Oakland Raiders Futility Rooted Deep in Team's Culture

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystNovember 12, 2014

Owner Mark Davis hasn't done much positive since taking over the team in 2011.
Owner Mark Davis hasn't done much positive since taking over the team in 2011.Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

One of general manager Reggie McKenzie’s biggest tasks when he took over the Oakland Raiders three years ago was to change the losing culture of the football team. A task that has no doubt proven more difficult than he imagined because it’s more deeply rooted than a few veteran free agents can solve.

The Raiders are losers now—a description that extends beyond the football field. Just lose, baby. Commitment to excrement. No pride and no poise. That’s not just garden-variety hate anymore; it’s reality.

After years of thinking owner Al Davis was the problem, the Raider Nation can now only wonder why doing things differently hasn’t worked. Why is every other general manager from the Ron Wolf-Ted Thompson tree having success except McKenzie? Why can’t the Raiders turn things around, as other teams seem to be able to do?

The Raiders are 0-9, and headed for 1-15 or 0-16. Everyone knows it. The players are playing with good effort, but that’s not good enough. No matter how hard interim head coach Tony Sparano tries, the culture of losing is so embedded that it’s going to take something significant to turn things around.

That’s why simply firing McKenzie at the end of the year is not enough; it’s just more of the same from the Raiders. Cycling through burnout after burnout isn’t going to turn things around for the Raiders. Blaming McKenzie for all of the Raiders’ problems and not acknowledging that there is a systemic issue would be foolish.

The Raiders' streak of seasons with at least eight losses hit puberty two weeks ago. McKenzie’s struggle is just a toddler. Before McKenzie, Al Davis blamed coach after coach for the losing despite the evidence that he was responsible for the team’s struggles.

Has anything really changed?

Mark Davis fired an offensive coordinator after Year 1, initially refused to sign assistant coaches to deals beyond 2014 in Year 2 as is customary, fired his head coach four games into Year 3 and  McKenzie will probably be the next to go. Then the sick joke on the Raider Nation will start over again.

The streak of seasons without making the playoffs has taken some fans from high school graduation to their 30th birthday. It’s gone on so long now that losing and the Raiders are synonymous.

Given the losing culture of the team, it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to have success as general manager or head coach in Oakland. Maybe one will catch lightning in a bottle as Jon Gruden did for a few years in the early 2000s, but otherwise it’s just going to be more of the same.

Mark Davis will have to open up his wallet to land Jon Gruden.
Mark Davis will have to open up his wallet to land Jon Gruden.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

That’s why Davis wants to hire Gruden (It’s one of the worst-kept secrets in the NFL). As far as Mark is concerned, the only time the Raiders have had success during the free-agency era was when Gruden was in town. That’s the only success he knows.

Never mind the fact that Gruden will be costly if he comes at all, he’s been out of the league and he’ll demand personnel control. Davis even wanting to bring Gruden back suggests he doesn’t have a clue what he is doing.

Since Davis took over the team, the Raiders traded away valuable draft picks for Carson Palmer and proceeded to miss the playoffs. With the salary cap shot to hell by that trade and an overpriced, underperforming defense, Davis’ handpicked general manager proceeded to tear down a roster that required it.

Davis wasn’t willing to spend the money on a big-name head coach, so McKenzie proceeded to interview candidates that were just hoping for their second chance or young coordinators that could grow into the job. He didn’t make the right hire, but it’s not as if McKenzie could go out and get anyone, nor did he have the time for a protracted search.

If Davis were willing to pay big money for his head coach, Gruden would probably be back already. Even if the Raiders did open up the budget for a head coach, the top talent knows it’s not a level playing field in Oakland. The team has terrible facilities—both the stadium and the team’s headquarters.

One of the solutions to the Raiders’ problems could be a move to a more lucrative market where they could build a new stadium, but the only one that exists is Los Angeles. The NFL has taken steps to assure that the Raiders won’t be able to move there if Davis is the owner and suggested they become tenants at Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers.

So Davis has wisely focused on a stadium deal in Oakland. Maybe that will solve some of the issues, but it certainly won’t solve all of them and will take more time. How many more losing seasons before the Raiders are a viable live product?  

If the Raiders get a stadium in Oakland, they would gain more revenue-producing luxury boxes. Then, the team would have to sell them at a discount compared to the San Francisco 49ers just down the road. Does Davis have the expertise to develop the required relationships to get the power brokers in the south bay to make the drive up Interstate 880? The jury is out.

Davis has now been running the team without a CEO or team president for nearly two years. After the resignation of longtime CEO Amy Trask, the assumption was that Davis was going to bring in someone to help him with a new stadium, and that hasn’t happened. It’s his team to run as he sees fit, but Davis is running his team thin, and it’s not as if he’s qualified to take on multiple roles.  

Davis was supposed to be a more hands-off owner, but that’s not really been the case. Davis has started meddling more with every passing year.

Meddling Mark
EventDavis' ActionSource
Fired OC Greg KnappTalked with Darren McFadden midseason.Vic Tafur, San Francisco Chronicle
Coaching Staff Contract RenewalsRefused to sign most coaches to multi-year contracts as is customary.Ian Rapoport, NFL.com
Nullifed Rodger Saffold's ContractPulled the plug on signing of Saffold due to injured shoulder.Mike Silver, NFL.com
Fired HC Dennis AllenFired Dennis Allen, but didn't even speak with him on the matter before announcing the move in public.Mark Davis, Raiders.com

Davis let head coach Dennis Allen and his staff twist in the wind at the end of last season for more than a week when it was clear to everyone he wanted to make changes. Instead of letting McKenzie take responsibility for Allen’s hiring and maintaining a hands-off approach, Davis rubber-stamped Allen’s return and set a precedent for future intervention.  

The Raiders also nullified a contract for offensive guard Rodger Saffold over concerns about his injured shoulder at Davis’ prompting. Saffold has played all nine games for the St. Louis Rams this season, so the concerns seem to have been unfounded.

Things are ugly in Oakland, and the owner is a big reason why. Al Davis didn’t leave his son in a great situation, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s done nothing to improve the team in three seasons.

Just how ugly might it get in Oakland? Safety Charles Woodson is now taking subtle jabs at the team’s rookie quarterback and Sparano is acting as if the media is the enemy instead of the remaining seven teams on the schedule.

“I’m not really sure what he’s seeing out there and why he threw up some of the balls that he threw up,” Woodson told Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle. “Maybe they threw (Carr) some different looks he hadn’t seen. He can only grow from it, and we’re expecting him to.”

Woodson is just being honest, but even a future Hall of Famer like him needs to tone back that kind of rhetoric. Carr is the hope for the future, and it’s not his place to critique him—especially after a terrible performance of his own.

Sparano suggested Monday that the media loved to plant seeds in players’ heads about there being a problem with the offensive scheme and that they would “spin” an extra day off this week. It’s not exactly clear why Sparano would make those statements, but it could be that players are asking the same questions the media is asking behind the scenes.

The Raiders are a mess, but there are things that Davis can do to get his team on the right path.


Hire a Team President

One of the first things Davis needs to do is create a buffer between himself, the general manager and the coaching staff. A team president would be able to handle the day-to-day operations of the team when Davis is in Los Angeles, continue to work on the team’s unresolved stadium issue and act as a liaison between the owner and the general manager.  

The Raiders need someone like Bruce Allen to create a buffer between football operations and ownership.
The Raiders need someone like Bruce Allen to create a buffer between football operations and ownership.Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Davis needs a Bruce Allen, who was a buffer between Davis' father and Gruden during the team’s most successful years. Someone with experience getting large real estate deals done and with close ties to the league would be the ideal candidate.

At one point, Davis interviewed the NFL’s former senior vice president of football operations Ray Anderson about a senior executive position. Anderson became the athletic director of the Arizona State Sun Devils in January, but someone like him would be perfect.

Davis needs to take a step back and consider the likelihood that his management is the problem. If he can bring in a well-respected lieutenant, the Raiders can start to remake the perception.


Open Up the Pocketbook

The Raiders need to talk the talk before they can walk the walk. They might not have a lot of money to spend now, but they need to act as if they do.

A head coach like Jim Harbaugh is going to be expensive.
A head coach like Jim Harbaugh is going to be expensive.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Money talks. If the Raiders covet the best candidates for their open positions then money can be no object. That’s true for their general manager and head coach positions down to the assistant coaches and scouts.

If a stadium deal is completed or the team’s fortunes turn around, the investment will be more than worth it. The Raiders are in the position where they need all the quality people they can get.

Bring in Bravado

The Raiders need a culture change. To accomplish that task, they need to bring in someone that the players instantly respect. The general manager is less important than the head coach in this case because he can take a more hands-off approach to the team.

Rex Ryan is an underrated coach with bravado that could be available this offseason.
Rex Ryan is an underrated coach with bravado that could be available this offseason.Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan would be a great option assuming he is fired at the end of the season, even if the Raiders don’t do anything else. The Raiders wouldn’t have to fire everyone in the front office or on the coaching staff because there are so many tied between Ryan’s staff and the Raiders’ current staff.

Ryan has a tattoo of his wife wearing a Mark Sanchez jersey on his arm. Players love him. That's the kind of coach the Raiders need again.

Despite their flaws, that's why Hue Jackson and Gruden were successful. That's why Jim Harbaugh has been successful in San Francisco and also why he probably won't return there next season. 

As the Raiders try to regain the respectability they haven't really had in years, a little bravado goes a long way. 


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