NASHVILLE -- The Oakland Raiders had just won a football game in methodical and physical fashion, and they trudged into the cramped visitors locker room at Nissan Field on Sunday looking more tired than triumphant. Their 26-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans had its share of highlights, from quarterback Derek Carr's successful return to new kicker Giorgio Tavecchio's unlikely star turn, but it seemed very much like the first step in what could be a very long journey.
And then, about 15 minutes after the game, some of the biggest, baddest dudes in silver and black morphed into giddy fanboys -- and it was an awesome sight to behold.
As Oakland left guard Kelechi Osemele and right tackle Marshall Newhouse sat at their lockers, covered only by white towels, they took out their cellphones and began excitedly scrolling Twitter, looking for a replay of a second-and-8 run that had taken place just before the two-minute warning. "I found it!" Newhouse exclaimed, positioning his phone so that Osemele could watch. Left tackle Donald Penn and a couple of other linemen heard the commotion and snuck a peek over Osemele's shoulder. And then the yelling began.
"That's a BEAST right there!"
Attention, opposing defenders: You better recognize. If the difference between the 2016 Raiders, who ended a 14-year playoff drought but fizzled after Carr went down with a broken right fibula in Week 16, and the 2017 edition can be summed up by one opening-day image, a six-yard run by the team's new starting halfback is the obvious choice.
Gliding to his right against a stacked formation designed to prevent such an advance, Marshawn Lynch was confronted by Titans nose tackle Jurrell Casey, a 305-pound ball of concentrated mass who has made the last two Pro Bowls. Lynch, with the football lodged firmly in his right hand, extended his left hand and shoved Casey to the turf like he was the prime minister of Montenegro before continuing on his merry way.
We've seen it many times before, but never in Silver and Black.
Since the other 10 Raiders on the field were unable to appreciate the moment in real time, peeping the play on their iPhones was an understandable guilty pleasure.
"I didn't see it," Carr said, "but I heard it. I said, 'Oh man.' He's a monster."
Said Osemele: "No, I didn't see it... I looked up when I heard Jurrell yell. He got mad. He yelled, 'I got you, 24! Next play!'"
Before I get back to the Raiders' reaction to Lynch's Return of Beast Mode moment, I'd like to share an exchange with the man who made it all possible, the upshot of which may or may not qualify as a quote. Lynch made a point of not talking to reporters postgame, standing with his back turned to a group of them after emerging from the shower and then insisting he'd satisfied his media availability without being asked a single question.
Lynch often answers my questions, however, so I threw a few at him over the next 45 minutes or so, until I gave up and he boarded the team bus. We had some great and hilarious conversations about all sorts of things, but he did not want to be interviewed -- trust me, I tried.
However, as he walked back into the shower area shortly before leaving the locker room, I was able to engage him by mentioning his stiff-arm of Casey.
"That's my boy," Lynch said, smiling. "Tell him I said 'Wassup.' I didn't get to see him after the game."
"Wait," I asked, "didn't you talk to him when he yelled at you, after you knocked him down?"
Lynch paused for comic effect. "Nah, man," he said. "The thing is, I had to run."
So yeah, Lynch is funny. But when the man runs, he is dead serious. And that makes his new teammates -- and, especially, his linemen -- really, really happy.
"Hell yeah, you get pumped up," Osemele said. "You saw the play where he just ran over Jurrell Casey? He ran through his face. It was something -- but that's Marshawn. Beast Mode. It's like he's one of the guys who plays in the trenches with you. He's one of us. It's great to have him here."
Said Penn: "He brings a dynamic, man. Look, we feel like we're one of the best offensive lines in the league. Our offensive line already had that attitude. Now add him? Bro ... that's one of the reasons he came here in the first place, I think. That attitude is him. We're a nasty unit. He's a hard, nasty runner, and he never stops. He fits in perfectly."
The Beasting of Casey was part of a closeout drive that featured eight consecutive runs, followed by Tavecchio's fourth successful field goal in as many attempts. Two of those kicks were 52 yarders, meaning general manager Reggie McKenzie's decision the previous day to place longtime kicker Sebastian Janikowski on injured reserve with a back injury may have marked a changing of the guard. (Tavecchio also served as a human prop for another of Sunday's most eventful moments, as Titans rookie Adoree' Jackson*hurdled* the ex-Cal kicker near the end of a 35-yard kickoff return early in the fourth quarter.)
McKenzie, the reigning NFL Executive of the Year, is off to a roaring start in 2017 on the strength of his acquisition of the 31-year-old Lynch, an Oakland native and former Seattle Seahawks star who ended a year-long retirement to come play for his hometown team. It didn't cost the Raiders much: McKenzie sent a fifth-round pick to the Seahawks for Lynch and a sixth-round selection.
At the time, some skeptics wrote off the acquisition of Lynch as an attempt to generate good will from Oakland fans, many of whom are understandably upset about the team's impending move to Las Vegas.
If Sunday's performance was any indication, Lynch still has it -- and it's the Raiders' players to whom McKenzie and owner Mark Davis threw a bone.
"I've been trying to tell everybody, that year off did him well," said Carr, who completed 22 of 32 passes for 262 yards and two touchdowns -- and held up just fine after being sacked on back-to-back second-quarter plays. "He's fresh. And having him changes everything. From the first time he touched the ball and ran through all those guys, we got fired up. And it pumps up the people on the sidelines, too."
On the game's second play from scrimmage, Lynch took a handoff, ran to his right and blasted into the secondary, dragging several Titans defenders along with him on a 14-yard gain. He finished with 18 carries for 76 yards, including a fourth-and-1 conversion that likely triggered PTSD symptoms for some Seahawks fans.
He also caught a third-quarter swing pass from Carr and rumbled 16 yards and had a punishing five-yard carry that produced a first down on Oakland's close-out drive, two plays before he steamrolled Casey.
"Of course it is," Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said. "Who doesn't like being able to play a little powerball? I thought he was awesome today -- in shape, ready to roll, hungry and powerful."
Said Osemele of the final drive: "That's the best feeling in the world, man. You take pride in it. It gets your blood going. Football is an emotional game. We get emotional out there when we can do that. It's one of the rare moments an offensive lineman has to shine. We were all pretty hyped.
"He's everything that I expected, plus more. He's a good team player. He's good for camaraderie. He makes us laugh. He lightens the mood."
Lynch made me laugh about five times after the game, especially when he was discussing Casey. Before that, he made the Titans -- who I believe will be very good by season's end -- look pretty helpless.
What can he say? Not much. Yes, it had been a minute ... but he had to run.