New faces, same ol' Raiders?
After Al Davis died, the iconic owner of the Oakland Raiders left the team to his wife and son. His son, Mark, took over the day-to-day operations of the team and wisely hired a general manager to handle the football side of things.
Dysfunctional for at least the past decade, the Raider Nation was promised a model franchise. General manager Reggie McKenzie was supposed to model the team after the Green Bay Packers, for whom he previously worked.
After two years, we are starting to see that things haven’t changed as much as the team would have you believe—at least not in several key areas. While it is clear some things have changed, plenty of dysfunction remains.
Some level of dysfunction can be tolerated by the fans and media, but the team has to be winning or at least headed in the right direction. Unfortunately for the Raiders, it’s hard to determine if the team is even on the right track.
The Raiders have won just eight games in the two full seasons since McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen were hired.
There hasn’t been any clear improvement of the team by any of the standard measurements, and it’s tough to sell that the general manager and the head coach are both doing a good job when 10 new starters on defense don’t make much of a difference.
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Regardless of how much money is spent, the expectation is always that the roster should be getting better.
The new offensive scheme supposedly built around the strengths of the personnel hasn’t made a huge difference, either. The Raiders have also failed to fully utilize one of their best weapons in fullback Marcel Reece.
The only improvement the Raider Nation can cling to remains in the future. The Raiders will have $60 million-plus in salary cap space in 2014, and the organization has basically promised that the team will get better despite very little proof that it actually will get better.
The new regime was supposed to be the kind that exceeded expectations—at least that’s what the Raider Nation thought they were getting. Instead, the Raiders have simply met rock-bottom expectations while the fans have been constantly reminded that the owners’ late father is to blame.
While the Raiders weren’t in a great situation to start, the new regime didn’t have to blow it up and start over. The front office could have spread out cap hits over several years and tried to get incrementally better each year. It was a choice, and if it ends up costing a good coach his job, it was a poor one.
As was previously the case with the Raiders, the dysfunction and poor decision-making starts at the top with the owner and simply trickles down to the lower levels. Davis and McKenzie appear to be joined at the hip, but their vision for how the organization is going to get back on track doesn't always appear to be in lockstep.
Davis fired public relations director Zak Gilbert in June, supposedly due to how the media blamed his father for the team’s ills. Gilbert—now with the Cleveland Browns in the same capacity—had been hired by McKenzie—indicating there has been at least some internal conflict between Davis and his hand-picked general manager.
According to Michael Silver NFL.com, Davis also declined to give the assistant coaches contract extensions, as is customary in the league, when McKenzie requested it, putting Allen and most of his staff on notice this season. The organization’s real vision for the future remains clear as mud because Davis and McKenzie are sending different messages.
It’s worth wondering if McKenzie will stand up to Davis and risk fracturing their relationship if the two men have differing opinions about what to do with Allen. It’s believed that McKenzie wants Allen back, but that Davis will need to be convinced.
The organization has made other poor choices, too. Most of them don’t reflect positively on Davis, McKenzie or Allen—the three most important and powerful people in the organization.
Amy Trask, the CEO, resigned after being informed by Davis she would be demoted. While it’s not uncommon for a CEO to change when ownership changes, it’s not the best look when one decides to leave when the hiring of their replacement is imminent—especially when Trask was fiercely loyal to the Raiders for 25 years.
McKenzie wears a lot of hats, but he has to make two important decisions each year. One is what to do at quarterback since the team doesn’t have a franchise guy, and the other is what to do with the first-round draft pick.
Despite solid work in other areas, McKenzie’s body of work in the two most important areas is questionable.
McKenzie accepted a lot less than normal to move down to No. 12 from No. 3 in last April’s draft, only to select a player with a serious medical red flag. The Raiders moved down nine spots and received only a second-round pick in return. Rookie cornerback D.J. Hayden then missed almost all of training camp after having surgery, severely stunting his rookie development.
It’s too early to know if the pick will pan out, but a talent-deprived roster could sure have used a player that made an immediate impact. Cornerback is one of the hardest positions for rookies to transition to the NFL, and Hayden‘s college was part of Conference USA, not a bigger, more competitive conference like the SEC.
When it comes to the most important position on the team, the Raiders have been a complete disaster in 2013. The Raiders approached quarterback Carson Palmer about taking a pay cut, but wouldn’t guarantee his presence on the roster and asked him to compete with Terrelle Pryor according to NFL.com's Silver.
The Raiders opted to ship Palmer to Arizona and trade for Matt Flynn, exchanging a couple of late-round draft picks and saving only a few million dollars in the process. Had Flynn been serviceable and Palmer only average, the exchange made sense. Instead, Flynn was released before midseason after making just one start, and Palmer has led the Cardinals to a 10-5 record despite a very tough schedule.
The Raiders also used their fourth-round pick on quarterback Tyler Wilson, only to cut him at the end of training camp in favor of undrafted free agent Matt McGloin. It’s pretty clear the Raiders would like to do it over again after mishandling their quarterback position last summer.
Pryor, the one quarterback that was on the roster last year and wasn’t brought in by the current regime, won the starting job out of training camp over Flynn before yielding to McGloin—effectively creating two quarterback controversies in the same season between three quarterbacks.
Now, the Raiders are in the precarious situation of badly needing a quarterback instead of having one that could buy the head coach some time. Pryor will draw the final start of the season so the Raiders can get their final evaluation of him.
The Raiders also did some very strange things for no apparent reason this season, such as holding onto two punters and four quarterbacks when initially chopping down the roster to 53 players. The result was losing defensive end David Bass to the Chicago Bears via waivers. Even if the Raiders were going to lose Bass later as the result of making waiver claims, there was no good reason to waste two roster spots on an extra punter and quarterback.
If Allen is retained, it’s pretty clear that he will be granted no further time to learn on the job. To go along with the aforementioned failure of the team to improve in 2013, Allen has made his fair share of mistakes.
Allen hired Greg Knapp as offensive coordinator and Steve Hoffman as special teams coordinator in his first year on the job, but both were fired for poor performance after one season. Allen was responsible for the hires and choosing an offensive scheme that was wildly believed to be a poor fit for the personnel—even by McKenzie.
When offensive coordinator Greg Olson, offensive line coach Tony Sparano and special teams coordinator Bobby April were hired, McKenzie was apparently more involved.
Pryor’s agent also recently lashed out at Allen, per Scott Bair of CSN Bay Area, absurdly accusing him of sabotaging Pryor in order to make himself look better for starting McGloin. It’s ridiculous but clear the agent isn’t happy with the way his client has been treated this season.
It’s easy to side with Allen on this one, but it’s rather unusual for an agent to make such an absurd claim publicly. The only logical reason would be to absolve Pryor of a poor performance on Sunday and get him a ticket out of town if Allen is retained as head coach.
With all the continued dysfunction in Oakland, it might not matter if Allen is fired or retained. Dysfunction will only lead to more dysfunction until the Raiders create a unified vision that resonates from the owner down to the water boy.
Davis could have made it clear that Allen was going to get a chance to turn the Raiders around just like his handpicked general manager, but he hasn’t done that. Instead, a decision on most of Allen’s assistants has to be made after the season, which basically guarantees that Allen’s job is also in jeopardy.
If Allen is fired, it’s not only an example of Davis having very little patience like his father, but it could also be another example of a disagreement between him and McKenzie about what is best for the franchise. If Allen is retained, the mandate will likely be to make the playoffs next season.
In both cases, the Raiders may lose. It’s unrealistic to expect the playoffs from this team next season, even with major roster changes and gobs of salary-cap space. It would be worse than firing Allen to start the rebuild only to fire him a year into it.
Firing Allen could be the wrong move and would almost certainly be met with criticism. It could also be the right move, but then there would be the unknown of a new coach and new schemes.
Either the Raiders need to fire Allen, take the criticism and quickly get on the same page, or they need to retain Allen for at least two more years to see what he can really do as draft picks develop. Giving Allen two years also has the added benefit of not forcing McKenzie to feel like he has to blow all $60 million in cap space for his coach.
If the Raiders are to become a model franchise, it needs to stop operating like a dictatorship run by a trust-fund baby with a bad haircut. Either trust the process—or don’t.