For most of the Oakland Raiders, the first few days of training camp under coach Tom Cable are like nothing they've been through before as football players.
Quarterbacks are forbidden to pass the ball in seven-on-seven drills. They practice barking out audibles in the corner of the field while their teammates do other drills. The whistle blows almost as soon as the ball is handed off as coaches make sure each player is in the right spot. And then the process repeats itself.
"It seemed like it was weird at first when he talked about the concept, but you go through it and it's a great concept," linebacker Isaiah Ekejiuba said. "We're doing a lot of learning, get all the mistakes out the way."
The Raiders spent Saturday participating in their third straight day of what Cable has called a "learning-intensive" approach to football, eschewing pads, contact and running actual plays in favor of drilling fundamentals in this outdoor classroom in wine country.
Fullback Lorenzo Neal told Cable he hadn't seen anything like it in 17 years in the NFL. The approach is in stark contrast to what the Raiders' cross-bay rivals are doing under coach Mike Singletary. The 49ers opened camp Saturday with two contact practices in pads as Singletary tries to instill a physical mentality with his team.
Cable says there is plenty of time for hitting later in camp, in preseason games and the regular season. So for the first four days of his camp, he's focusing on the mental part of the game.
"When you hand them a set of pads and it's time to go do that, they get into that part of it rather easily. That's the way they're wired," Cable said. "Remember now, the NFL season starts now and it hopefully ends sometime in February for you. The human body can only take so many car crashes."
For the Raiders, those crashes won't begin until Monday, the fifth day of training camp. For now, they have one more day of drills that may look mundane but are ones Cable says are vital for the Raiders to reverse a six-year slide of losing.
In seven-on-seven passing drills, the quarterbacks drop back, survey the field as receivers run their patterns, then stop without making a pass. JaMarcus Russell pleaded with his coaches to be able to show off that strong arm of his to no avail, although defensive coordinator John Marshall did shout out at one point, "It's time for a pick."
Later in practice, the quarterbacks line up near a fence, calling signals and taking simulated snaps. They bark out audibles, hand signals and all, as quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett calls out different defensive looks.
Defenders practice their run fits, going to a particular spot to fill a gap in the defense even though no plays are being run.
Then when the team lines up for 11-on-11 drills, the quarterback takes the snap and hands off the ball, only for a whistle to blow after the blockers and defenders take just a step. That's repeated over and over again, as coaches watch footwork and other small details.
"You're really trying to get their mind into the who and the how part," Cable said. "When you throw pads on, you add that combative part of it, and that really changes everything. ... You've trained them, and now it's just handling it the right way."
Cable says one benefit of the approach that he first used as a college coach at Idaho is that younger players can get more practice time as the first and second teams are on separate fields, with no fear of injuries.
The players say the back-to-basics drills have been helpful, reinforcing what they learned in offseason workouts and allowing them to get back up to speed without the risk of injury.
"I think it's great," offensive lineman Mario Henderson said. "In my opinion, at camp when you get out the first day, you sometimes are not really focused on trying to do the right things. You're just focused on going out there and trying to win the starting job. Sometimes that can be bad because you are going fast, but you're not really doing your assignments. Now we have four days where we get everything down pat so then when it comes time Monday to earn a job, it's not your assignments slowing you down."
While the players like the approach, they're also eager to put on the pads and hit each other like football players again.
"They are like, `Come on coach, let's go play,'" Cable said.