Every offseason in Oakland seems to be more important than the one before it. Until the Raiders can climb out of the bay-area mud and wash away the stench of the darkest years in franchise history, that will continue to be the case.
The Raiders will rely on general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Jack Del Rio—an unlikely partnership forged by owner Mark Davis. It’s in their best interest to make the relationship work, but like an arranged marriage, it’s not going to be without its challenges.
The NFL Scouting Combine is the first offseason event with great potential to unite or divide McKenzie and Del Rio. Disagreements can lead to dissonance and dispute if the two men aren’t careful.
The combine as we see it is a series of events aimed at getting a baseline measurement of athleticism. There are events that measure speed, agility and change of direction, and there are ones that attempt to quantify how explosive they are. As we know, these are less-than-perfect events conducted in a near-perfect environment.
McKenzie and the rest of the front office will use these events as a check for the work they have been doing on this class for the last 12 months. Anything that supports the reports gets a check mark, but anything that doesn’t will be checked on video just to make sure the scouting staff didn’t miss anything.
Del Rio and his coaching staff have been busy getting to know the players on the Raiders, so this could be among their first encounters with many of these prospects. There could be a propensity to fall in love with a prospect based on their combine numbers and see something that isn’t there when they get a chance to review their video.
Even though the coaches know as well as anyone that combine events don’t correlate to NFL success, they can still suffer from confirmation bias. Even the best evaluators can fall victim to their own biases and preconceptions.
By keeping McKenzie and his staff intact this offseason, all the work the team did scouting last year will benefit the incoming coaching staff if they can work together harmoniously. If the two sides haven’t spent the last month getting comfortable with each other, even the combine numbers have the potential to cause issues.
Del Rio and his coaching staff can and should take a more active role in the interview room. McKenzie and the scouting staff certainly are looking for coachable players, but ultimately the coaches are the ones who actually deal with them on a day-to-day basis.
McKenzie probably remembers how the San Francisco 49ers drafted Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers due mostly to personality. The Green Bay Packers selection Rodgers likely got him the position he now holds with the Raiders, so it’s one of the defining moments in his professional career.
According to Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, Nolan chose Smith because he was malleable and did the silly drills that Rodgers refused to do. As we know, it blew up in Nolan’s face.
Nolan’s reasoning for not selecting Rodgers was due mostly to his own ego, according to Gary Peterson of the San Jose Mercury News:
Nolan was no-nonsense, a strong personality who didn't like to be challenged. He met with Rodgers and Smith before the draft. He caught a whiff of attitude from Rodgers, and that was that. Smith was chosen based on personality. He is cerebral, introspective, with a distaste for confrontation. Nolan presumed, correctly, that Smith would be low-maintenance in meeting rooms and during sideline consultations.
It’s worth noting that Nolan and Del Rio are from the same coaching tree. They worked together in Baltimore, and both petitioned the league to wear suits on the sideline when they were head coaches. Nolan also worked for Mike Smith the last few years, who was Del Rio’s defensive coordinator in Jacksonville early on. It’s not a stretch to say they are like-minded in many ways.
Despite this example, McKenzie must yield to Del Rio in the interview room. If the coaches aren’t comfortable with a player’s personality, that’s ultimately going to impact if he’s successful with the team.
Surely, the hiring of Dennis Allen taught McKenzie a lesson. Allen was a young coach that failed miserably leading the locker room during his tenure. Dealing with personalities is one of the toughest jobs of a head coach.
Del Rio is more capable of managing personalities, so McKenzie should have more freedom to take chances in the draft. He’ll have to listen to Del Rio on what kinds of personalities he feels comfortable coaching to maximize the effect.
In the past, Del Rio has proven what he can do with personalities he works well with. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton followed him from Jacksonville to Denver, and he could follow Del Rio to Oakland.
Perhaps the most important part of the combine is the medical evaluations done on every prospect. They get MRIs on just about everything and extensive checks on previous injuries.
The Raiders plan to be "cutting edge" in the way they train players in 2015. They’ve hired four strength-and-conditioning coaches, and they will do things a bit differently than they have in Oakland in the past.
Del Rio spoke about the changes with Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group last week:
The things that they’re doing are things we should be doing with our athletes. They’re cutting edge in terms of innovation, they’re cutting edge in terms of some of the things that we need to do with our football team to give them a chance to be their healthiest, its most fit and its ability to be at its peak on Sundays. The timing of bringing it all together will be to maximize what our players have.
These coaches might feel more or less comfortable with certain types of injury histories. Their style might clash with the conservative approach of H. Rod Martin, who has been the team’s head athletic trainer for 20 years. McKenzie has deferred to Martin’s expertise in this area as well as the team doctors.
Martin’s advice certainly played a role in voiding a contract offer to offensive guard Rodger Saffold last offseason. The Raiders obviously didn’t feel as comfortable managing the injury as the St. Louis Rams were.
Saffold played all 16 games with the injury, which required surgery immediately after the season. The Raiders were right to be concerned, but the Rams had the strength-and-conditioning staff that was able to help him manage the injury and contribute.
It’s very possible the Raiders’ new approach to strength and conditioning would be comfortable managing those types of injuries. Would McKenzie be willing to stick his neck out for a player with injury concerns after selecting D.J. Hayden in the first round and having his marquee signing in free agency invalidated?
Del Rio might press McKenzie to take the chance if it means landing a superior talent, but McKenzie could be gun-shy. McKenzie will surely take the blame if he drafts another injury risk early, and he has injury issues in the NFL—even if those injuries are unrelated.
At first glance, it might not seem like a potential area of conflict, but McKenzie has a lot more to lose than Del Rio if he takes a risk in the draft. Another poor season from the Raiders, and McKenzie’s job will be in serious jeopardy.
Many areas could cause conflict between Del Rio and McKenzie at the combine. The better they understand their roles and the pressures of those roles, the better they will be at working together to make it a unifying experience and not a divisive one.