The Raiders fired McKenzie to make him take the bullets of this year’s disaster, but he deserved better.
Reggie McKenzie was the 2016 NFL Executive of the Year. Hired as the Oakland Raiders General Manager in 2012, he was charged with digging the iconic franchise out of a disastrous malaise.
McKenzie quickly went about returning the Raiders to prominence. In the first two rounds of the 2014 Draft, he selected quarterback Derek Carr and linebacker Khalil Mack. He scooped up star Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper with a first-round pick in 2015.
It seemed as if a solid nucleus was in place to build upon, with the Raiders surging toward a 12-win season and playoff birth in 2016. After that success and having proved his acumen in digging the franchise out of salary cap hell, he signed a contract extension that was supposed to keep him steering the ship until at least 2021.
The valedictorian of his graduating class at Austin-East High School in Tennessee, McKenzie went on to play linebacker at the University of Tennessee. Considered a good player in Knoxville, he wasn’t seen as a “can’t miss” NFL prospect. The Raiders, then based in Los Angeles, selected him in the 10th round of the 1985 Draft.
He went on to earn a starting job as a rookie, playing in all 16 regular season games as the Raiders earned a playoff birth with a 12-4 record. A serviceable inside linebacker, McKenzie was never considered a star. But he obviously had a mind for the game and a supreme work ethic that allowed him to succeed.
When his playing days concluded, he began coaching at his alma mater in 1993 as an assistant under Philip Fulmer. The Volunteers had secured one the nation’s top recruiting classes at the time, highlighted by the No. 1 prep QB in the country, Peyton Manning.
After one year at Tennessee, he was hired by the Green Bay Packers. He worked his way through every organizational level, starting as a low-level scout. During his 18 years with the Packers, from 1994 to 2012, he proved to be among the brightest executives in pro football, eventually rising to become Green Bay’s director of player personnel and eventually the team’s director of football operations.
When he became the Raiders GM, he inherited a roster full of players that weren’t living up to the exorbitant contracts that they’d been signed to. The franchise had more than $154 million committed toward the $120.6 million salary cap.
To put it plainly, the Raiders were a damn mess, both on the field and in the business ledger.
McKenzie cleaned house and began to rebuild. And given the team’s success, propelled by his selections of Carr, Cooper, Mack and others in the Draft, it was obvious that the man knew what he was doing.
But everything changed when owner Mark Davis handed Jon Gruden $100 million to coach the team. You obviously do not hand out that type of cash for someone to simply coach. Gruden effectively took over the entire football operation and proceeded to tear the roster apart.
The high-profile trades of Mack, a generational talent at linebacker on par with the likes of Ray Lewis or Lawrence Taylor, and the Pro Bowl receiver Cooper left many scratching their heads.
Two years before the franchise moves to Las Vegas, the Raiders have once again become a laughingstock. And none of that downward spiral should be attributed to McKenzie.
Gruden threw a stick of dynamite into what McKenzie was building.
Only nine of McKenzie’s 50 pre-Gruden draft picks from 2012 through 2017 are on the Raiders’ 53-man roster, and 36 current players did not spend a day on Oakland’s 53-man roster last season.
Don’t believe the hype when owner Mark Davis says, as he told reporters last month, “I think it’s becoming clearer and clearer to Jon, as well, that the talent is just not here at this time.”
“The drafts did not help supplement what we were doing in the free-agent market. If you look at our roster now, it’s a bunch of free-agent, one-year guys that are mercenaries,” Davis went on to say. “And they’re great guys, and they’re Raiders. Once a Raider, always a Raider … but we just don’t have the overall talent of a 22-man roster.”
That’s ridiculous. It sounds like something Donald Trump would say, an outright lie to further his own agenda.
The Raiders are downright woeful, with a record of 3-10. Along with the Arizona Cardinals, they’re the NFL’s worst team.
McKenzie was building something. Davis and Gruden decided to tear it apart. The buck stops with them. Firing McKenzie, as if he was to blame, was downright shameful.
The popular saying in NFL circles goes, “Once a Raider, always a Raider.” Tell that to Reggie McKenzie and see if he agrees. His voice was silenced and he effectively became a figurehead when Gruden came aboard.
Gruden still has another year or two to prove that he was indeed a man with a master plan. The jury’s still out. By trading away McKenzie’s best players to stockpile draft picks, he’s trying to build his own culture. There’s nothing wrong with that, unless your squad was on the precipice of being a consistent playoff contender. That seemed to be where the Raiders were heading under McKenzie.
But as to another verdict, the jury has already decided. Davis, Gruden and the Raiders know it just as much as we do. They fired McKenzie to make him take the bullets of this year’s disaster. And he deserved better.
They did the man dirty. Bottom line.