Reggie McKenzie knew he faced a significant challenge when he was announced as general manager of the Raiders on Jan. 6, 2012. Over the previous nine years the team had gone through six head coaches, and it had lost at least 11 games in an NFL-record seven straight seasons. Oakland's last winning campaign, in '02, was a millennium ago by NFL calendars.
This is an article from the April 22, 2013 issue
Still, the depths of the struggle might not have truly hit McKenzie until several months after his hiring, when he changed into his workout gear and headed to the back of the team's Alameda training facility, where his long jog around the practice fields was spoiled by wildly uneven footing and goose droppings.
If the choppy grass fields were hazardous to a 49-year-old such as himself, he thought, imagine the dangers for players. In the previous two seasons alone, running backs Darren McFadden and Marcel Reece, wideouts Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore, defensive tackles Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly and linebacker Rolando McClain had been hobbled by or missed significant time because of lower-body injuries.
When McKenzie asked who was responsible for the upkeep of the fields, which were riddled with dirt patches, the answer stunned him. The Raiders did not employ a full-time, on-site groundskeeper. Instead, the work was outsourced to a local company—astounding considering that the difference between the playoffs and a pink slip could easily come down to a turned ankle, a jammed toe, a tweaked knee or a pulled hamstring.
The field conditions were just the first of many reminders that restoring greatness to a franchise whose mottos had included "Pride and Poise" and "A Commitment to Excellence" would be about much more than just hiring a new coach and ridding the roster of its bloated contracts and underachieving players. It would be about transforming an entire culture and overhauling an organizational model that had become stale and outdated after nearly five decades under Al Davis, the iconic and imperious owner who died of heart failure at age 82 in October 2011.
No franchise in American sports has been more closely associated with its owner than the Raiders were with Davis. It was as if his face had been behind the eye patch, his head beneath the leather helmet on the swashbuckling team logo. He didn't own the team as much as he was the team. Every major coaching hire, every brilliant or head-scratching draft selection, every trade that lifted the Raiders to the league's mountaintop or dropped them into the division's basement was made by him. Davis even dictated the style of play on the field, demanding a vertical passing attack and bump-and-run coverage and often phoning the sideline from his suite during games with instructions.
For four decades his touch was golden: From 1963, when Davis took over the Raiders as coach and G.M., until 2002, when they made their last Super Bowl appearance, their regular-season winning percentage was .625, best of any team in pro football. The Raiders went to a Super Bowl in every decade but the 1990s, winning three titles in their five appearances. Davis proved himself time and again to be a personnel genius, mining college football's backwaters for future Hall of Famers and picking up future Super Bowl champions off the scrap heap.
But as his health deteriorated, so did the fortunes of the franchise. With every losing season Davis became more desperate for another title, and he knowingly mortgaged the future in a quest for immediate gratification. Among the most painful moves: In 2005 he traded a first-round draft pick (No. 7) and starting linebacker Napoleon Harris to the Vikings for Randy Moss, whose production was dropping in tandem with his attitude; and in '09 he sent the No. 17 pick to New England for Seymour, who was a month from his 30th birthday and entering the final year of his contract.
In free agency he gave insanely inflated deals with large guarantees to receiver Javon Walker, cornerback DeAngelo Hall, safety Gibril Wilson and tight end Kevin Boss—only to see Hall released after eight games, Wilson and Boss after one season and Walker after 11 games. He also turned the market upside down by awarding megadeals to his own free agents, notably Seymour and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
Several years before his death Davis was on the phone negotiating a deal for a free agent. The sides were close to an agreement, but Davis suddenly began coughing badly, and his caretaker ended the call so Davis could take his prescription meds. When the sides resumed discussions later that day, Davis asked where they had left off. Taking advantage of the opportunity, the agent reminded Davis that they had agreed on the guaranteed money—but quoted a figure $1 million higher than what they had come to. Davis okayed the move and an agreement in principle was reached that night.
Is it any wonder that the team was a league-high $31 million over the salary cap when McKenzie took over?
Davis's handling of the draft—when he did keep his picks—was equally wayward. Of the 10 first-round selections he made from 2001 through '10, including six among the first eight selections, only McFadden remains on the Raiders' roster, and he has yet to play a full season. Guard Robert Gallery (No. 2, 2004), quarterback JaMarcus Russell (No. 1, '07) and cornerback Fabian Washington (No. 23, '05) have been out of the league since the end of '11. Russell lasted just three years and is viewed by many as the greatest draft bust in NFL history.
McKenzie knows he must be spot-on in this year's draft. Oakland has the No. 3 pick and the fourth pick of the third round, but its second-round selection belongs to Cincinnati as part of a 2011 swap for Carson Palmer. He'd love to trade down for more choices, because the Raiders are far more than one player from being relevant again. But if he's unable to find a trade partner, then he has to find impact players with his high picks. Imagine the best draft ever. If McKenzie replicates that, his team is mediocre at best.
And so, much of the G.M.'s energy the last 15 months has been spent on upgrading Oakland's scouting and personnel departments. When he went to view the club's draft room last year, he discovered that none existed, so he had one built from scratch. When he requested the team's scouting questionnaires for evaluating college prospects, he learned there weren't any, so he created them.
Such resources are givens in most NFL organizations—but not with the Raiders and Davis, who had his own way of doing business. He was the only owner who didn't use one of the national scouting services for college prospects, and the only one who didn't subscribe to the psychological-testing program available to each team before the draft.
Davis was so behind the times that even toward the end he didn't allow employees to use direct deposit, and he kept the budget for coaching and support staffs in his head rather than on paper. In his video department, the software was tragically outdated.
There were, of course, members of the organization who knew the Raiders' approach needed updating, but all decisions ultimately ran through Davis, who was set in his ways. In 1999 he hired Mike Lombardi to be his senior personnel executive and told Lombardi to modernize the operation—but then Davis consistently blocked his hire from making changes, explaining that he just couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger. Lombardi was fired in 2007.
As opposed to the traditional pyramid model of organization, the Raiders had people in various positions at various levels each reporting to Davis. Multiple current and former employees say that the goal under Davis was to recommend not what was best for the franchise, but what would keep the owner happy. McKenzie, a Raiders linebacker from 1985 through '88, knew this. And he knew that changing this culture would be among his most important jobs.
"My mind-set coming in was, I'm gonna have to be highly organized and firm in my beliefs," says McKenzie. "Because when you've got a building that's used to a certain way for so long—I knew change wouldn't be easy. I had to have a plan and a way to implement my plan."
To imagine that plan's eventual fulfillment—to picture the resurrection of the Raiders—it helps to see the muck that the organization has waded through. Going back to Davis's death in 2011, the Raiders have undergone a three-part healing process: the hiring of McKenzie, the first man other than Al Davis to run the Raiders' football operations in nearly 50 years; the firing of Davis's last major hire, promising head coach Hue Jackson; and the commitment of new owner Mark Davis, Al's only son, now 57, to break with his father's ways and seek a long-term fix rather than a short-term solution.
As his father's health began to decline in the late '00s, Mark Davis correctly assumed he would take on a leadership role with the franchise in the near future. (With his mother, Carol, he inherited a controlling 47% share of the team.) However, unlike Al, who spent nearly all of his adult life immersed in the game—first as a freelance scout for the Colts, then as a coaching assistant with The Citadel, USC and the Chargers—the younger Davis lived on the fringes of football.
He'd grown up around his dad's team but was never involved in day-to-day operations. He spent time on the business side but was largely known as a guy who liked to hang out with the players. In the late 1970s he even had a falling out with his father after he chose to represent wideout Cliff Branch in a contract negotiation with the club. "My dad knew everything about the game; he was an expert," Mark says. "I would say that I know a lot about all of it—but I'm not an expert in any of it."
Years before his father's death Mark had told John Madden, who'd coached the Raiders to eight playoff appearances and a Super Bowl win in 10 seasons, and Ron Wolf, a retired personnel man who'd spent 24 years with the organization, that he would lean on them if he ever took over. True to his word, one of Mark's first phone calls when his father died was to Wolf, whom he wanted to run the team, if only temporarily.
Wolf declined, saying he wasn't up to speed on league personnel, so Davis asked for the names of a few candidates he might interview. McKenzie stood out, not just because he knew the team's history and traditions, but also because Wolf, who had worked with McKenzie in Green Bay, believed he had a "phenomenal" eye for talent.
"There are two sides to this organization," says Davis. "A football side and the business side. I knew that first I had to take care of the football side and put it in the right hands to get the right structure in place."
That December the Raiders played in Green Bay, where McKenzie was director of football operations. On the field before the game he and Davis crossed paths, but they couldn't discuss the job because of the league's anti-tampering rules. "It was one of the oddest and most uncomfortable meetings ever," Davis recalls. "I wanted to say, Reggie, I need you! Be a Raider! But I knew there were cameras, and [Packers G.M.] Ted Thompson was [watching]. So I didn't say anything because I didn't want to screw it up. It was like being next to someone who you want to ask on a date, but you can't."
At season's end, with the Packers' permission, the two finally got together, along with Madden, in a Pleasanton, Calif., hotel room, where they discussed organizational structure and personnel philosophy. After lunch Madden left, and Davis and McKenzie talked alone. At one point Davis stepped out of the room. When he returned, he asked, "How about being our general manager?"
"Sounds good to me," said McKenzie, the lone candidate for the job.
And with that, someone other than Al Davis was running the Raiders' football operations for the first time since the 1960s. Save, that is, for the two months following Davis's death. In that short period in the fall of 2011 the need for a strong G.M. had been further illuminated by the rushed trade for Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer after starter Jason Campbell broke his collarbone.
At the time the Raiders were 4--2 and thinking playoffs. The decision had to be made: roll the dice with backup Kyle Boller or rookie Terrelle Pryor, sign someone off the street or trade for a QB.
Davis had died on Oct. 8; Campbell went down eight days later against Cleveland. With a leadership void at the top, Hue Jackson pushed to trade for Palmer, whom he had worked with in Cincinnati. Palmer was sitting out, trying to force a trade from the Bengals, and Jackson believed he could win with him.
The Bengals wanted two first-round picks for Palmer, who was two months from his 32nd birthday and who had zero playoff wins since Cincinnati made him the first pick in the 2003 draft. Jackson was willing to deal, but it wasn't his call. It belonged to Mark Davis, who on the night of his father's funeral returned home and used his TiVo to find the Raiders' 2009 game against the Bengals. Palmer had been efficient in the first half: 8 of 10 for 129 yards, but he had only 78 passing yards in the second half, and Oakland rallied for a 20--17 win. Pressed by the approaching trade deadline, Davis consulted Wolf, Madden and Ken Herock, the team's personnel director for seven years in the 1970s, all of whom were in town for the funeral.
"Two out of three said, Go ahead and do a deal," says Davis, who sent a first-round pick in 2012 and a high conditional pick in '13 to the Bengals for Palmer. "I felt we had a pretty good team and could make the playoffs. It turned out not to be the greatest bet, but I'd do it again. Everybody is blaming Hue, but I made the decision. I don't pass any of that on to him."
The deal proved costly, not only against the salary cap (Oakland inherited Palmer's salary of $12.5 million in 2012, $13 million in '13 and $15 million in '14), but also in the draft, where in '12 the Raiders would be without a first-round pick for the second straight year. (In fact, before receiving two compensatory picks, they didn't have a draft choice until the fifth round in '12.) That, combined with the league-high $31 million the Raiders were over the cap made for an ugly situation facing whomever took over.
Yet McKenzie was eager to accept the challenge, with certain conditions. First, he would have final say on all football matters, including the future of coach Jackson, who in 2011 had shaken the Oakland offense from its slumber, but who had alienated some fans and players with an abrasive press conference following a Week 17 loss that cost his team the playoffs. Second, McKenzie would report to Mark Davis, not chief executive Amy Trask, who'd been a righthand person to Al Davis for more than two decades. And third, he would build for the long term instead of compromising the future with quick fixes.
Davis agreed to each condition, after which McKenzie set in motion his plan.
The 2011 season was simultaneously promising and disappointing. After a 7--4 start, Oakland's most successful opening in almost a decade, the Raiders lost four of five to finish .500. The pervasive expectation was that Jackson would get a second season at the helm. He'd taken the offense from the league's second-worst unit in '09, the year before he arrived as coordinator, to a unit that finished 10th and then ninth, respectively, in total yards—despite little change in personnel.
Two days after McKenzie was hired, Jackson walked into the G.M.'s office to break the ice and, after some chitchat, McKenzie informed him that he was being let go.
"Let me go?" Jackson recalls thinking. "I thought he meant let me go, [as in] out of the room."
McKenzie explained that he wanted to bring in his own guy. "That would have happened even if they went to the playoffs," the G.M. says now.
If Jackson's firing caught people off guard, the hiring of 39-year-old Dennis Allen floored outsiders. Allen had never been a head coach at any level; in fact, he had only been a coordinator (on defense, with the Broncos) for one season.
During the hiring process McKenzie focused on two of the seven people he had interviewed: Allen and Winston Moss, an assistant head coach with the Packers who most people thought was his guy. McKenzie says he would've felt comfortable with either, but something kept drawing him to Allen. "We just clicked on every level," he says.
The call to Moss, another former Raiders linebacker and a friend from their six years working together in Green Bay, was difficult. McKenzie knew, too, that he would disappoint members of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, whose objective is to increase diversity among NFL coaches, executives and scouts. (Moss, like McKenzie, is African-American.)
If nothing else, the decision confirmed that the G.M. is an independent thinker, willing to do what he believes is best for the franchise. Many did not like what they saw of the Raiders in their first season under Allen—the defense was sievelike, allowing 42.3 ppg in November, and the offense was virtually nonexistent, ranking 26th in scoring—but McKenzie saw progress, particularly when it came to instilling discipline (after being cited for a league-high 163 penalties in 2011, Oakland ranked 8th, with 108) and holding players accountable.
"The old man was more of a player-owner," says Kelly, the defensive tackle. "He gave you a little more leeway because all he cared about was production on Sunday. [Dennis Allen] is more of a disciplinarian. He wants you seven days out of the week to do the right thing."
Take Rolando McClain, the underachieving middle linebacker who was drafted with the No. 8 pick in 2010. After being demoted from the starting lineup for his on-field performance in November, he got into an argument with Allen during a practice. The former Alabama All-America was sent home, suspended for two games for conduct detrimental to the team and kept off the field the rest of the year.
"I want guys here who love football, who are willing to work and put the team first," says Allen. "The more people we can get that exemplify those characteristics, the better we're going to be as a football team."
But getting better on the field in the short term has been tricky, given the hurdles set up by McKenzie, who has to think long term. For the G.M., getting his salary cap in order meant releasing higher-priced players like veteran defensive end Kamerion Wimbley, who was second on the team in sacks in 2011 but whose impending contract restructuring would have compromised future salary caps.
In 2012 Oakland released or allowed to leave through free agency its top five cornerbacks from the previous season. In their place McKenzie rolled the dice that he could get a year out of veteran free-agent signees Shawntae Spencer and Ronald Bartell, despite their recent problems with injuries. True to form, the pair appeared in a total of eight games because of foot and shoulder injuries, respectively.
Adding to matters, that season was a physical wreck for the Raiders. In Week 1 long snapper Jon Condo went down with a concussion, and the team botched three punts in a 22--14 loss to the Chargers. Against Cleveland they lost three defensive backs to concussions, and rookie QB Brandon Weeden threw for a season-high 364 yards in a 20--17 Browns win. Seymour, who had actually restructured his contract to create cap space, missed the final eight games because of a torn hamstring.
On offense, McFadden and several wideouts were in and out of the lineup, and coordinator Greg Knapp's unit struggled to adapt to a zone-blocking scheme. Knapp, who never seemed to find a rhythm with play calls, was fired after the season.
Allen received a pass, but it's questionable whether he'll get another one if the team fails to improve in 2013. What we do know is that McKenzie is safe, regardless of what happens.
Mark Davis is seated in a corner booth of Frank & Albert's restaurant at the upscale Arizona Biltmore hotel in Phoenix, where NFL owners are holding their spring meeting. He wears blue jeans and a white long-sleeve T-shirt emblazoned with an image of the Vince Lombardi trophy behind the words SUPER BOWL. Asked to describe the 2012 season, during which that trophy seemed as out of reach as it ever has for a Raiders team, he pauses. "Not sure. I'm trying to look forward."
After a 38--17 loss to the Saints in November, he'd been less cagey. "I'm embarrassed. Pissed. Disappointed," he told reporters. "And I take full responsibility for it. I'm patient, but I want to see progress. Not regression."
That defeat, Oakland's third in a row, triggered reports that the team had spoken with former coach Jon Gruden about returning (a club-issued statement refuted this), and not long after there was speculation that Mike Holmgren, the former Packers and Seahawks coach who'd left his job as president of the Browns on Nov. 25, was being courted for a leadership role.
But as Davis studied the menu in Phoenix, he laughed loudly at the suggestion he's lost faith in his G.M. "Where Dennis and Reggie might have hit brick walls during last season, there was no one for them to talk to," he says. "The one thing I know is what I don't know—that's why I hire people to handle those things." It's an admission Mark's father never would have made. Nor would the senior Davis have shown this much patience after a 4--12 season.
Davis's meeting with Holmgren? McKenzie's idea. Because Davis isn't in the building every day, McKenzie inquired about bringing in an experienced staffer to bounce ideas off. The discussion didn't get far, but if it had, Holmgren never would have been more than a consultant.
"Reggie's my guy," reiterates Davis. "He did inherit a mess, and he's still cleaning. I can be patient with him. I'm giving him the whole shot," meaning the five-year length of his contract.
"Now, I'm not saying everybody else gets that same shot, because not everybody else is my guy. But Reggie is the one hire that I made—him and Carson."
That's a message that even the players get. As Kelly walked out of the Qualcomm Stadium locker room following Oakland's 2012 finale, a 24--21 loss to San Diego, he professed a clear vision for where he saw the Raiders headed. "We [used to] have one dude running the show. Things would get changed at the last minute because he would get involved. That doesn't happen anymore. Now you've got a chain of command. The old man used to sit in on defensive meetings after practice. That doesn't happen no more. It's a tighter ship.... You can see where [McKenzie and Allen] said, 'We're going to bite the bullet our first year and ride out this tough season, get some more salary-cap room and go from there.' There ain't going to be no veterans around here. A lot of people are going to be sacrificed in the process, but they're going to get it right."
If they do, it will be without Kelly, who, true to his own vision, was released by the Raiders last month following nine years with the team. As of last weekend 38 of the 53 players on the pre-McKenzie roster had been released, traded or allowed to leave as free agents.
Meanwhile, McKenzie and Allen stay, which may be a tough pill to swallow for Raiders fans given the turnarounds in recent years by the likes of the Colts, who went from 2--14 to the playoffs. But McKenzie's plan always called for him to tear the whole thing down and rebuild for the long haul. That has meant upgrading the practice fields and the video and scouting departments, creating budgets and scouting templates, cutting up the credit card and getting the salary cap in order, researching what scouts and personnel on other teams were being paid so he could compensate his people fairly.
Ideally, McKenzie would hit the road for five to 10 scouting trips during a season. Last year he went out twice because there was too much work to do back home.
But he's expecting 2013 to be less hectic, in part because he's done so much housecleaning this off-season. He released Seymour, Kelly and McClain, as well as safety Michael Huff and receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. He traded Palmer to Arizona, then sent two middle-round picks to Seattle for Matt Flynn and got the QB to restructure his deal to make it more front-loaded, with incentives for performance. He also chose not to make serious runs at retaining free-agent defensive tackle Desmond Bryant or linebacker Philip Wheeler, who signed five-year deals worth $34 million and $26 million, respectively, elsewhere.
Of the 53 players under contract with the Raiders today, 11 have been signed in the last four months; and although at least $45 million in dead money is being carried on this year's cap, the Raiders are expected to be at least $50 million under the ceiling in 2014.
Funny how it works out. That's the year McKenzie has targeted for Oakland to be a real division contender.