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Insight from two days in Las Vegas with the Raiders and 49ers at joint practices

Raiders quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo faced his former team, the 49ers, in joint practices.Sam Morris/Associated Press

HENDERSON, Nev. — There were few places better to be last week than Las Vegas, with two of the NFL’s most fascinating teams, the Raiders and 49ers, battling each other in joint practices ahead of Sunday’s preseason game.

The story lines were juicy: Jimmy Garoppolo squaring off against the team that dumped him … Brock Purdy returning from major elbow surgery … Two of the best offensive coaches matching wits in Kyle Shanahan and Josh McDanielsTrey Lance trying to prove that he belongs … Superstars all over the field in Davante Adams, Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, and Maxx Crosby … The 49ers regrouping for another Super Bowl run … The Raiders looking to prove they belong.


The practices were intense in 90-plus degree heat. Hunter Renfrow and Chandler Jones participated Thursday, but weren’t out there Friday. Adams got popped going over the middle in Friday’s practice and had to leave early, though the Raiders don’t think it’s serious. Friday’s practice went the maximum 2½ hours, with Garoppolo and Purdy getting so many reps that it doesn’t seem likely they will play Sunday.

Raiders owner Mark Davis, who usually isn’t out there, watched both sessions in full. Mike Shanahan and Julian Edelman were in attendance. So was SiriusXM NFL Radio. The one person missing — Tom Brady, who hasn’t had any presence at Raiders camp this summer as his deal to buy a slice of the Raiders and join the front office remains in limbo.

Here are highlights and insights after spending two days with two of the NFL’s most fascinating teams:

▪ The big story of the week was Garoppolo facing the 49ers just months after his six-year tenure in San Francisco came to an end. Garoppolo said Thursday he enjoyed facing the Niners’ defense in practice.


“First play, Dre [Greenlaw] was talking, he got things going right away,” Garoppolo said. “But those are my brothers. I love those guys.”

Garoppolo caught up with Purdy, his former teammates … everyone but head coach Shanahan, who had been trying to move on from Garoppolo for two years before finally doing it in February.

The relationship is clearly frosty, but Shanahan offered nothing but compliments.

“I think he was the best quarterback here in about 20 years since Steve Young,” Shananhan said. “Has an unbelievable record and every time he played and stayed healthy, we were either in the Super Bowl or NFC Championship game.”

▪ Renfrow has had a positive camp, and was a standout in Thursday’s practice, working the slot and catching a couple of touchdowns from Garoppolo. Renfrow signed a two-year, $32 million extension before last season, but a concussion limited him to 10 games, 36 catches, 330 yards and two touchdowns. Renfrow has been hard on himself.

“I felt like I let a lot of my teammates down last year,” Renfrow said recently. “Something that I want to get over and prove to them through the spring and also going into the season, that I’m a guy that they can count on and that’s going to be consistent this season.”

The slot receiver position has always thrived in McDaniels’s offense, and Renfrow said he is “in a lot better place than I was this time last year.” But his absence Friday bears monitoring.


▪ Purdy doesn’t show many effects from major elbow surgery in February. He’s taking his normal reps (except for a few off days sprinkled in throughout camp), isn’t wearing an elbow brace, and seems to be throwing the ball without limitation. The only problem in Vegas was the Raiders’ defense, which picked off Purdy at least three times over the two days.

“I feel really confident,” Purdy said. “We do ice the arm, [use] heat, like contrast and stuff, just to create some blood flow, which promotes healing and all that kind of stuff.”

Yeah, I might be a [physical therapist] after this.”

Trey Lance looks buried in the depth chart in training camp.Godofredo A. Vásquez/Associated Press

▪ Lance’s first name is appropriate, because he’s now running as the 49ers’ third-string quarterback, just a year after he spent all training camp as the starter. The 49ers are saying all the right things publicly about how much they still believe in Lance, the No. 3 overall pick in 2021, but he’s seemingly buried on the depth chart behind Purdy and Sam Darnold and has been erratic in training camp.

Against the Raiders, Shanahan praised Lance for his playmaking skills in the two-minute drill, but Lance notably didn’t score on that drive, and also fumbled two center exchanges in Thursday’s practice.

With fifth-year veteran Brandon Allen also on the roster — with 15 career starts — the 49ers are positioned to move on from Lance should the right trade offer arise. A mid-round pick might be enough, just to give everyone a fresh start.


▪ With return specialist Ray-Ray McCloud out about eight weeks with a broken hand, the 49ers are holding an open competition at punt returner. If they can’t find a reliable one, Shanahan said he has a trusty fallback — fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who has never done it in a regular-season game.

“Kyle Juszczyk is one of the most comfortable natural punt return catchers there is,” Shanahan said. “But hopefully we have a few other guys before our fullback is out there.”

▪ One star player who didn’t practice was 49ers tight end George Kittle, who recently suffered a strained adductor, Shanahan said. Kittle also missed the first two games last season and was limited for the next four with a groin injury. At least this year he did it earlier in camp.

▪ One player to watch for the long term is Raiders rookie fourth-round quarterback Aidan O’Connell. He’s running third on the depth chart behind Garoppolo and Brian Hoyer, the perfect spot for O’Connell to absorb and develop. McDaniels has a solid track record with developing mid-to-late round quarterbacks, among Matt Cassel, Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett, and Jarrett Stidham.

Interestingly, O’Connell is wearing No. 4, “the number that was given to me,” he said. Apparently, the Raiders can’t wait to move on from the Derek Carr era.

▪ The Raiders aren’t having an ideal start with their rookie class. Defensive end Tyree Wilson, the No. 7 overall pick, still hasn’t practiced as he returns from a foot injury suffered last November. And tight end Michael Mayer, a second-round pick, has an undisclosed injury.


McDaniels and Raiders GM Dave Ziegler really need to hit on these draft picks. Having your first-rounder miss three valuable weeks of training camp time isn’t ideal.

▪ There was a funny embrace between Shanahan and Pro Bowl defensive end Crosby as they discussed their pre-draft interview from 2019.

“I wanted to apologize to him because we were kind of jerks to him,” Shanahan said. “It was [DL coach] Kris Kocurek’s first interview, and he had been at some other places where they liked to kind of attack the guys a little bit, rattle them. That’s not totally our style … And he did it to like the coolest dude. So we always tell him that was all Kris, not us.”

Crosby laughed it off.

“Oh, it was a great meeting,” he said. “I remember Kocurek was in there going through the meeting, and he was like, ‘ALRIGHT!’ He was yelling, but not mad, you know what I mean? His energy was crazy, but in a good way. And I liked that, because I’m used to it.”


49ers would have signed Rivers for Super Bowl last year

Had the 49ers made the Super Bowl last season, they might have signed quarterback Philip Rivers out of retirement.Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

After Thursday’s practice, Shanahan casually confirmed what would have been the most bonkers story in NFL history:

Had the 49ers won the NFC Championship game this past January, he would have likely signed Philip Rivers to come out of retirement to play quarterback in the Super Bowl.

“Yeah,” Shanahan said.

Wait, really?


Rivers was on board?

“He was prepared to,” Shanahan said. “That’s stuff we talked about throughout the whole year. We would’ve had to see how that was for the Super Bowl, but that was the plan for most of the year.”

It’s crazy, but makes a lot of sense. With Purdy suffering a serious elbow injury, and Garoppolo not quite healed from his broken foot, the 49ers would only have had journeyman Josh Johnson or a hampered Garoppolo for the Super Bowl. Rivers with two weeks of practice would clearly have been a better option.

But Shanahan’s story does beg one question — why would Shanahan have those conversations with Rivers “throughout the whole year” when Garoppolo didn’t get hurt until December, and Purdy didn’t get hurt until late January? A plausible answer is that Shanahan kept in touch with Rivers throughout the season because he didn’t have much faith in Garoppolo staying healthy, and didn’t know what he had in Purdy, a rookie seventh-round pick.

Unfortunately, this incredible “What if” never came to be, as the 49ers petered out in the NFC Championship game. But imagine that story — a 41-year-old Rivers, now a high school football coach who hadn’t played in the NFL in two years, coming out of retirement to play in the Super Bowl for the first time in his 17-year career, with an entirely new team and coach.

It would have produced the greatest drama in Super Bowl history. Oh well.


Double coverage from these receivers

I did a double-take Friday while waiting for McDaniels at the Raiders’ indoor practice facility. Casually eating lunch together in the cafeteria were a couple of old buddies, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman.

Amendola, who last played with the Texans in 2021, joined McDaniels’s staff this offseason as a punt return coach and general coaching assistant.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations with a lot of guys about this — ‘What are you going to do when you’re done?’ ” McDaniels said. “They watch us work and they say, ‘Oh, I’m never doing that.’ But this isn’t such a bad gig. You get to pour yourself into something you love. So I got to talking to him in the offseason, and I said, ‘Hey, we’re trying to find a guy to come and really improve our returners and a guy that can be a sponge and grow as a coach. Are you interested?’ And it was easy for him to say yes. I love being with him.”

Edelman, who recently was a guest at Giants camp via his former coach Brian Daboll, was invited to watch the Raiders-49ers joint practices and hang out with the coaches, though he wasn’t invited to speak to the team since “he’s not a Raider,” McDaniels quipped.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get Julian off TV. He loves seeing himself on TV too much,” McDaniels said. “But he was here with us and got to spend some time with our coaches. It was great to see him obviously.”


Bieniemy’s rough style grating on Commanders

Eric Bieniemy doesn't seem too popular in Washington thus far.Nick Cammett/Getty

Eric Bieniemy left Andy Reid’s shadow in Kansas City this offseason and finally has total control of an offense as the coordinator in Washington.

But there has been an interesting development through nine weeks of the offseason program and two-plus weeks of training camp — many players don’t seem to like him.

Commanders head coach Ron Rivera said last week that several players came to him to complain about Bieniemy’s tough coaching style.

“Well, um, they were just a little concerned,” Rivera said. “I had a number of guys come to me and I said, ‘Hey, just go talk to him. Understand what he’s trying to get across to you.’ ”

Bieniemy isn’t apologizing for his style, which can be a little rough around the edges.

“Yes, I am intense,” he said. “Just like I stated when I first got here, we all got to get uncomfortable to get comfortable. There’s some new demands and expectations that I expect.”

“Eric Bieniemy is who he is. Eric Bieniemy knows how to adapt and adjust. Eric Bieniemy is a tough, hard-nosed coach. But also understand, I’m going to be their biggest and harshest critic, but I’m also their No. 1 fan because I’ve got their back and I’m going to support them at all times.”

Well, his players don’t seem to think he has their back. Bieniemy probably should dial down the intensity a tad and make his criticism a little more constructive if he wants to succeed this year and put himself in the running for head coach jobs.

Extra points

The NFL is holding its signature event in Las Vegas for the first time when this February’s Super Bowl comes to Allegiant Stadium, but the NFL is also quietly receding from Sin City for the time being. After holding the East-West Shrine Bowl at Allegiant the last two years, the game is moving to The Star in Frisco, Texas in 2024. The Pro Bowl is moving to Orlando next February after spending the last two years in Vegas. One league source said the NFL was wary of the mixed message it was sending about taking gambling violations seriously but hosting key league events in Vegas, particularly a college all-star game in which the players don’t yet know the NFL’s gambling policies … The first 20 minutes of “Hard Knocks” was entertaining, but the show dragged on as it became an Aaron Rodgers infomercial that provided little insight into the team. The real problem with the first episode was that the Jets violated the “fourth wall” too often — everyone was uber aware of the cameras and microphones, eliminating any pretense of spontaneity. It was a hype video, not a reality show … Most starting quarterbacks sit out of the first preseason game, but Patrick Mahomes, Trevor Lawrence and Russell Wilson are among those slated to play a series or two this weekend … Former Raiders receiver Henry Ruggs got a gift last week when prosecutors agreed to a plea deal of 3-10 years in jail for a 2021 car accident in which he slammed into a car and killed a woman. Ruggs was driving as fast as 156 miles per hour moments before the crash, and his blood alcohol content was double the legal limit (0.16), but his defense team highlighted issues in how authorities collected Ruggs’s blood and determined he was impaired. The original charges had Ruggs facing more than 50 years in jail. “I have no excuse and pray that accepting responsibility with my guilty plea can allow me to begin the healing process and allow everyone involved to heal also,” he said in court, via the New York Times … Brian Hoyer has a trick for lasting 15 NFL seasons until age 37 — take care of your feet. “I actually have a guy who makes some custom turf shoes for me, and it’s something that’s really helped me really since I was in San Francisco,” Hoyer said recently. “It was actually Kyle Shanahan’s idea because he’s always talking about having a good base underneath you. And it’s just something I’ve taken with me. I think it forces me not to overextend, overstride, but also it’s a little more cushion instead of these hard cleats all the time.”

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.