NAPA, Calif. — Both Jon Gruden and Peyton Manning got their big breaks in 1998. Manning was drafted first overall out of Tennessee by the Indianapolis Colts that year, and soon after, Gruden got his start as an NFL head coach.
Soon after, the two met in the 2001 Pro Bowl, where Gruden became a players’ favorite, and not just because he bought the team beer.
“I think that helped him in free agency a few years later,” said Manning. “But ultimately … I think Jon, just his passion, it shows. He wears it on his sleeve. Players will respond to that.”
Manning certainly did. The two have remained friends ever since. When the now-retired Manning, in the Bay Area on a speaking engagement, needed his football fix for the summer, he turned to Gruden, who hosted him at Oakland Raiders training camp on Thursday. Even though he’s speaking on Friday, 50 miles south in San Francisco, Manning had a particularly rapt audience in Gruden’s newest pupil, quarterback Derek Carr.
“I took full advantage of today,” Carr said. “After whatever drill, I’d go, ‘Hey, how was communication? How was execution?’ He’d give his feedback. To have that from someone like Peyton, I think that’s kind of invaluable.”
Growing up, Carr said, Manning was “one of my favorites, all-time,” except when he beat older brother David and his Houston Texans. He’d spoken to Manning briefly when they’d played one another, but had never gotten a chance to really pick his brain. He didn’t waste his chance on Thursday.
“I’ve taken things from his game, preparation, things that I could learn from my brother, through Eli [Manning], and all those kinds of things to stealing his warm-up routine,” Carr said. “I’ve taken things from Peyton my whole life. I definitely didn’t stop today.”
“I think the NFL needs good quarterbacks, especially young quarterbacks, and they’ve got a really good one in Derek,” Manning said.
After a rapid rise through the NFL quarterback ranks in the three years following Carr’s third-round selection in the 2014 NFL Draft, both Carr and the Raiders came back to earth in 2017, going 6-10. After a broken fibula derailed Carr’s coronation on the final day of Oakland’s 12-4 season in 2016, he didn’t have the same zip, the same confidence, the same swagger as he had during his first three years, despite being selected to his third Pro Bowl.
He had a career-worst completion percentage, and a career-worst yards-per-attempt, and his interceptions jumped from six to a career-high-tying 13, as his touchdowns fell from 28 to 22.
With Gruden taking over for the fired Jack Del Rio — ending a 10-year hiatus spent in the broadcast booth — a switch seemed to flip in Carr.
“Derek looks like a completely different person in my eyes, just from the way he’s attacking the game,” said tight end Jared Cook earlier this week. “Every time that Gruden asks him a question, he gets it right, no hesitation.”
This offseason, Carr spent plenty of early mornings and late nights studying the new playbook. He took skill position players out to local parks to work on routes. The work wasn’t alien to Carr, but he had to find a way to match Gruden’s notoriously tireless work ethic.
“I don’t know if that man sleeps,” Carr said on the first day of camp. “I don’t know if he’s slept yet. Have to. Him and I have to be on the same page.”
Carr insisted on Thursday that he still loves the old staff, but admitted that there’s something to having a head coach in the quarterback room.
“I have to be ready. If I’m not ready, our team’s not ready,” Carr said. “That’s why him and I have worked together so hard. That’s why him and I have spent so much time together, so that he knows, no matter at what time, he can say, ‘Derek, get up there,’ and I know what’s going on.”
To Carr, it seems like he spends 24 hours a day with Gruden. On Thursday, he said that earlier in camp, he had a dream that Gruden was calling a play. Not only are they together in quarterback and offensive meetings, but they sit down with one another to talk shop multiple times a day. When he’s not in on a rep, he’s standing next to Gruden, being quizzed. In the meeting rooms, too, Carr gets rapid-fire questions from his head coach.
“The way that he teaches, the way that he demands, the way that we meet, it makes me thankful to have him,” Carr said.
During Gruden’s time in the broadcast world, Manning had an inkling that Gruden would coach again.
“I’d see him doing games, I’d say, ‘How you doing, Jon?’ He’d say, ‘Doing great. Haven’t lost a game in six years,’ and I said, ‘Haven’t won one, either,’” Manning said. “I could tell he always thought about that.”
After Manning retired, Gruden would head over to his house and watch game film together before games in Indianapolis. When Combine time came in Indy, they’d chopping that up, too.
“I don’t think there’s a play run in football that he hasn’t seen on game tape,” Carr said. “I’ll stick by that for the rest of my life, because he’s pulled out some stuff that I didn’t know he had. He had some practice film of me at the Senior Bowl, throwing the route that we were installing. That’s how much he watches football.”
Carr said that he’d become almost brainwashed by Gruden, and that he’d become “his quarterback robot.” Every now and then, the California-born and Texas-raised Carr even sounds like Gruden.
“We’ll be watching film and out of nowhere, coach Gruden will be like, ‘Derek, call the play. Where you going with it? What’s the coverage? What’s the corner’s technique? What’s this? What’s that?’” Carr said. “I’m answering, bam, bam, like that, every meeting. I’ve got to be on my game in front of my teammates. It’s awesome, man. I absolutely love it.”
On Thursday morning, Manning got a chance to sit in on one of those meetings and see what his old friend had been working on.
“Jon let me sit in the quarterback meeting this morning, and you can tell he loves it, and he is very engaged, and obviously trying to learn the new system, which is a challenge,” Manning said. “One thing about Jon Gruden: He loves football. Everybody playing for him better love it too. When your quarterback loves it, like you can tell Carr does, it shows.”
— Martavis Bryant returned to practice after missing Wednesday with illness. He returned to working with the first team. Jalen Richard (calf) was also back at practice. Richard looked to take things slowly early on, but during the early goings, he escaped to his left and burst through contact in thud tempo.
Defensive end Fadol Brown was also back.
— Offensive tackle Brandon Parker, though, was still sidelined, working off to the side with cornerback Gareon Conley, Donald Penn and Eddie Vanderdoes.
— Kicker Eddie Piñeiro went 4-of-6 on field goal attempts, hitting a pair of 35-yarders, missing a 45-yarder from the left hash, hitting a 47-yarder from the right, missing a 49-yarder from the left and finishing with a 52-yarder down the middle.
— After struggling at times containing the athletic Arden Key, rookie tackle Kolton Miller got the best of Key during pass rush on an inside move.
— Rookie receiver Marcell Ateman continued his strong camp, making a leaping grab against Antonio Hamilton on a pass from Carr in 7-on-9 work.
“I’ve got a lot of matchups that I like,” Carr said. “I’ve got a lot of matchups that I can throw to. I’ve got a lot of things I can get to to throw certain routes, and for me to say, ‘Alright, rook, here’s your one chance,’ and him make the play, ‘OK, rook, here we go again,’ and he makes the play again, and you start to see like, ‘OK, this guy’s pretty good. This guy can be one of those matchups for us.’”
— In 11-on-11, starting corner Daryl Worley forced an incompletion from Carr to Johnny Holton. Hamilton and Tevin Mitchell each recorded breakups in no-pads 11-on-11. Mitchell came up lame and left the field. Pharaoh Brown continued his struggles with ball security, dropping two passes.
— Ryan Switzer made three key catches as the offense played the advance-the-ball game, taking two slants and another short-yardage conversion that led to a touchdown. Jordy Nelson took a 20-yard sail route over 60 yards to the house from Carr.
— Manning’s fellow 1998 draftee Charles Woodson was also in attendance.
“Oh, man, having C-Wood, man, we were just sitting there last night, laughing at some old stories,” Carr said. “There’s not even stuff about football, man, stuff that happened on airplanes, jokes someone told, or oh, man, we were just sitting there, dying laughing with each other.
“He still gets mad at me for not throwing him the go-ball in the Pro Bowl. Of course, that’s one of the first things he brought up. I made sure I reminded him that he didn’t throw me the ball in the end zone against the Chargers, either, in overtime. We like to have a good time together, but I love C-Wood. I still talk to him. He still gets on me, just like ehe did when he was here. He has since he retired. That’s my dog.”