Reggie McKenzie knew he faced a significant challenge when he was announced as general manager of the Raiders on Jan. 6, 2012. Over the previous nine years the team had gone through six head coaches, and it had lost at least 11 games in an NFL-record seven straight seasons. Oakland’s last winning campaign, in ’02, was a millennium ago by NFL calendars.
Still, the depths of the struggle might not have truly hit McKenzie until several months after his hiring, when he changed into his workout gear and headed to the back of the team’s Alameda training facility, where his long jog around the practice fields was spoiled by wildly uneven footing and goose droppings.
If the choppy grass fields were hazardous to a 49-year-old such as himself, he thought, imagine the dangers for players. In the previous two seasons alone, running backs Darren McFadden and Marcel Reece, wideouts Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore, defensive tackles Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly and linebacker Rolando McClain had been hobbled by or missed significant time because of lower-body injuries.
When McKenzie asked who was responsible for the upkeep of the fields, which were riddled with dirt patches, the answer stunned him. The Raiders did not employ a full-time, on-site groundskeeper. Instead, the work was outsourced to a local companyâ€”astounding considering that the difference between the playoffs and a pink slip could easily come down to a turned ankle, a jammed toe, a tweaked knee or a pulled hamstring.
The field conditions were just the first of many reminders that restoring greatness to a franchise whose mottos had included “Pride and Poise” and “A Commitment to Excellence” would be about much more than just hiring a new coach and ridding the roster of its bloated contracts and underachieving players. It would be about transforming an entire culture and overhauling an organizational model that had become stale and outdated after nearly five decades under Al Davis, the iconic and imperious owner who died of heart failure at age 82 in October 2011.
It wasn’t just the grass that needed fixing
McKenzie knows he must be spot-on in this year’s draft. Oakland has the No. 3 pick and the fourth pick of the third round, but its second-round selection belongs to Cincinnati as part of a 2011 swap for Carson Palmer. He’d love to trade down for more choices, because the Raiders are far more than one player from being relevant again. But if he’s unable to find a trade partner, then he has to find impact players with his high picks. Imagine the best draft ever. If McKenzie replicates that, his team is mediocre at best.
And so, much of the G.M.’s energy the last 15 months has been spent on upgrading Oakland’s scouting and personnel departments. When he went to view the club’s draft room last year, he discovered that none existed, so he had one built from scratch. When he requested the team’s scouting questionnaires for evaluating college prospects, he learned there weren’t any, so he created them.
Such resources are givens in most NFL organizationsâ€”but not with the Raiders and Davis, who had his own way of doing business. He was the only owner who didn’t use one of the national scouting services for college prospects, and the only one who didn’t subscribe to the psychological-testing program available to each team before the draft.
Davis was so behind the times that even toward the end he didn’t allow employees to use direct deposit, and he kept the budget for coaching and support staffs in his head rather than on paper. In his video department, the software was tragically outdated.
Sadly the Oakland Raiders (as in Mark Davis) fired Oakland’s PR person, Zak Gilbert after the story came out.
We read the Trotter story this morning, and there are certainly aspects of it that would make any organization cringe. The Raiders fell behind the competition in many ways in the last 10 years of Al Davis’ life.
General manager Reggie McKenzie was portrayed as a man who inherited a pigsty, forced to tend to matters both minor (hiring a head groundskeeper, constructing a draft room, upgrading video equipment) and major (completely rebooting the team’s scouting and personnel departments, treating burns incurred in salary-cap hell).
The Raiders reportedly dumped Gilbert because the SI piece — which surely now will attract more eyeballs — delved into not just the team’s struggles in recent years but why and how the downturn occurred. The guts of the story focused on positive strides made by McKenzie over the last year, but that apparently wasn’t enough to save Gilbert.
The Raiders shouldn’t run from the last decade. It’s a dark period that the organization can learn from. Firing the PR guy over a story anchored in facts makes it look like the team is trying to will the bad old days into the ether. That’s not happening.
Yahoo!’s Mike Silver saw this coming a year ago.