OAKLAND, Calif. — DeAngelo Hall is quickly becoming an old pro at handling off-field turmoil in the NFL.
After dealing with the Michael Vick dogfighting case and coach Bobby Petrino’s in-season departure last year in Atlanta, Hall has been front and center for the circus that has been the Oakland Raiders this year.
When owner Al Davis fired coach Lane Kiffin on Sept. 30 in a lengthy news conference that featured an overhead projector and the detailing of the friction inside the franchise, Hall was the only player to watch it in person.
Even though it was a day off for players, Hall stood in the back of the room listening to what Davis had to say. Despite all the allegations of lying and insubordination, Hall said the situation in Oakland pales in comparison to what he went through with the Falcons.
“I don’t liken this situation to anything that happened in Atlanta,” Hall said. “Atlanta was a whole different kind of beast. This is relatively on smooth street right here compared to what we went through down there.”
That’s more of a reflection of how dysfunctional things were in Atlanta last year than any smoothness in Oakland this year.
Hall gets the chance to see his rebuilt old team take on his struggling new one on today when the Falcons (4-3) visit the Raiders (2-5).
“Football is fun again for those guys and the schemes are player friendly,” Hall said of his former teammates.
That’s a big change from last season. The madness started when Vick, the franchise quarterback known for his ability to escape all sorts of trouble on the field, was caught up in a federal dogfighting investigation that he eventually pleaded guilty to, sending him to prison.
Then with three games left in his first season as coach, Petrino rushed out of town to take a college job at Arkansas, leaving his former players to call him a “quitter” and a “coward.”
That’s what makes this season’s turnaround in Atlanta so remarkable. The Falcons have already matched last season’s win total as general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith have pulled off an amazing overhaul.
Hall’s wish for a trade was granted when he was sent to Oakland in the offseason for a draft pick. The team also signed free agent running back Michael Turner, who is third in the NFL in rushing, and drafted quarterback Matt Ryan, who has been especially impressive as a rookie.
“One of the things that I think you have to do is make sure your football team and your players and the people in your organization know that you’re going to be held accountable for your actions,” Smith said.
“I’m an accountability guy. I’m a communicative coach, but I’m also a guy who wants to have accountability.”
There has been little accountability in recent years in Oakland, where coaches shuttle in and out nearly every season, and losing has become nearly entrenched. The Raiders (2-5) are on pace for their sixth straight double-digit loss season as neither Kiffin nor interim coach Tom Cable has been able to right the floundering franchise.
An offseason spending spree that brought in Hall, receiver Javon Walker and others has paid few dividends so far.
Hall said he had trouble adjusting to the scheme in Oakland, which has its cornerbacks playing primarily man-to-man coverage. That limits Hall’s ability to freelance a bit in a zone, which is how he got many of his interceptions in Atlanta.
But after getting picked on early in the season as opposing teams avoided Nnamdi Asomugha, Hall has picked up his performance in recent weeks.
“With understanding of the defense comes, obviously, a sense of confidence, a sense of swagger,” he said. “I’m starting to fully understand what they’re asking me to do, and buying into it.”
Hall said he has nothing special to prove this week against his former team, but the Falcons expect him to be at his best. His desire to do something special against his former team is also something the Falcons might try to exploit.
“He can be a little bit of a loose cannon at times and he showed that when he was here, but his athletic ability is something not to be dismissed,” Falcons receiver Brian Finneran said. “He’s always looking for picks, but he’s smart enough to know when you can get them and when you can’t.”
Hall is just one of the many Raiders with close ties to the Falcons, including receiver Ashley Lelie, who spent one disappointing season in Atlanta.
Cable was the offensive line coach in Atlanta in 2006 and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp spent three years on the Falcons staff before joining the Raiders.
The Falcons who played for Cable and Knapp had only good things to say about their former coaches.
“We always thought he would make a fine head coach,” said tackle Todd Weiner, who played for Cable in 2006.
“This is just the start of his head coaching career, I believe. He has the ability to get guys together and pull things together. He draws a lot of respect across the board, both offense and defense.”