'Feels a lot different': Raiders win in Antonio Pierce's debut

ByPaul Gutierrez ESPN logo
Monday, November 6, 2023

LAS VEGAS -- Antonio Pierce said he has had "butterflies" only three times in his professional football life -- before his first game as an NFL player in 2001, before the Super Bowl he played in for the New York Giants in 2008, and on Sunday, before his first game as interim coach of the Las Vegas Raiders.

So he went back to basics.

At the beginning of the work week, hours after he was promoted from linebackers coach in the wake of Josh McDaniels' Halloween night firing, Pierce handed out blank sheets of paper to Raiders players.

The thinking? To symbolize a fresh start. The result? The Raiders could use their finest penmanship to write "30-6," the final score of their win Sunday against the Giants, the NFL's largest margin of victory immediately following a midseason coaching change since 2015.

And as Pierce noted, the Raiders made history with a Black interim coach, a Black interim general manager in Champ Kelly and a Black female team president in Sandra Douglass Morgan.

"You don't take that for granted," Pierce said. "Humbled by the opportunity."

Sure, the Raiders improved to only 4-5 following a pair of lackluster losses at the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions. But the energy and emotion with which they played -- a large part supplied by the ultra-intense Pierce -- was something entirely different. Something the Raiders hope to build upon in the second half of the season.

"We've got a new leader right now," said All-Pro receiver Davante Adams, "and it's somebody that we can get behind and somebody that played the game. So it makes it a lot easier for us to connect with him, because he understands the mind of a player and he's done a really good job just making sure we understand that it's not about him -- it's about this team. It's about us figuring it out and getting behind him, obviously. And I feel like that's what everybody did. That's why it looked that way today."

The Raiders' 30 points marked a season high, as did their 125 rushing yards.

"It almost was like a reset for us," said All-Pro running back Josh Jacobs, who rushed for a season-high 98 yards and had two touchdowns for the first time this season. "Obviously, our record is what it is, we can't go back in the past. But we know what we can do from here on forward.

"So even if win or lose, we want it to look different -- the way we win and the way we lose. I know Tae has talked about that a little bit, but, man, just winning with our style -- we went out there and put up 30 points for the first time all year, so it's just fun to do. We want to continue that."

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Raiders, under new playcaller and interim offensive coordinator Bo Hardegree, called a designed rush on a season-high 58% of their plays against the Giants. This after calling a designed rush on 36% of plays in their first eight games under McDaniels.

It was noticed by Adams, who had just four catches on seven targets for 34 yards but was just fine with his stats.

"It's about how it looks, and it looked like it's supposed to look out there," Adams said. "We weren't perfect by any means, but we were able to run the ball and do things that we set out to do since I've been here and, one way or the other, we figured it out. So, I'm not concerned with that.

"Do I want to catch more balls? Of course. Why would I not? But I mean, at the end of the day ... this isn't about me; this is about the team and my whole want to catch more balls is to turn 30 [points] into 40 or 50. I mean, that's why it's for the team, so I'm good with it."

Even rookie edge rusher Tyree Wilson got in on the act with one of the Raiders' eight sacks, their most since 2010.

"It feels a lot different," Wilson said of Pierce's influence. "A lot more energy, good vibes. Everybody wanted to go out there and put the past behind us and go out there and just ball collectively -- offense, defense and special teams.

"Like AP said, 'The biggest window in the car is the windshield,' so you've got to keep looking forward, keep coming to work, keep wanting to get better as a team, and individually."

Wilson was confused, though, when he walked into the locker room and, days after being handed those blank sheets of paper, saw what he thought were candy bars being passed out. But they were being smoked.

Pro Bowl defensive end Maxx Crosby had an inkling the Raiders would ride Pierce's emotional wave to a win in his debut.

So Saturday night, Crosby sent the Raiders' equipment guys out to purchase more than 100 cigars, and passed them out to his teammates and staff members following the Raiders' figurative smoking of the Giants. Then the literal smoking was on as the Raiders' locker room turned into a sweat-and-smoke-filled cigar lounge.

"Everybody knows I'm sober, but I love my cigars, so I wanted the guys to have some fun after the game," Crosby said after racking up three sacks for his third career three-sack game, tied with Anthony Smith for fourth most in franchise history since sacks became an official NFL stat in 1982. Only Hall of Famer Howie Long, franchise sack leader Greg Townsend and Bill Pickel have more three-sack games with four each.

"That's the confidence you have to have in this league," Crosby added. "You have to go out there with ... the intention to go win. If you have any doubt that you're going to go out there and succeed, you're already a step behind. So yeah, we had a lot of confidence, we were ready to go. And you just felt it in the building."

It began with butterflies and a blank piece of paper.

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