More trouble brewing for Raiders? NFL has concerns

Oakland Raiders

The fiasco that has put the Raiders back in Oakland for the 2019 season has exposed a deeper issue about how the team is managed.

NFL teams aren’t supposed to slink back into a hole.

Especially not the Raiders. And not even back to the Black Hole.

But as negotiations with the City of Oakland concluded on a lease to play the 2019 season in the outdated Coliseum (and perhaps 2020, if necessary), there is renewed concern among NFL people. One of the most storied teams in league history may not have an essential ingredient to real long-term success in its new home of Las Vegas.

A plan to handle the details. While there is no question that owner Mark Davis pulled off an extraordinary feat to get so much funding from Las Vegas for a new stadium, there are still details to be dealt with. Thousands of little details ranging from whether the team is any good to how money is spent. How the Raiders have reacted to being sued by Oakland is an indication.

In December, Davis reacted with near surprise that the city filed an anti-trust claim. He then publicly said he didn’t want to fund his own lawsuit (which he technically wouldn’t be if he had understood the lawsuit) and had his team opt out of a lease to play the 2019 season in Oakland.

The Raiders then searched for a temporary home, getting invites from San Antonio, Phoenix and San Diego. They then held extensive talks with San Francisco about playing in the city. When it was all done, the Raiders came up empty and went back to Oakland, accepting a lease that will more than double their rent ($7.5 million for 2019) and perhaps triple it ($10.5 million) in 2020 if the Vegas stadium isn’t ready.

At issue is not the result. At issue is the lack of a plan. Despite Davis’ shock and dismay at getting sued, he should have felt neither. The city had been discussing this lawsuit since before the start of the 2018 season. It was well known that a local citizens group was pushing Oakland politicians hard to file the suit. Even if the Raiders thought it wouldn’t happen, they should have been prepared for it in the view of other NFL owners.

Instead, Davis and the Raiders went through an embarrassing scramble that was ultimately a waste of time. They got outplayed by the 49ers because Davis refused to engage with fellow owner Jed York, knocking out a chance to play at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara or at Oracle Park in San Francisco.

In many ways, this is the way the Raiders have been handling business for years. In 2012, when Davis hired former Green Bay scout Reggie McKenzie as his general manager, he did that after consulting with former Raiders executive Ron Wolf.  What league insiders felt at the time is that Wolf pushed McKenzie on Davis so that Wolf’s son, Eliot, could get a promotion in Green Bay.

McKenzie did an uneven job as a GM. While he drafted the likes of Khalil Mack, Amari Cooper and Derek Carr, many of his other picks flopped. Still, Davis thought enough of McKenzie to give him a four-year contract extension before the 2016 season. McKenzie was then neutered and eventually fired less than two years later when Jon Gruden was hired as the head coach.

Likewise, Davis’ coaching hires have been odd. Dennis Allen got the job in 2012 when most people thought Allen was in over his skis. Jack Del Rio was hired in 2015, did well enough in his first two years that Davis gave him a four-year contract extension before the 2017 season. By the end of that season, Del Rio was gone in favor of Gruden.

And that says nothing of the Gruden contract fiasco. The 10-year, $100 million contract that Davis gave Gruden changed the entire power structure of the Raiders. Gruden is the most powerful man in the organization right now. Yes, he’s more powerful than Davis because firing Gruden at this point would not only be expensive, it would be a PR nightmare for Davis. Gruden likely has another five years of job security before firing him would become palatable.

Not that Gruden should be fired yet. The point is only that he can’t and he knows it. This organization now belongs to Gruden. He gets what he wants. When he couldn’t find a way to work with either Mack or Cooper, those players were gone. When he wanted McKenzie out, the GM was gone. When he wanted to hire Mike Mayock – a very smart man with no executive experience – Gruden did it.

Now, that may work out. However, the first season under Gruden was a 4-12 flop that put the Raiders in full rebuild mode. While they have three first-round picks this year and two more next year, there is a good chance that they will be headed to their new home in Vegas as a team coming off two bad seasons.

In large part, that’s because Gruden was making up the plan as he went along. When he couldn’t sign Mack to a contract, he changed direction. Same with Cooper. The problem is that Gruden (and really Davis) should have known all along whether the Raiders were going to be able to re-sign those guys.

Just like the Raiders should have known that Oakland was going to sue them. There should have been a plan in place. There wasn’t and now the Raiders are trying to figure it out on the fly.

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