Reggie McKenzie left a stable job as the No. 2 in command with the Green Bay Packers to become the general manager of a franchise needing a fresh start. The Oakland Raiders hadn’t been a winning franchise in a decade, but an 8-8 record in 2011 had fans unrealistically hopeful that the team could take the next step.
Criticize McKenzie for the moves he has made, but don’t insult the man’s intelligence. McKenzie knew he was leaving one of the best jobs on the planet for perhaps the biggest franchise makeover in NFL history, and he still took the job. The Raiders could be stuck with a general manager with a much shorter track record than McKenzie if he didn’t take the job.
If you look simply at the team’s record, you will miss everything McKenzie has done to set up the Raiders for future success. It’s unrealistic to expect every move a general manager makes to work out, especially when he’s dealing with issues at every level of the franchise. If you consider the entire situation, McKenzie is doing a great job amid increasing criticism after just one year on the job.
The quick fix for any franchise is to sign veteran free agents. Signing free agents is also the expensive way to go about filling a roster. The Raiders were significantly over the salary cap in 2012 thanks to the in-season acquisition of Carson Palmer, the man who is now balking at taking a $3 million pay cut, according to Yahoo! Sports.
Even signing second-tier free agents was totally out of the question with the amount of cap space the Raiders had last year. Just to get under the salary cap in 2012, McKenzie had to release Kamerion Wimbley and restructure the contracts of Palmer, Richard Seymour and Michael Huff. All of the deals were strictly for cap purposes and simply pushed cap hits into future years to allow McKenzie another year to find their replacements.
McKenzie moved cash around to maximize the Raiders' cap space and the talent of the roster. McKenzie wasn’t responsible for giving Seymour and Huff huge contracts or bringing in Palmer, but he had to work with what he was given.
It’s not like the roster was loaded with young talent at any particular position.
McKenzie's hands were essentially tied because the roster was void of depth and he didn’t have the draft picks or the cap space to bring in quality players. McKenzie knew when he took the job that it takes time to build a championship-caliber roster, and he’s done his best to minimize the damage that was done by the previous regime.
In terms of the salary cap, McKenzie is at least another year away from being in a position to sign a high-profile free agent. That doesn’t mean McKenzie will sign one, because handing out big contracts to free agents is part of what put the Raiders into salary-cap purgatory.
Not Just Rebuilding a Roster
While McKenzie was dealing was salary-cap issues, he was also overseeing one of the largest franchise makeovers in the history of the NFL. Al Davis ran a nickel-and-dime franchise for about 50 years. It worked until the start of the salary-cap era, when the NFL started to become a big business and franchises started to be run like Fortune 500 companies.
McKenzie restructured the personnel department by firing the Raiders’ top scouts and replacing them with veteran front office people he trusts, which was only a small portion of the job. McKenzie also had to do a major upgrade in terms of computer hardware and software, according to Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group.
What people fail to realize is that McKenzie wasn’t just hired to rebuild a roster; he had to push an organization forward 20 years. There is also only so much McKenzie could do in a single year on the job.
"Changes are going to continue to be made through this time next year because you can't build Rome overnight," McKenzie said last March via McDonald. "Certain things will remain status quo until we can jump on it during the offseason."
Keep in mind that the Raiders also aren’t a team that is bankrolled by a billionaire. Buying the best computer equipment and paying top scouts required sizable investments from an organization without a huge budget. According to Forbes.com, the Raiders had an operating deficit of $15.2 million in 2012. Not only were the Raiders one of only three teams with an operating deficit, but it was three times more than that of any other team.
Rebuilding the roster is done mainly through the draft. Typically, the top 100 players of the draft are starters and the rest are considered to be role/depth players. The Indianapolis Colts had four top-100 picks—including the No. 1 overall pick—in 2012 and were able to quickly rebound with a strapped cap situation.
The Colts also had 10 picks overall and had the luxury of drafting Andrew Luck, one of the best quarterback prospects to come out in years. The Raiders had a measly six picks and only one in the top 100—No. 95 overall thanks to a compensatory selection for the departure of Nnamdi Asomugha. The Raiders had three picks in the top 109 tied up in quarterbacks, which is far worse than having one pick tied up in one.
Palmer himself wasn’t part of the problem in 2012, but he wasn’t the future, either. The Raiders' future was mortgaged when they sent a first- and a second-round pick to the Bengals to get Palmer in 2011. We now know that move has set the franchise back at least two years.
The Colts' cap situation was almost entirely due to the release of Peyton Manning in 2012, but their cap is totally clear in 2012 and they have proceeded to go on an offseason spending spree by giving big deals to five players, according to Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com.
It’s totally unfair to compare the job McKenzie has done to the one Ryan Grigson is doing with the Colts.
Grigson inherited Luck, a full hand of draft picks and a modern organization. Grigson also inherited his top lieutenant, Tom Telesco, who ended up getting the general manager job in San Diego this year. The only similarity is that the Colts and the Raiders were both salary-cap strapped teams in 2012.
To add insult the injury, McKenzie is missing another top-100 draft pick in 2013 thanks to the trade for Palmer. McKenzie is also missing a fifth-round pick thanks to the midseason trade for Aaron Curry in 2011 by the former regime. The Colts were in a great position to rebound immediately while the Raiders were in one of the worst imaginable.
Working with very little cap space in 2012, McKenzie managed to sign Philip Wheeler and trade for Mike Goodson. McKenzie’s signings of Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer to play cornerback didn’t work out, but you can’t expect to get quality merchandise at the dollar store.
McKenzie’s worst move was signing right guard Mike Brisiel, but that’s not even a big mistake. Not only will Brisiel have a chance to redeem himself—because he’s still on the roster—but he doesn’t make enough to severely hurt Oakland’s cap situation.
McKenzie did well just to fill the roster, and he managed to find an undrafted gem in wide receiver Rod Streater last season. Considering McKenzie had only a few dollars to spend, he did quite well.
McKenzie has signed three starting linebackers this offseason in Nick Roach, Kevin Burnett and Kaluka Maiava and two rotational defensive tackles in Vance Walker and Pat Sims. If any of McKenzie’s moves don’t work out, the contracts are all reasonable enough that the Raiders could move on without taking much of a cap hit.
McKenzie has managed the cap wisely and resisted the urge to overpay Wheeler or Desmond Bryant, two of the best players on his defense in 2013. McKenzie released Huff, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Tommy Kelly to go along with the voiding Seymour's contract. In two years, McKenzie has purged virtually all of the bad contracts that were handed out prior to his arrival.
Perhaps the area where McKenzie deserves the most criticism is his choice of coaches. McKenzie allowed Allen to hire Greg Knapp to bring back the zone-blocking scheme and West Coast offense that was an ill-fit for Oakland’s personnel.
Before you go slamming McKenzie for bringing back Knapp, consider that the Raiders didn’t have many options. McKenzie and Allen both got on the job late, which meant that the Raiders couldn’t make wholesale changes in year one. McKenzie also allowed his rookie head coach to choose his coaching staff and schemes, which was considered a positive at the time.
Instead of compounding the problem and stubbornly sticking with Knapp and his schemes, the Raiders fired him. McKenzie appeared to take a more active role in the hiring of Greg Olson as Knapp’s replacement. Mistakes are going to happen, but the Raiders proved that they are going to learn from them.
It’s better to make big mistakes in year one of the rebuilding effort than in year three. All things considered, McKenzie and Allen have done a good job after one year on the job, tackling challenges few men have ever had to face in the NFL. To top it off, Allen lost his father and his defensive line coach lost his son last season.
The biggest shift that is happening in Oakland is a culture shift.
McKenzie and Allen can’t just bring random players into a locker room void of natural leaders. Everyone knows that cultures don’t change overnight and that it’s a process that can take time. Change usually starts at the top and trickles down to the lower levels.
Jim Harbaugh was able to turn around the 49ers not just because he inherited a talented roster, but because he inherited leadership in the locker room.
Allen was not as lucky. The leader in the locker room in Oakland was Seymour, who will probably only play in 2014 if he gets paid a lot, according to Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports. It’s a business, but the perception in Oakland in the past was that the Raiders were simply a paycheck.
The other player that should have been a leader in Oakland’s locker room was Rolando McClain, but he basically quit the team and was suspended for two games by Allen. The only true leader on the team was Palmer, who had been on the team for less than a year. This is the same Palmer who chose not to play for the Bengals in 2011.
McKenzie and Allen may or may not be a success in the future, but criticizing them after one year is as foolish as it is short-sighted. McKenzie and Allen knew this was a long-term project when they took the job.
It will be another two or three years before you can really judge the new regime in Oakland, and maybe that’s not what Raiders fans want to hear, but that’s reality.