Go to the Raiders’ team website, click on the videos tab, and you’ll see the headline: “From The Ground Up.” It’s a link to the first episode of a series that’s apparently a behind-the-scenes look at the construction of the team’s future home in Nevada. But boy, is that a metaphor waiting to happen—a Raiders team undertaking both a literal and figurative rebuild, and its diehard Bay Area fan base won’t get to experience the finished product.
The players in the locker room must be wondering if they’ll be a part of it, too. First Khalil Mack, not just one of the best pass rushers in the NFL but one of the league’s best players, was shipped off to Chicago days before the season opener after the team couldn’t work out an extension with him. Then on Monday, coming out of the bye week, Oakland sent receiver Amari Cooper, the No. 4 overall pick in 2015, to Dallas in exchange for a 2019 first-round pick.
You can’t fault head coach Jon Gruden and GM Reggie McKenzie for taking what many would deem above market value for an inconsistent receiver who’s had one of the highest drop rates in the NFL. But this is the kind of fire sale rarely seen in football, a team that went 12-4 just two seasons ago trading away two recent first-round picks in a span of two months. Safety Karl Joseph, the team’s first-rounder in ’16 who was benched early this season and has recently been battling a hamstring injury, has also surfaced in trade rumors. Gruden is perhaps equally hell-bent on building the team in his own image and convinced that the roster he took over is like a Las Vegas casino on the desert horizon—much, much farther away than it appears.
In an effort to offer public assurances to QB Derek Carr, Gruden told former ESPN colleague Chris Mortensen, “we’re not trading anyone else.” But Gruden also said that about Cooper just one week ago—and then the desperate Cowboys came calling. Every player in Oakland is no doubt looking over his shoulder, wondering if he’s next. Or, at least, every player brought in pre-Gruden.
“And then even if you are one who does stick around, the questions about the team’s direction start popping up,” says former Browns left tackle Joe Thomas, who played his final seasons for a franchise that underwent perhaps the most extreme rebuild in recent NFL history. “Is this a short rebuild or a long rebuild, and am I going to be able to see the fruits of the hardship, of what this fire sale looks like? You kind of wonder, Am I going to be part of the answer? Is this team I’m on trying to win anymore?”
It’s fair to say those questions are circulating in the Raiders’ locker room right now. According to Vic Tafur, Raiders beat writer for The Athletic, running back Jalen Richard was the only player willing to talk about the Cooper trade during the open locker room session that followed McKenzie’s meeting with the local media—others rolled their eyes and offered no comment. The video of Richard’s interview was posted on the team website, a few clicks over from Episode 1 of “From The Ground Up.” When asked if the team trading away first-round talent sends a message that they’re giving up this year, the second-year player looked down and said, “I mean, I don’t even know how to answer that…”
Thomas answered versions of that question regularly during his 11-year Browns career. He always offered a congenial response, saying that he was focused only on doing his job well and not factors out of his control, and that he wanted to do everything he could to bring a winner to Cleveland. But in early 2016, when the Browns let basically every talented free agent walk out the door, and traded back twice in the first round of the draft, Thomas, then 31, came to terms with the fact that he would definitely not see the other side of the rebuild.
“In the beginning, I was really bitter about the direction, knowing that the rebuild would [finish] after I was gone,” Thomas says. “But I realized I still had an opportunity to be a part of something special. My purpose transitioned from trying to win a Super Bowl, to trying to help lay the foundation so someone else can win a Super Bowl. Even if I wouldn’t be on the Super Bowl platform, I still had a chance to make a difference.”
Thomas was perennially rumored to be on the trade block during his final seasons, but at that stage of his career, finishing out where he started out-weighed to him the chance of uprooting to chase what he deemed a “non-realistic chance of a Super Bowl” in another city. Bowl. “How many players have been traded or ask to be traded, hoping to find a championship, and end up on teams that are good but not great?” he asks. “Then there are some mixed emotions, should I have just stayed where I was, rather than put all my eggs into trying to chase a championship? There’s so much parity, how do you know who even has a shot? Other than New England, and they’re not giving up high draft picks.” But Thomas also likens the feeling of being part of a team with no shot to coping with a loss—the loss of the ability to win. “That’s what guys in Oakland are trying to do,” he says, “cope with the reality he that they don’t have a chance.”
He thinks of Larry Fitzgerald as being in a similar situation to the one that he was in. Fitzgerald is 35, in his 15th year with the Cardinals, starting over yet again. But so far at least, Arizona hasn’t gone full fire sale; heck, they gave Sam Bradford a contract worth up to $20 million this year even before drafting a QB, and while All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson has reportedly requested a trade, head coach Steve Wilks insists they will not move him before next week’s deadline.
There are myriad reasons why there are so few examples of football teams deciding to tank—even if the Raiders are adamant not to call it that—starting with the fact that this strategy is a massive gamble. Considering that Oakland fielded a team with double-digit wins two seasons ago, one that looked like a real contender that season before Carr broke his leg, the Raiders’ gamble is arguably more jarring than that of the Browns, who hadn’t had a winning team in a decade or made the playoffs since 2002.
The Raiders now own an impressive three first-round picks in the 2019, plus two in 2020. But they’d be lucky to come away with the haul of their 2014 draft, when they obtained a game-changing pass rusher in Mack and franchise quarterback in Carr in the first 36 picks, and a total of four starting players in the first four rounds. The odds of hitting on a long-term starter for your organization in the first round are about 50 percent, and even lower for an exceptional talent such as Mack. Thomas also points out that the risks of tanking extend to physical ones, because in a violent contact sport, “it’s dangerous to field anything less than the best team possible.” And, with the NFL’s 16-game schedule, each loss is even more painful and more magnified than in sports like basketball or baseball.
“There’s a real chance to alienate the fan base,” Thomas says. “It seems like the Raiders are betting a bit on the fact they are moving. If you alienate Oakland, who cares, because you are trying to adopt a new fan base no matter what. But you saw how painful it was in Cleveland. The architect of the tear-down-to-the-studs rebuild—because I’m not going to use the word ‘tank’—lost his job.”
Thomas is referring to Sashi Brown, the Browns’ EVP of football operations who was fired last December as the team was on its way to a 1-31 run during its tank—er, rebuild. Brown set the team up with enormous draft capital, and then John Dorsey was hired to make sure that capital was used on the right players. Both parts of the equation are equally important.
“The strategy Sashi employed actually worked,” Thomas says. “We got Baker Mayfield, who looks like a franchise quarterback; we got Myles Garrett, who looks like a franchise pass rusher. We wouldn’t have gotten that if we would have been better than awful. Dorsey is benefitting from the enormous sacrifice Sashi made to build the team with a true long-term approach.”
For the Raiders, now that they have the draft picks, their future depends on Gruden using them in the right way. Their odds are improved with more picks, but in order to get those picks, they created more holes on their roster to fill.
None of the Raiders’ 2013 draft picks are still on the roster. After the Mack and Cooper trades, there are just 12 players (five current starters) remaining out of the 34 the Raiders selected from the ’14 through ’17 drafts. Since Gruden was hired in January, he’s either traded, cut or let walk 15 players drafted by McKenzie from 2014-17. And despite Gruden’s promise otherwise, it wouldn’t be shocking if there are more changes to come. McKenzie, after all, told local reporters that no one is untouchable.
Except for Gruden. What he has that no one else in football does is a guaranteed 10-year, $100 million contract. So to use our earlier analogy, he’s telling us all that it’s a much longer walk to the casino than we think, and he’s going to take that walk at his leisure. For now, all anyone can do is trust that he will, at some point, get to his destination—and wonder who will still be with him when he does.
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