December 12, 2019

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Winnipeg's disastrous NFL pre-season game front and centre in HBO doc

Pylons mark the modified end zone in the game between Oakland Raiders and Green Bay Packers in Winnipeg Thursday, August 22, 2019. (John Woods / The Canadian Press)

Pylons mark the modified end zone in the game between Oakland Raiders and Green Bay Packers in Winnipeg Thursday, August 22, 2019. (John Woods / The Canadian Press)

You can add the Oakland Raiders to the list of people who thought last week's National Football League pre-season game at IG Field was somewhat of a farce, despite walking out with a 22-21 win over the Green Bay Packers.

HBO's Hard Knocks takes football fans behind the scenes of a NFL team's training camp each season, and this year the film crew has been following the Oakland Raiders.

This week's episode, which streamed in Canada Thursday on the DAZN streaming service, featured the Raiders' trip north to play a "home game" against the Green Bay Packers.

"You're about to go to Canada to play a pre-season game," Oakland head coach Jon Gruden told his players at a team meeting in Napa, Calif., where the club had its training camp.

"A home game in Canada. Unprecedented, man. That's a distraction."

Gruden was on the mark. The trip turned out to be full of distractions, including a dramatic last-minute decision to shorten the field from the regulation 100-yard NFL field to 80 yards.

The Blue Bombers play on a 110-yard Canadian Football League field. CFL goalposts are parallel to the goal line, but NFL uprights are 10 yards further back at the edge of the end zone.

"A home game in Canada. Unprecedented, man. That's a distraction": Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden (center).  (Ben Margot / The Associated Press files)

"A home game in Canada. Unprecedented, man. That's a distraction": Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden (center). (Ben Margot / The Associated Press files)

An IG Field ground crew removed the CFL posts and replaced them, leaving holes in the end zones that were filled and covered with turf. The league and teams inspected the field Wednesday and gave it the green light.

The following day, however, the Packers medical and training staff decided they were not comfortable with the repair.

During the pre-game, Gruden discussed the situation with Green Bay head coach Matt LaFleur.

"It's fine with us," Gruden said. "Do you guys not want to play, or what?"

"I don't really care," LaFleur answered. "I just want to kick off and start playing ball."

"Let's just play the game, man," Gruden said.

The episode then shifts quickly to the decision to shorten the field to 80 yards, which left Gruden dumbfounded.

He confronted the referees in the tunnels under the stands for more information.

"Hey, can I ask this question? Just so I know this and so I can explain this: how would you explain this to your team? That we're playing on an 80-yard field, and just trust that the referees will educate us?"

"Hey, can I ask this question? Just so I know this and so I can explain this: how would you explain this to your team? That we're playing on an 80-yard field, and just trust that the referees will educate us?" -Oakland head coach Jon Gruden

The referees informed him that the orange pylons that mark the four corners of the end zone would all be moved up 10 yards. There would be no kickoffs; the ball would be placed on the 25-yard line instead — the equivalent to the 15-yard line on a 100-yard field.

"Glad you guys have a great feel for this," Gruden said passive-aggressively.

At one point before the game started, Raiders first-string quarterback Derek Carr put his arm around Gruden and laughed.

"Unbelievable," Gruden said. "People piss me off."

Hard Knocks did not show how the shortened field affected game-plan decisions, but Raiders rookie punter A.J. Cole was a guest on the Raiders' podcast, Upon Further Review, and described how it affected the kickers.

About that 'Winnipeg, Alberta' shirt...

Rookie punter A.J. Cole III apologized to the citizens of Winnipeg on Twitter. (Tony Gonzales / Oakland Raiders)

Rookie punter A.J. Cole III apologized to the citizens of Winnipeg on Twitter. (Tony Gonzales / Oakland Raiders)


While the NFL Network followed the Oakland Raiders' Winnipeg experience behind-the-scenes, the organization's podcast, Upon Further Review, dissected the trip as well in its latest episode.

This week's guest was Raiders rookie A.J. Cole, who many may remember for sporting a "Winnipeg, Alberta" t-shirt when the team's plane landed in Winnipeg ahead of the game at IG Field.

While on the show, Cole explained how the whole situation transpired.

While the NFL Network followed the Oakland Raiders' Winnipeg experience behind-the-scenes, the organization's podcast, Upon Further Review, dissected the trip as well in its latest episode.

This week's guest was Raiders rookie A.J. Cole, who many may remember for sporting a "Winnipeg, Alberta" t-shirt when the team's plane landed in Winnipeg ahead of the game at IG Field.

While on the show, Cole explained how the whole situation transpired.

According to him, Raiders head coach Jon Gruden had handed out t-shirts earlier in training camp. Half the team received Winnipeg Jets t-shirts matching that of teammate Daniel Carlson, while the other half received "Winnipeg, Alberta" t-shirts.

Cole said someone within the Raiders' football operations had purchased the shirts on Amazon Prime.

"I knew Winnipeg was in Manitoba," Cole said. "I did not know what Alberta was. I thought it was a neighbourhood in Winnipeg.

"I'm just getting blasted by all of Canada," he said. "The best part too... is I look pretty confident in the picture. Looking confident while wearing something blatantly inaccurate is the stupidest way to look.

"What's funny is I guess there's some Winnipeg, Manitoba-Alberta beef going on. Because half the people were mad saying, 'Winnipeg is in Manitoba,' and the other half was saying, 'Don't associate Alberta with Winnipeg.'"

Cole said the attention on social media earned him about 1,000 more followers, and that "Winnipeg is my new home away from home."

"We'd get into some weird situations, like we're on the 40-yard line going into the wind — that's a 58-yard field goal," Cole said. "Depending on the situation, we might not feel comfortable hitting that. Now we have to hit a punt.

"So we're on the 40-yard line, but the goal-line's the 10, so it's really the 30 (yard line). So if I'm trying to kick it to the 10, that's really the 20 (yard line).

"You're lucky I'm an engineer," Cole said he told his coach in-game.

Hard Knocks showed that the Raiders' mindset heading into the game against Green Bay was all business, particularly for the players on the bubble hoping to crack the final 53-player roster in the leadup to the regular season, which opens next Thursday.

In fact, Gruden told some players to stay south of the border to give the back-ups more time to prove themselves.

The Packers did the same, apparently, as the two teams scratched a combined 33 regulars from their lineups in Winnipeg, which was disappointing to many of the Canadian fans in the stands who bought expensive tickets for the meaningless game.

Play aside, everyone acknowledged that it isn't every day they get to go to Canada.

"Let's all stand up and take 30 seconds to welcome each other to beautiful Winnipeg, Canada," Gruden said at the start of a team meeting in Winnipeg, before singling out Raiders tight end Luke Willson as someone people could turn to for information about Canada.

Willson, from LaSalle, Ont., was bombarded with questions about Canadian customs all week, including:

Luke Willson, from LaSalle, Ont., was bombarded with questions about Canadian customs all week  (John Froschauer / The Associated Press files)

Luke Willson, from LaSalle, Ont., was bombarded with questions about Canadian customs all week (John Froschauer / The Associated Press files)

'How do I greet myself?'

'How do I pay for things? Is there a bartering system in Canada?'

'Do you drive on the left side of the road in Canada?'

'Head-to-head, who could get away with more trouble in Canada: Mike Myers or Drake?'

Willson's answer to the latter was Drake, then went as far as saying Drake's popularity in Canada could be "neck-and-neck" with that of Wayne Gretzky.

As the team's lined up for the national anthem, Willson said he had been waiting seven years to play in his home country, before singing O Canada.

nicholas.frew@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @n_frew

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