Raiders GM McKenzie flexes power, ushers in new era by firing Jackson
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Midway through Tuesday's news conference at the Raiders training facility, Mark Davis was asked if his late father, Al, had left any sort of instructions about how to proceed with running the organization after his death.
"I haven't found any plans yet," Davis said, to much laughter.
And, just then, the lights in the room went out, and the screen behind the podium where Davis sat with his new general manager, Reggie McKenzie, began to lower.
You might assume that someone in the back of the packed auditorium leaned on the power switches by mistake. Or, you could suspect that Al was managing to weigh in with his postmortem instructions in one last power-point presentation. But -- other than that séance-like oddity -- what happened inside the Raiders auditorium was the most normal, functional event in anyone's memory.
And it signaled that it is, indeed, the beginning of a new era in Raiders history.
"There comes a time when change is necessary and for the Raiders the time is now," McKenzie said.
Some would say it's been due for many years. But no matter. McKenzie wasted no time moving to cut ties with the Raiders' strange past and into a fully functioning modern-day organization.
Early Tuesday morning he fired the last head coach Al Davis had hired, Hue Jackson. McKenzie was unapologetic and felt no need to explain his move. "I want to bring my own guy in," McKenzie said simply.
McKenzie had the full approval of Mark Davis, who preferred to keep his personal opinions to himself about Jackson. But Davis made it clear that -- like his father before him -- he didn't believe that an 8-8 record was a mark of success. He was disappointed in the team's collapse down the stretch when the division title was in hand.
And, most importantly, Davis is comfortable turning over the decisions about football to his new general manager, a man with a Super Bowl ring on his finger and 18 years of front-office experience with the Green Bay Packers. He granted McKenzie the power to fire the head coach, and when McKenzie indicated he'd like to make a change, Davis had no problem giving him that authority.
"One thing I know is what I don't know," Davis said.
Tuesday was a coming-out party of sorts for Davis, who became the acting owner of the team when his father died in early October. Al's only child, who previously had no visible role within the organization, Davis was a revelation. He was funny, straightforward and deftly treading the line between paying homage to his father's legacy and acknowledging the need to move forward.
He articulated his approach to the aftermath of his father's death: his short-range goal was to allow the season to continue without disruption, his long-term goal was to find a general manager to whom he could turn over the football operations. For the latter goal, he leaned heavily on the counsel of John Madden and former Raiders and Packers executive Ron Wolf.
Davis identified McKenzie as his first choice early on, but because of league rules he wasn't allowed to talk to him until the season ended. In December, when Oakland played Green Bay, he saw McKenzie but couldn't discuss what was foremost on his mind. "It was one of the most awkward hellos," Davis remembered.
And it was a revealing day. McKenzie saw firsthand how many problems there are with the team he knew he could inherit. The Raiders were blown out 46-16, one chapter in their late-season collapse when they lost four of five and became responsible for Tebowmania sweeping the nation this week.
That collapse is part of the reason Jackson was fired. He mortgaged the Raiders' future for Carson Palmer and the immediacy of a playoff race but couldn't capitalize. But Jackson also revealed a lot about himself in his final news conference when he abdicated responsibility for the team's failure, blamed the defense (interestingly, defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan was in the audience at Tuesday's press conference) and made it clear he wanted more power within the organization.
There was no reason for McKenzie to get into a power struggle with Jackson. The NFL is a small fraternity, and Jackson has worked for several teams, burning some bridges along the way. McKenzie didn't need to have a long, drawn-out evaluation process so he didn't. He fired Jackson and said he will begin searching for a new coach immediately.
Simultaneously, McKenzie must set about rebuilding a team with precious little resources. "Do we have enough draft picks? No we don't," McKenzie said.
When asked about the Palmer trade, McKenzie acknowledged, "as a personnel guy, I love my picks ... but I love good players. I think it was a good move. I think he's a good quarterback." But McKenzie made it clear that neither Palmer nor any other player is assured of a starting job.
Davis said, though the trade for Palmer was made in haste the day after his father's funeral, he would do it over again.
McKenzie's second priority, after hiring a coach, is to rebuild the personnel department that, like most things Raiders, doesn't conform to a normal NFL organizational structure. He wants to model the Raiders after the Packers draft-and-develop system. But he knows he'll have to be creative with undrafted free agents, lower-tier free agents and the waiver wire.
McKenzie is an excellent hire for the Raiders. Drafted by the team in 1985, he understands its legacy and quirks. But groomed by some of the best personnel men in the business, he knows what is necessary to make an organization successful.
His hiring was, as the Raiders news release stated, unique. He is the first general manager since Al Davis became head coach and general manager in 1963. For 48 years, Davis was the general manager, head scout, head of pro player personnel, head of everything. There was no room for another voice, making the Raiders a difficult place to work.
"Why wouldn't I take this job?" McKenzie asked. "This is where I come from. I'm back home now."
But home is getting a major remodel. One that's long overdue.