In November 2014, the Oakland Raiders were 0-10. The franchise had just drafted two rookies they hoped could be cornerstones of the once-proud organization, edge rusher Khalil Mack (5th overall) and QB Derek Carr (36th overall), but the uphill climb was steep.
The Raiders finished 3-13.
But only two years after the 0-10 start, the Raiders opened 2016 with a 10-2 start, were headed toward the 2nd seed in the AFC until Derek Carr went down with a broken leg in Week 16, extinguishing any Super Bowl hopes.
How’d they turn things around so quickly?
One name was more important than any: General Manager Reggie McKenzie.
After spending 18 years in Green Bay, going from scout to director of player personnel, learning from the great Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson, McKenzie was given the GM job in Oakland. Two other prominent NFL GMs came from the Wolf/Thompson regime: John Schneider (Seattle) and John Dorsey (Kansas City).
In four years, McKenzie took the Raiders from a laughingstock to an AFC contender. Hopefully, Woody Johnson and the Jets have been paying attention. If they haven’t, this should help: The Jets have to bottom out. You can’t expunge bad contracts and turn over a bad roster overnight. Here’s how McKenzie did it in Oakland.
The Raiders hadn’t reached the playoffs since 2002, when they got to the Super Bowl and were thumped by former coach Jon Gruden and Tampa, 48-21. After that, there were a flurry of Top 10 busts (Robert Gallery, #2 in 2004; JaMarcus Russell #1 in 2007; Darrius Heyward-Bey #7 in 2009; Rolando McClain #8 in 2010) and 12 consecutive years of .500 or below records.
When McKenzie was hired by the Raiders in 2012, he actually didn’t do much outside of fire the coach (Hue Jackson). McKenzie was hamstrung by bad contracts and bad players, which is something the Jets are going to have to deal with. Who deals with that – Mike Maccagnan, the current GM, or somebody new – is the real question.
McKenzie’s big year was 2013. He decided to absorb a brutal cap hit by cutting Richard Seymour, a move that looked awful in the short term, but was essential in the long term.
There is a bad long term contract on the Jets roster, a once-talented player who just isn’t very good anymore. That player is Darrelle Revis. Seymour was good for the Raiders, but it’s not like they drafted him and he was one of the best players in franchise history. But it’s not personal, it’s business. The Jets should cut Revis.
McKenzie made three other harsh decisions in 2013: three first round picks were jettisoned (McClain, Heyward-Bey, Michael Huff). Quarterback Carson Palmer, who was 33 and coming off two average-at-best seasons, was traded for almost nothing.
But 2014 is when it all came together, first in free agency, then the draft. The Raiders knew they were targeting a QB in the draft, and McKenzie made two significant moves to protect the QB they were about to get: Signing two tackles, Austin Howard (5-years, $30 million) and Donald Penn (2-years, $9.6 million; he got a new deal in 2016).
[Aside: Hindsight is always hilarious – the Raiders were initially mocked for losing their top three free agents. And before getting Howard and Penn, McKenzie tried to overpay for Rodger Saffold. But as luck would have it, Saffold failed his physical.]
Two months later, McKenzie’s draft haul could go down as one of the best in franchise history: His first three picks became starters, and two of them are bona fide stars (Mack and Carr).
In 2015, McKenzie kept building the offensive line, signing free agent center Rodney Hudson (5-years, $33 million). The full offensive line rebuild was complete in 2016 when McKenzie lavished Kelechi Osemele with 5 years and $60 million to steal him from Baltimore. In just three years, McKenzie re-built the offensive line. Look at the payoff:
Derek Carr games/pass attempts/times sacked
2015 16 games, 573 pass attempts, 31 sacks
2016 15 games, 560 pass attempts, 16 sacks (league low)
The Jets are dangerously close to being in the same situation. Pro Football Focus rated the Jets offensive line 28th entering Week 11. Center Nick Mangold (32 years old) and guard James Carpenter are the only keepers.
The tackle spots have been the real problem on this line, though, with Ryan Clady, Ben Ijalana, and Breno Giacomini combining to surrender 11 sacks and 74 total QB pressures on the season, with 10 penalties thrown in as well.
It’s going to get worse before it gets better. To free up money to go after offensive linemen, they’re going to have to make some deep cuts. I use “deep” because the Jets are going to probably have to overpay some lineman, as the Raiders did. The Jets are a bad franchise, going nowhere, in one of the most expensive cities in the country.
I’m as big a Brandon Marshall fan as anyone, but you can save good money getting rid of him. Play the young guys (Devin Smith, Robby Anderson, Jalin Marshall, Quincy Enunwa). If the Raiders can deal away Carson Palmer for peanuts just to move on, why can’t the Jets just trade Sheldon Richardson for anything?
You can take a look at the 2017 cap. David Harris: Nice middle linebacker, but he’s 33 and is getting paid a ton.
If you have a stomach for the rebuild – and you should, as there are no silver bullets here -no band-aids are going to close these gaping holes. Next year won’t be pretty. And maybe 2018 won’t be, either. But the Raiders are doing it the right way, and the Jets should follow their lead.