Three-hundred-and-sixty-three days have passed since the Raiders opened the 2011 season against the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football, and at the time many believed the Raiders were finally back on track. Penalties were going to be a thing of the past, bullies were being built, and the only injury known to man was a “nic.” Just one year ago the Raiders were about to usher in the Hue Jackson era, and fans were hyped to see this newly created “bully” in action. Everything seemed to be falling into place for the Silver and Black and the team was poised to make a serious run at the playoffs for the first time since 2002, except the season began unfolding as if it were being scripted by the writers of Lost.
After managing to stumble to a 2-2 record to start the season, shock waves rippled through the franchise as news broke that legend and Raiders owner Al Davis had passed away. With plenty of mixed emotions, the Raiders had a game to play the next day against the Houston Texans. They went on to win that game in the final seconds, honoring the man who had led them for the nearly 50 years.
As the dust began to settle the Raiders still had a season to finish and the hits didn’t quit coming. In the very next game, starting quarterback Jason Campbell broke his collarbone leaving the Raiders with only Kyle Boller at quarterback. Without Davis to call the shots as he had done for so long, no one was quite sure what was going to happen. The answer came two days later, when Hue Jackson was given the authority to pull off a stunner of a trade that sent a first and second-round draft pick to the Bengals for retired quarterback Carson Palmer.
As everyone tried to digest what had just taken place, there were only a few days left to prepare before the Raiders faced the division rival Kansas City Chiefs. Trying to forget what they had to give up to get him, the Raiders now had a quarterback who they thought could lead the team to the playoffs. It was just a matter of getting Carson Palmer up to speed with the offense while leaning heavily on one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL, right?
While that plan seemed to make sense at the time, Kyle Boller was quickly proving to everyone why he has not been able to hold a job in the NFL and the Raiders were hit with even worse news: Darren McFadden suffered a Lisfranc injury against the Chiefs that would cause him to miss the rest of the season. Hue Jackson contended that McFadden was “close” to returning on a weekly basis, but he never did.
Carson Palmer was left trying to pick up the pieces of a season that started out with so much hope. Unable to stay true to his word, Jackson did not fix the penalty issue and his team set a record for the most penalties in a single season. Still, the Raiders managed to be in position to win a very weak AFC West, but failed to beat San Diego in their final game, and once again fell short of the playoffs for a ninth-straight season.
Fast forward to January 2012. Mark Davis took over for his dad as the team’s owner and he hired Reggie McKenzie to be the next general manager. The situation seems equal to that of Aaron Rodgers replacing Brett Favre. McKenzie is replacing a legend, but he is not trying to become the next Davis. He will have to make his own name and do things his own way. Change is a process and takes time and patience which is something Raiders fans are starting to run out of after nine-straight seasons without making playoffs.
Many moves made by McKenzie and some moves he will make in the near future will be met with skepticism. That is not uncommon according to Saul Alinsky, “Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict.”
McKenzie’s road to success will not be easy, but that will not temper any existing expectations. At this point in time it’s anyone’s guess how much or how little success he will have in Oakland. However, in order to more clearly understand what is being judged, its important to be aware of the obstacles and decisions McKenzie faced upon becoming the new general manager of the Raiders.
Like most new general managers, the first order of business for McKenzie was deciding who he wanted to have coach his team. That is not a choice you want to take likely and could ultimately decide his success early on. He was well aware of the rotating door Oakland has had with their head coaches and he needed to find a guy he trusted to help bring the Raiders back to excellence, even if immediate success was impossible. Unfortunately for Hue Jackson, he was not that man. Could the argument be made that Jackson didn’t get a fair shot? Sure, but the NFL is a business and business is not about fair.
After 18 days of searching and countless interviews, McKenzie found his guy in Dennis Allen. “When I talk about the guy I was looking for, I’m looking for a guy that could lead these men, that was passionate about the game, that was passionate about teaching, passionate about the Oakland Raiders.” McKenzie said when introducing Allen at his press conference. “Guys, not only did coach Dennis Allen do that for me, he exceeded those expectations.”
One of the reasons this decision was so important was because McKenzie believes in giving his head coach full power over hiring his staff. That is something past head coaches in Oakland did not have, they may have had input, but it was Al Davis who made the final decisions on hiring or firing. McKenzie also noted that he and Allen will always have open communication, but it was up to the head coach what schemes would be run. That is certainly a change of pace in Oakland.
Allen proceeded to hire Jason Tarver to run the defense, who comes with a very aggressive and multiple look defensive style which is very different from the base 4-3 man defense that had been a Raiders staple for as long as anyone can remember. Greg Knapp is back to run the offense under Allen, which means Jackson’s power blocking scheme and trickery are out and the West Coast Offense and zone-blocking scheme are in. Learning completely different schemes on both sides of the ball in one offseason is much harder than most people realize.
The hard part for McKenzie was just beginning . Now that he had a head coach, he next had to figure out a way to get the roster under control, which would be no easy task. Starring him in the face was $145 million dollars in salary for 2012 ($25 million over the salary cap) and $16 million more than the Carolina Panthers who had the next highest salary total. It was no secret that in the latter years of Al Davis’ life he was operating in a “win now” mode, which often times meant the only thing that mattered was getting who he felt was the best players he could at whatever cost was necessary. That meant a lot of traded draft picks and back-loaded contracts, many of which were well over market value.
McKenzie was left to sort it all out, trying to find a way to cut at least $25 million in salary for 2012 as well as give himself a little breathing room for free agency and signing draft picks. McKenzie had to do this while trying to maintain a competitive roster and preventing the same situation from happening next offseason. Easier said than done, especially when you are without your first, second and third-round draft picks due to roster moves made before you took over.
During that process, McKenzie was faced with difficult roster decisions on some of his core players. He wasted no time in weeding out the “out of whack” contracts and cut ties with Stanford Routt on February 9th, just over a month after he was hired. This sent a message to everyone inside and outside the organization, nothing would be handed to anyone anymore.
The year before Routt was released he was given a five-year, $54.5 million contract. No matter his opinion of Routt’s skill as a player, McKenzie knew he was not worth $10 million per year. Another major decision was how to proceed with Kamerion Wimbley, who was the Raiders best outside pass rusher. WImbley carried a contract of five years, $48 million. If Wimbley was on the roster by the start of the new league year (March 17th), he would have been owed $17.5 million in guaranteed money (including $11 million in 2012). If cut, the Raiders were only on the hook for $6.5 million, but would also lose their best edge rusher and would be in a tough spot to try to replace him.
After refusing to take a pay cut, Wimbley would eventually be released. This left the Raiders having to pay $6.5 million in dead money for 2012, but relieved them of Wimbley’s remaining contract. Kevin Boss and Cooper Carlisle were also later released, but McKenzie was able to re-work the contracts of Carson Palmer, Michael Huff, Richard Seymour and Aaron Curry to keep them on the roster. Carlisle later resigned with the Raiders at a much lower rate.
McKenzie mentioned shortly after he was hired that each position would be evaluated from front office personnel to players on the field. He said that at the right time, the appropriate changes would be made. Holding true to his word, on February 16th it was announced that long-time Senior Executive John Herrera would no longer work for the new Raiders front office. Known in many circles as Al Davis’ “yes man”, John Herrera—mostly known for denying every media report regardless of truth—represented the exact image that McKenzie wanted to change. Zak Gilbert was later hired as director of Media Relations and Mike Taylor was hired as Director of Pubic Affairs going forward. As many have noted, the Raiders have since become much more open and media friendly.
McKenzie’s next major moves came in the form of re-vamping the football operations personnel. Shaun Herock (son on Ken Herock) who worked with McKenzie in Green Bay was hired as the director of college scouting and Reggie’s twin brother Raleigh was also hired to help in the scouting department. McKenzie also brought Joey Clinkscales from the New York Jets to work as director of personnel. Clinkscales served as the V.P. of college scouting with the Jets and was a college teammate and childhood friend of McKenzie.
Tonight, the Raiders will open the 2013 season against the San Diego Chargers with a new general manager, new front office personnel, new media relations, new scouting department, new coaching staff, new offensive and defensive schemes and 23 new players on the 53-man roster. The Raiders are truly starting fresh is 2012. It’s almost mind-blowing how much change has taken place in such a short amount of time.
Only time will tell how successful year one will be for the new-era Raiders. Most fans seem to agree that this team is just as good, if not better than a year ago which is a pretty incredible feat considering the circumstances.