Of­fense’s new calm, col­lected leader

San Francisco Chronicle - - SPORTING GREEN - By Ron Kroichick

Todd Down­ing’s NFL odyssey be­gan at age 19, first driv­ing around then-Min­nesota owner Red McCombs’ grand­chil­dren and soon there­after work­ing as a pub­lic re­la­tions in­tern for his home­town Vik­ings.

So when he reached a fresh and im­por­tant plateau last Sun­day in Ten­nessee, his first reg­u­lar-sea­son game as of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor for the Raiders, the adren­a­line flowed, right? He barely could con­tain his ex­cite­ment, yes? Well, sort of. “Hon­estly, it didn’t come un­til af­ter the game,” Down­ing said. “I think our prepa­ra­tion re­ally gave me a sense of peace go­ing into the game. After­ward, there was kind of a rush of emo­tion be­cause I ac­com­plished one of my ca­reer goals.”

Head coach Jack Del Rio handed his of­fense to a poised, de­tail-ori­ented 37-year-old with widely lauded peo­ple skills. Down­ing’s de­but was en­cour­ag­ing: The Raiders moved the ball well (359 yards of to­tal of­fense) and scored 26 points, even if they some­times stalled in Ti­tans ter­ri­tory and set­tled for four Gior­gio Tavec­chio field goals.

Still, as the Raiders head into Sun­day’s home opener against the Jets, bound­less con­fi­dence sur­rounds the of­fense. The Raiders added run­ning back Mar­shawn Lynch and tight end Jared Cook to a dy­namic core of quar­ter­back Derek Carr and wide re­ceivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crab­tree.

And, yes, a large and mo­bile of­fen­sive line.

Down­ing rec­og­nizes the abun­dance of supremely skilled play­ers at his dis­posal. He spread the ball around against Ten­nessee; Carr com-

pleted passes to eight re­ceivers, many on quick, short throws de­signed to keep pass rush­ers away from him.

Also worth not­ing was Oak­land’s bal­ance. Carr at­tempted 32 passes and the Raiders ran the ball 29 times, in­clud­ing 18 car­ries for Lynch. They mixed it up nicely in the first half, then leaned on Lynch while try­ing to pro­tect their lead and run down the clock in the fourth quar­ter.

Down­ing might be new at this play-call­ing thing, but he finds strength in his rap­port with Carr.

“When you see the game the same way as your quar­ter­back, it’s easy to call plays,” Down­ing said. “… It’s just one week, just a step in the right di­rec­tion. There’s plenty we need to im­prove on, but it takes out some of the angst when you know how your quar­ter­back thinks.”

Down­ing dis­plays a grounded per­sona be­fit­ting his Mid­west­ern back­ground. He’s not above jump­ing into the fray with his play­ers, ei­ther. At the start of Thurs­day’s prac­tice, he filled the run­ning-back role dur­ing one drill, tak­ing hand­offs and pitchouts from backup quar­ter­back EJ Manuel.

All the while, Down­ing re­cited plays to his quar­ter­backs. His de­meanor is one rea­son Carr ex­pects Down­ing to pros­per in his new role.

“He’s the same ev­ery day,” Carr said. “He’s never go­ing to blow up on peo­ple or freak out. No mat­ter what’s hap­pen­ing on the field, he’s the same.

“And when guys see that over time, you start to feel like, ‘Oh, this guy is cool all the time.’ So if you mess up, it’s not like, ‘Oh, man, I’m about to get ripped.’ No, it’s the same — just make the cor­rec­tion and move on.”

Down­ing landed his first co­or­di­na­tor job amid un­com­mon cir­cum­stances. The Raiders ranked sixth in the league in to­tal of­fense last sea­son, but Del Rio knew Down­ing was start­ing to at­tract heavy in­ter­est around the league as an of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor.

So the Raiders un­loaded Bill Mus­grave, last year’s co­or­di­na­tor, and pro­moted Down­ing be­fore he could leave.

His in­au­gu­ral strate­gic chal­lenge was con­sid­er­able, be­cause Ten­nessee has a Hall of Fame de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor in 80-year-old Dick LeBeau. The Jets also could pose a tougher-than-ex­pected test, with the league’s 11th-ranked de­fense last sea­son.

The Raiders clearly have faith in Down­ing, who has come a long way from his days as a chauf­feur and PR in­tern.

“I think he has lead­er­ship qual­i­ties and or­ga­ni­za­tion, a good pres­ence,” Del Rio said. “He had a nice start. He won against a real legend of the game with LeBeau last week, and now it doesn’t slow down with (head coach) Todd Bowles and what they do.”

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