA vs. Harbaugh and the Chargers

Pierce approach with Raiders OTAs is simple, familiar and fun

Raiders OTAs Brock Bowers Gardner Minshew
Credit: Michael Aguirre/Las Vegas Raiders

In a Player Tribune piece Pierce wrote on February 5, 2024, he made it very clear what he wanted his Raiders team to be like. He’s focused on the right players but also the right player with the right attitude and culture fit.

“They don’t want to be some social media like, or a quick click, or a retweet. You know what I mean? ,” Pierce said in the piece. “They’re looking for that long-term satisfaction. And they also got a certain makeup to them where … they want to make opposing players suffer. I call it ill intent.”

Violence and ill intent—Pierce refers to this all the time. While violence and ill intent may not be on the table for Raiders OTAs, early on, his team and its new acquisitions are clearly on board and having fun. They appear unified and loose but focused. That’s the crucial first step in building a winning team culture.

For Mayer, that ability to work hard, have fun, and celebrate small victories is a big difference between Pierce and his predecessor.

“Having fun with your teammates, having fun on the practice field. Getting excited when you score
touchdowns, like you’re allowed to do that at practice. You’re allowed to be happy for your teammates,
you’re allowed to celebrate,” Mayer said. “It doesn’t have to be, ‘Alright you scored, next play.’ Let’s take it easy here, let’s have fun. This is football.”

Related: Raiders Schedule Release: Las Vegas opens season in LA vs. Harbaugh and the Chargers

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