At 1.88m, Tahir Whitehead stands dwarfing most of the assembled media scrum. Wearing an “NFL Academy” t-shirt, and a black baseball cap to shield his eyes from the piercing North London sun, he looks straight at me and says:
“Hey, buckle your seatbelt, and enjoy the ride.”
He is, of course, talking about the ride that will be the Oakland Raiders appearance on HBO’s Hard Knocks this year. Whilst he is over in the UK promoting the NFL’s International Series and the newly formed “NFL Academy”, I’m eager to talk about what 2019 holds for the Oakland Raiders.
Before the opening weekend of the 2019 NFL season kicks off, we will have already been inside the heart of the Raiders. Many teams, coaches and players view the annual insight into the locker room as an intrusion. However, Whitehead seems excited by the prospect:
“We have a lot of characters on the team and we really enjoy being around each other. It’s genuine love and respect for each other’s work and we have fun doing it. I think we’re going to show the world exactly that, how hard we work, and exactly what it means to be a Raider.”
The phrase “what it means to be a Raider” is one that is often used.
Mike Mayock, since taking over as GM, as uttered it often when talking about his vision for the franchise. 2019 will be Whitehead’s second in Oakland after leaving Detroit at the end of 2017. He knew instantly what the phrase entailed:
“The Raiders has always been a hard working team. A gritty organisation. I gotten that feeling as soon as I walked through the door last year. Everyone is about their work.”
Mike Mayock was bought in to the organisation to try and bring success back to the franchise. A part of that was trying to change the culture in the locker room. The 2019 NFL Draft class had his stamp all over it. Has that had an immediate impact on the team?
“Mike brings a lot to the table, in terms of his ability to scout talent. He’s definitely shown that in the few months that he’s been the GM. It’s a matter of everybody pulling in the right direction to accomplish the same goal.”
The same goal that Tahir Whitehead refers to is returning the franchise to former glory.
It’s been nearly 40 years since the Raiders last won the Super Bowl. The franchise has only one winning season since 2002. After going 4-12 in 2018, what does success look like for Oakland in the 2019 NFL season?
“Obviously not 4-12” he lets out a laugh, “that’s not gonna work. I think Gruden understands what needs to be done. He’s taken every course of action, along with Mike Mayock, to get back on the right track. With all the roster moves that have been made. Bringing in veteran guys, veteran leadership, great young players, to move the culture forward and get back to the winning days.”
Gruden’s reputation around the league, and media circles, is extremely high. You get a great impression of him no matter who you speak to, and Tahir Whitehead is no different:
“He knows what it takes. He’s a hard worker. He’s smart. He understands what needs to happen, from a team perspective, to go out there and get back on track.”
It’s very early in the Gruden and Mayock era. However, all the noises out of Oakland point to a brighter future on the field before they move to pastures new in 2020. Can the Raiders give Oakland one last winning season?
“It’s encouraging to see how hard the coaches are working. How hard the players are working. How hard the strength and conditioning staff are working. Everyone’s pulling in the same direction right now. I think we can expect some big things.”
Feature Image Credit: www.raiders.com
Thanks to Tahir Whitehead for taking the time to talk to us. For more from the NFL UK media day, check out @ninetynineyards and @collegechaps on Twitter!