Definitely Next Year: Looking Back at Reggie McKenzie’s Time in Oakland

Early Monday morning, Raider Nation got some news they had been expecting for months. Reggie McKenzie, the 2016 AP Executive of the Year, had been “released” by the Oakland Raiders. This is a move that many saw coming a mile away, as there were simply too many cooks in the kitchen, with Jon Gruden wanting full control of the team and personnel. It started with Gruden cutting, trading, and benching McKenzie’s picks, and ended with his termination on December 10th, 2018. Here’s a look back at McKenzie’s tenure in Oakland, the good, the bad, and the injury prone corner ugly truth of it all. 

Definitely Next Year: Looking Back at Reggie Mckenzie’s Time in Oakland

First thing’s first, this isn’t news to anyone. Obviously it’s a big story that an award winning executive has been fired, but everyone in Raider Nation has been expecting this for a very long time. The writing was on the wall when Jack Del Rio was fired, making room for Jon Gruden. You don’t pay someone 100 million dollars to come in and take orders from anyone else. Mark Davis gave this team to Jon Gruden this year, for better or for worse, and McKenzie became obsolete. Don’t believe me? Think I’m just some Raiders fan making excuses for the latest loop on the Raider roller coaster? How about this tweet from September?

The Good

Was Reggie McKenzie a good general manager? Well, it’s not that black and white (or in this case, silver and black). It’s impossible to deny that Reggie McKenzie did some great things for the Oakland Raiders. When he took over the team, they had no talented players, no cap space, and no draft picks. 

He immediately took to starting over, cutting some of the old, horrible contracts from the Al Davis era, freeing up space for the future. He tried to emulate Al, bringing in a bright young defensive mind as a head coach in Dennis Allen. Dennis Allen was a bad head coach, but it’s not like the John Maddens, Jon Grudens, or Sean McVays of the world walk around saying “oh no, I’m the good kind of young coach” or anything. 

It has to be said that Reggie McKenzie did everything he could to fix the Oakland Raiders. He tried his very best to make them a respectable franchise again, as opposed to the retirement home for 40 times that it had become. He did things the Green Bay way, and for a moment there, it looked like it was working, hence that 2016 Executive of the Year award. 

The All-Reggie Team

For all the talk about how bad Reggie’s players were, he brought in some real stars as well. Through the draft and free agency, McKenzie acquired the following.

  • Derek Carr, the franchise quarterback. 
  • Khalil Mack, a future Hall of Famer. 
  • Latavius Murray, a good, if not great tailback. 
  • Gabe Jackson, a reliable guard. 
  • Rodney Hudson, the NFL’s most underrated offensive linemen. 
  • Kelechi Osemele, a stud when healthy at guard. 
  • Donald Penn, someone who had a fantastic run at left tackle.
  • Jalen Richard, a versatile undrafted complementary back. 
  • Marshawn Lynch, the toughest running back in the NFL. 
  • Charles Woodson, the prodigal son in the secondary. 
  • Justin Ellis, a great interior defender when healthy. 
  • T.J. Carrie, a good, if inconsistent, corner. 
  • Jared Cook, a tight end enjoying a Pro Bowl caliber season. 
  • Michael Crabtree, Derek Carr’s favorite redzone target. 
  • And a few more. 

Obviously not everyone was a superstar, and many, many, many of these players are gone now, but you can’t say that McKenzie couldn’t find talent. And for the record, before we start talking about how many misses that McKenzie had, I’d like to remind everyone that coaching is very, very important, and the Raiders haven’t had good coaching before this year, with the jury being far out on this regime. 

Also, someone needs to look at John Elway’s track record, because if McKenzie was bad, then Elway was horrible. In all seriousness, go look at John Elway’s drafts right now. 

Cap Magician

Reggie McKenzie was a cap wizard. Many of Carr’s critics say he’s overpaid (because they don’t understand how quarterback contracts work), but the reality is, thanks to Reggie, they could absolutely walk away from Carr and his contract without a ton of dead money. After this season, the Raiders would only owe about 7.5 million in dead cap if they released him, with the number decreasing by 2.5 million every year until 2022, where they could get off completely free. 

For perspective, if the Detroit Lions decided they were sick of Matthew Stafford after this season and they wanted to cut him, they’d have 49 million dollars of dead cap space. The year after that? 20 million. The dead cap wouldn’t approach 10 million dollars until 2021. Let me ask you something, which quarterback is actually more valuable, Derek Carr or Matthew Stafford?

That was Reggie McKenzie’s best ability. He could design a contract like nobody else. He could give someone a huge, front-loaded contract, while still protecting the team with little dead cap towards the end. This is a philosophy that everyone hopes the next general manager of the Raiders understands. 

The Bad

When you look at some of Reggie McKenzie’s personnel moves, he made some pretty horrible decisions. He hired the likes of Dennis Allen and Jack Del Rio to be head coaches, and consistently missed on defensive players and quarterbacks. Sure, he ended up with Carr and Mack, but he also made some really questionable decisions. 

Quarterbacks

McKenzie inherited Carson Palmer, but he was far from the young gun that led the Cincinnati Bengals to the post-season. Overpaid, constantly injured, and careless with the ball, Palmer shined in garbage time, but rarely produced well, in an admittedly poor offense. 

The next year, Palmer was gone, and McKenzie went out to get his next starting quarterback… Matt Flynn. Flynn had great games filling in for Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, and was set to be Seattle’s starting quarterback before Russell Wilson stole the job away. Ironically, the same thing happened in Oakland as Terrelle Pryor stole the job, before injuries allowed undrafted rookie, Matt McGloin to step in and start. 

Yes, McKenzie did draft Derek Carr, which some Raiders fans would still hold against him, but he was still the fifth starting quarterback of the McKenzie regime. That didn’t mean McKenzie’s days of missing on quarterbacks was over. 

In 2016, McKenzie selected Connor Cook with the 100th pick in the draft. Cook wasn’t meant to be Carr’s replacement, but perhaps someone that could fill in as a decent backup or be a good trade piece. In his entire time in Oakland, including Oakland’s only playoff game since Super Bowl XXXVII, he barely completed 50% of his passes and threw more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (two). 

If he was a fourth round pick, why does it matter? Most fourth round picks don’t pan out in the NFL, especially at quarterback, right? Well… Dak Prescott was taken with the 135th pick in the very same draft. Sure, the draft is a crapshoot, and many people (myself included) aren’t blown away by Prescott, but… when compared to Connor Cook? McKenzie missed again. 

Defensive Misses

Oakland’s biggest defensive need for years has been inside linebacker. The closest thing the team has had to a consistent inside backer in the last twenty years was Kirk Morrison. Veterans like Navorro Bowman stepped in and performed admirably, but there’s a difference between a decent veteran and someone of Luke Kuechly’s caliber. All the great defenses in NFL history have had outstanding inside linebackers, but despite playing the position himself, McKenzie refused to draft one high.

The highest he ever took an inside linebacker was in 2012, when he selected Miles Burris in the fourth round, and Burris didn’t even make it to the end of his rookie contract before he was released, never to play in the NFL again. McKenzie wouldn’t target linebackers, but he had no problem reaching on raw pass rushers or 

McKenzie took Mack, who has 50.5 sacks in his young, incredible career, but he also selected Jack Crawford, Sio Moore, Mario Edwards, Jihad Ward, Shilique Calhoun, who have a combined 34 sacks in 217 total games. That’s pretty bad, and that’s without reminding you of all the games missed, either because of injury or inability to get on the field. 

McKenzie also tried to bring in a stud pass rusher to play opposite of Mack, swiping Seattle’s Bruce Irvin away back in 2016 on a four year, 34 million dollar deal. He’d have 18 sacks over two and a half years with the team, but even opposite of arguably the NFL’s best defensive player, he never made a meaningful impact and completely disappeared after the Mack trade. 

Enter McKenzie’s Biggest Defensive Error: The Defensive Backs

Reggie McKenzie tried, repeatedly, and failed, consistently, to build a good defensive backfield in Oakland. It’s true, Karl Joseph and Gareon Conley have shown signs of life lately, but the other guys that McKenzie brought it? Yikes is putting it politely. 

McKenzie’s first first round pick as a Raider, D.J. Hayden, was a disaster. Jonathan Dowling, dubbed “Baby Sherman” rarely even saw the field. Obi Melifonwu, a second round pick from two years ago, was cut after failing to figure out the defense, and admittedly, his inability to get on the field. In the draft, the lone bright spot, T.J. Carrie, was solid, but still very unreliable and extremely inconsistent. 

In free agency, it got even worse. David Amerson looked great at first, but once he got a contract extension, he completely fell apart. Reggie Nelson is everyone in Raider Nation’s least favorite Raider. Sean Smith got a ton of money, and maybe it was just Ken Norton Jr. failing to use him properly, but he was a disaster in Oakland. 

The jury is still out on Conley and Joseph, but the best thing McKenzie ever did for Oakland’s secondary was bring in the legendary Charles Woodson, who ended his career as a Raider. As much as everyone loved C-Wood’s second run with the team, and they appreciate McKenzie for facilitating his return, signing a first ballot Hall of Famer isn’t a difficult decision. 

The Ugly Truth

The ugly truth is that this article ends in a cop-out. I definitely spent more time talking about everything that McKenzie did wrong in Oakland, but that’s only because the things McKenzie did well don’t carry the same weight. His ability, and some of his exceptional draft selections were fantastic, and I fear they’ll be missed in Oakland, especially with the influx of draft picks and cap space. 

But as anyone in any position in the NFL can tell you, those initials don’t always stand for National Football League, they often mean Not For Long. John Dorsey, the man who brought Baker Mayfield to Cleveland, was fired. Bill Belichick, a man with five Super Bowl rings, has been fired. Kurt Warner, a Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback, was released. Somewhere, deep in the bayou, a water boy, probably named Bobby Boucher, didn’t properly hydrate a player and lost his job. This is a production based business, and sorry talking heads, McKenzie’s production had been lacking long before Jon Gruden came to town. 

The 2014 Draft and their contribution to the 2016 season made for a great feather in Reggie’s cap, but as the cap began to deteriorate, the feather simply flew away. The narrative that “this team was a piece or two away in 2016” has been debunked (read about it here), and while it’s easy to make this another think Chucky has done wrong, it was inevitable even as Gruden sat in the booth. 

Gruden’s takeover wasn’t necessarily the final nail in the coffin, but it certainly brought his meaningful time in Oakland to an end. Gruden has been the acting general manager since he returned this year, and Reggie has been a class act as he watched the coach tear his hard work apart. 

Long story short, Reggie McKenzie is a good man, and he worked extremely hard for four years to build the Oakland Raiders into a contender. He took some risks, some paid off, some didn’t. He did everything he could to make the franchise relevant, for a brief moment in the sun, he succeeded. Hopefully he lands on his feet (I still think he ends up in Green Bay), and he continues his great work.

Until then, here’s hoping the Raiders can land someone half as good as Reggie when it comes to building contracts. I’d personally love to see Eliot Wolf follow in his father’s footsteps, returning to the Raiders, but more realistically, Mike Holmgren will be reunited with his old assistant coach. 

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