TAMPA, Fla. – NFL players are a transient bunch, often switching teams a few times in free agency. That’s why there’s a Raiders homecoming story available almost every week.
Kelechi Olsemele was emotional about playing at Baltimore. Sean Smith faced an old team when the Chiefs came to Oakland. Reggie Nelson played the team that drafted him and later traded him in Jacksonville last game.
Donald Penn’s up this week, though the circumstances are a bit different.
He wanted to remain in Tampa Bay and play out a big contract. The Buccaneers cut him during the 2014 offseason, after eight years of service. He started his last 108 games in Tampa, and went to a Pro Bowl in that span.
Tampa Bay imported free agent Anthony Collins, which made Penn expendable. Tampa Bay made a business move. It was the wrong one.
Collins played one disappointing season and was cut the next year. Donovan Smith has started each game this year and last, but hasn’t been productive.
Penn has meanwhile experienced a career renaissance in Oakland, and is playing quality football at 33 years old. He’s happy being closer to his L.A. home and with a surging Raiders squad. Doing better is the best revenge, but Penn still wants to show well in his return to Tampa Bay. That comes Sunday, when the Raiders complete their Florida road with a contest at Raymond James Stadium.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s very huge,” Penn said Thursday. “You know me, I’m a straight forward guy. That’s definitely in my mind. I mean that’s something I’m never going to forget, when they released me.”
Penn’s playing as well as ever this season. He hasn’t allowed a sack, according to Pro Football Focus statistics, and has given up just one quarterback hit and 12 pressures through seven games. He even slid over to right tackle in a season-opening emergency and fared well in that spot.
“He wants to protect me more than anything,” quarterback Derek Carr said. “He gets mad even if his guy, his finger touches my jersey and the balls out. So, when you got guys that it means that much to them to do their job and it means that much to them that it makes them sick, not only to have a sack but for those guys to even touch you, you know you have the right person protecting you.”
Penn has been protecting Carr since he turned pro in 2014, and has kept the young quarterback largely clean over the pass three years. It’s a luxury some quarterbacks don’t have – just ask Derek’s brother David about the importance of pass protection – and Carr would like to keep it that way.
Carr wants five more years out of Penn, who has said he’d seriously consider retirement when his contract expires after next season.
His level of play may change things. Maybe, maybe not.
“Derek stays in my ear about (playing five more),” said Penn, halfway through his 11th season. “After next year, we’ll sit and see how things go. Thirteen has always has been a number in my head since I was younger. When I was younger, I was thinking 13 NBA years. It switched over to NFL years quick. We’ll have to readdress that, but I have a lot more football in me. I could probably play five or six more years if I want to, but the thing is do I want to?
“When am I going to call it quits? My body has been great. Hopefully it stays great, but I have three kids. I want to make sure I’m still able to do things with them and be able to do stuff and enjoy that. Right now with the way it's going, especially with us winning, it feels good. It feels fine, but you never know. I might still be out here a little longer.”
Penn has learned to be efficient in training, to avoid unnecessary taxation on a body that doesn’t rebound like it used to.
Experience, technical mastery and football smarts have mitigated any agility loss, and Penn’s still going strong despite the fact Tampa Bay let him go.
And, for the first time in 11 tries, Penn has started 5-2. He has only had three winning seasons and one playoff appearance, which makes 2016 more meaningful.
“Especially at this point in my career, I really do appreciate it a lot,” Penn said. “It really means a lot because, like I said, I’m more seasoned. I am going to play, and I want to win now. I’m not trying to win later. The good thing is these young group of kids we have. Some kids come in here and they’re like, ‘Oh, we’re going to get it eventually.’ These young kids on this team, they want it now, and I love that because they’re on the same page as me because I want it now. The effort that we’re putting out on the field, on the practice field, it’s showing. We just have to keep that up.”