Reggie McKenzie

Raiders of this decade: Seven moments that defined 2010s for Oakland

Raiders of this decade: Seven moments that defined 2010s for Oakland

I showed up for my first game as Raiders insider sporting a brand-new suit, a poorly knotted tie and a notable spring in my step. I was far too early for this preseason affair, so I waltzed through security and headed for the press-box elevator.

Tap, tap, tap went the “Up” button. A light came on, but the car never came.

Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap.

Nothing

I was left to zig-zag my way through an Oakland Coliseum concourse, up a stair well and through a back door to reach the press box. At least that’s how I remember it. It was six-plus seasons ago now, when I was charged to cover the Silver and Black during a deconstruction phase in the years following Al Davis’ death.

I reached the press box, surveyed the aging stadium’s outdated features, shook my head, and went immediately to Twitter and made a wisecrack about the elevator not working.

The replies were all the same. No duh. No surprise. Didn’t you know this stadium stinks?

One Raiders employee (Hi, Jerry Knaack!!) named me the elevator monitor that day, and didn’t let me live it down for years. I learned two things from that 2013 evening at the Coliseum: 1. No way the Raiders’ run there would be a long-term engagement. … and … 2. I was in line to watch a lot of bad football.

Those things, more than anything else, defined a Raiders decade dominated by great change and a terrible on-field product.

Al Davis’ death changed everything

As the article’s introduction states, I was not covering the Raiders when Al Davis died on Oct. 8, 2011. He was 82 years old, a true titan and the lifeblood of the Raiders' organization. I never met the man who turned a starving team into a three-time Super Bowl champion and one of the AFL and NFL’s greatest teams. That’s a disappointment of the highest order, even if he disdained the fourth estate.

This is a personal account of the Raiders' decade, but Ignoring this pivotal moment is impossible. It has impacted everything after.

Davis was everything to this organization. That was well described in this quote pulled from the San Francisco Chronicle relaying what Davis told defensive lineman Tom Keating after arriving in a trade from Buffalo.

"Young man, let there be no mistake about this -- I do everything here,” Davis said. “I hire people and I fire people, and I decide how many wastebaskets we'll have in this office."

Deconstruction, reconstruction and other excuses for poor play

Al’s death obviously left a void. A black hole, to be more accurate and apt.

I came to cover this team after Davis had passed, after Mark Davis took control of the team, after general manager Reggie McKenzie was hired to handle post-Al Davis personnel decisions, and after Dennis Allen replaced Hue Jackson as head coach.

McKenzie inherited a terrible situation, with the Raiders in salary-cap hell and no early first-round draft picks to start rebuilding the old-fashioned way. He made a lot of tough cuts to get right with the cap, at the expense of the on-field product.

Mark Davis called that the deconstruction phase, a fancy term to make awful football more palatable and keep butts in the seats. It was synonymous to the 76ers’ “trust the process,” a promise that better was ahead of all this bad.

That lead to the reconstruction phase and McKenzie’s defining moment …

Reggie’s signature draft

McKenzie couldn’t believe his luck. The Bills had selected wide receiver Sammy Watkins No. 4 overall in the 2014 NFL Draft, over the dominant edge rusher from their local college. Crossed fingers turned to cheering without restraint, making the Raiders' next move a literal no-brainer.

With the No. 5 pick in the NFL draft, the Raiders select … Khalil Mack, University of Buffalo. More cheers. More astonishment. More of a belief that better times were coming.

That sentiment continued the next day when the Raiders stole Derek Carr at No. 36 and Gabe Jackson at No. 81. McKenzie took an elite pass rusher, a franchise quarterback and a road-grading interior lineman with three consecutive picks.

McKenzie filled out the class with two more impact rookies, but things didn’t turn around until …

The Sio sack dance

I’ve never seen Justin Tuck so pissed. The veteran defensive lineman has some intimidating qualities, but he’s too cordial and cerebral to seriously scare. I was in the postgame locker room when Tuck said he was “ready to fight” Sio Moore and Mack for celebrating a sack 15-ish yards behind the play, while the Kansas City Chiefs were trying to orchestrate a comeback drive.

Tuck was not lying.

The 2014 Raiders were, after all, less than a minute away from snapping a 10-game losing streak. Allen had been fired after four losses. Tony Sparano buried a football in a failed attempt to exorcise some demons.

Nothing stopped the skid until Carr threw James Jones a touchdown for the first of his 18 career fourth-quarter comebacks, and the defense made it stand despite the instantly infamous Sio sack dance. Tuck and Charles Woodson still were so mad at their young teammates post-game that they had to remind them the fight over a boneheaded loss would’ve been real.

“I’ve been in this league for 10 years,” Tuck said. “C-Wood has been in this league 18 years. We’ve never seen anything like that. Ever. You know how you say, ‘I’ve seen it all’? I’ll never say that again.”

That started a solid finish to the year. The Raiders started 0-10 and wrapped 3-3, beginning an ascent that led to the best year of this decade.

Scared to death

I played a part in NBC Sports Bay Area’s now-defunct Raiders Postgame show, which aired right after each game. I had to be on the air shortly after the final whistle, opening the show with a news update on the game that had just finished.

They often occurred while players and fans were rushing through the tunnel, leading to some interesting exchanges while I was on the air. I once got mugged by someone dressed as Santa Claus while doing a report at the Coliseum. I was live in Tennessee, right next to Nissan Stadium’s visiting locker room, when then-Raiders offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave hit me in the crotch with a play-calling card while I was answering a question.

[RELATED: Mark Davis reflects on Oakland era]

Those incidents paled in comparison to what happened in San Diego, circa 2016.

The Raiders had just clinched their first playoff berth since 2003 after beating the Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. I was prepping for my report when Donald Penn came up and scared me to death, celebrating into the camera. (Check my Twitter avatar for proof.) Then Menelik Watson gave me a bear hug that I didn’t expect just moments from me going on air.

That’s how pumped the Raiders were to make the playoffs that year. Things went downhill from there, though, with MVP candidate Carr breaking his ankle, Penn busting up his knee and the Raiders being bounced from the playoffs while using a third-string quarterback.

The 12-4 season was loaded with dramatic affairs and stellar play from Carr, Mack and an awesome offensive line, and seemed to suggest good times to come. It didn’t last, but an old favorite brought renewed optimism to the end of this decade.

The return of Chucky

I ran into Mark Davis at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott the night before the Raiders’ 2017 regular-season finale. Reports swarmed that Jon Gruden was set to leave the ESPN broadcast booth and return to the Raiders' sideline. I asked Davis about that prospect then, well before he was comfortable publicly addressing the issue.

“Those rumors come about every year,” Davis said.

Gruden also was ducking and dodging them. This time, they were real.

Davis fired Jack Del Rio in a tunnel of the then-Home Depot Center, and the dismissed coach announced his own firing in a press conference a few minutes later.

Gruden formally came aboard the following week in a press-conference spectacle with most every living Raiders legend in attendance. It was a true Raiders spring in the dead of winter, an attempted renewal of a bygone era when the Silver and Black were both feared and respected.

Gruden has made several controversial moves since trying to re-establish a foundation for sustained success, with the Mack and Antonio Brown trades, to name but a few. The Raiders have made significant progress building up after Gruden tore it all down, thanks to an awesome 2019 draft class that has helped create faint playoff hopes and a bright future in another location.

The longest goodbye

The Raiders tried and failed to find a building in Oakland. Mark Davis needed help that he never got from the city or Alameda County. He never was interested in input from Floyd Kephart or Ronnie Lott or others with pie-in-the-sky stadium plans.

He tried to leave for Los Angeles with the Chargers in 2016, but ended up “third in a three-horse race,” with the Rams, and eventually the Bolts headed to L.A.

Davis never wavered in his desire to secure a permanent stadium throughout the second half of this decade, securing a sweetheart deal in Nevada to build a venue off the Las Vegas Strip. Allegiant Stadium is nearly done now, with the Raiders set to move there in 2020.

The Raiders hosted their last final game at Oakland Coliseum a few weeks back -- they had one in 2015 that doubled as Woodson’s retirement ceremony, and another last year when Carr and Gruden took a victory lap following a win -- and it ended with anger.

Oakland Raiders fans planned to party ‘til the beer ran out, but after a humiliating loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, they sent water bottles and a perfectly good plate of nachos onto the Coliseum turf in disgust.

The Raiders will spend what’s left of 2019 and the 2020 offseason here, but they're moving on from the market. Despite leaving it twice, the East Bay always will hold a vital place in their history.

“The Raiders were born in Oakland,” Davis told our Monte Poole before the Coliseum finale. “Oakland will always be part of our DNA. There’s no doubt about that.”

NFL rumors: Ex-Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie joins Dolphins

NFL rumors: Ex-Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie joins Dolphins

Former Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie didn’t take long to find a new gig.

The Silver and Black fired him the evening of Dec. 9, following a victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. McKenzie didn’t mesh well enough with new coach/football chief Jon Gruden to stick around and chose to bow out before the season’s end despite an offer to finish the year.

McKenzie has a new team and a new title roughly two months later. He was hired as Miami Dolphins senior personnel executive, according to several reports out of South Florida on Saturday afternoon.

McKenzie will work with Dolphins general manager Chris Grier, trying to rebuild a downtrodden Dolphins franchise that recently named Brian Flores its new coach.

McKenzie didn’t need a new job right away. His Raiders contract was fully guaranteed, meaning he would be paid through its expiration after the 2021 draft.

McKenzie hasn’t had an employment lapse in decades after six-plus years as Raiders GM and more than two decades working in the Green Bay Packers’ front office.

The 2016 NFL Executive of the Year helped get the Raiders right with the salary cap and snap a prolonged playoff drought in 2016. That was due in larger part to his signature 2014 draft class, where he added edge rusher Khalil Mack, quarterback Derek Carr and guard Gabe Jackson with his first three picks.

[RELATED: How Mike Mayock will approach draft]

While McKenzie made some higher-round mistakes in the draft, he found quality in the first round most years but struggle to flesh out the roster appropriately.

Now he’ll try to do better with the Dolphins, who need some serious talent upgrades to compete in the AFC.

With no playoffs for Raiders, a timeline of how the 2018 season fell apart

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AP

With no playoffs for Raiders, a timeline of how the 2018 season fell apart

We’ve finally reached the Raiders offseason, bringing a tortuous period to a close where Jon Gruden tore his roster down to the studs. The team finished 4-12, with far less talent than it had this time a year ago. The Raiders weren’t any good, but could’ve been better without several setbacks over the course of the season itself. There were some contributing incidents that took place during the offseason, but will start in training camp and work our way forward in a timeline of where things went south for the Silver and Black in 2018:

July 29: Raiders veterans report to training camp in Napa, but edge rusher Khalil Mack refused to do so without a new contract. The All-Pro was looking for a market-resetting deal for defensive players, and didn’t want to risk injury in football-related activities without long-term security. This prolonged Mack’s absence, which began by skipping the offseason program. There was tension between Mack’s camp and the Raiders, which would only escalate as time advanced.

Aug. 15: Jon Gruden calls Martavis Bryant the “white tiger,” referring to immense talent rarely on display after the receiver missed several camp practices battling migrane headaches. Bryant was also chided for not picking up the offensive system quickly, foreshadowing a messy relationship between player and team.

He was subsequently cut before the regular season and signed shortly thereafter. He was never a consistent target before ending up on injured reserve. He was there when the NFL banned him for violating conditions of his reinstatement following a suspension under the substance abuse policy.

That ended Bryant’s tenure with the team, making the third-round pick the Raiders traded to Pittsburgh for him a complete waste.

Sept. 1: Mack was traded to Chicago for a compensation package that included two first-round picks, though a second-rounder was shockingly given back to the Bears.

The season hinged on this trade, when optimism went out the window and Gruden started a roster teardown to acquire tools necessary for a full-scale roster rebuild this offseason. It was controversial -- many say ill-advised, even with a long holdout possible. The timing was odd, considering the Bears’ draft slot was a variable. That has proved to be a major flaw in the deal, with Mack making the Bears so good the 2019 first-round pick will fall near the bottom.

Sept. 19: Gruden and the Raiders tried to put the Mack trade in the past quickly, though his nationally-televised performances made that hard to do. Gruden didn’t help matters by saying, “pass rushers are hard to find.” That was played on loops across the country, reminding everyone the Raiders traded an elite pass rusher before the regular season began. The Mack trade was an overarching theme that hung over the season, and will until the Raiders start using the draft picks acquired for him to improve the roster.

Sept. 30: Donald Penn suffered a season-ending groin injury that thrust third-round pick Brandon Parker into the starting lineup at right tackle. Parker wasn’t all bad, but protection was an issue that wouldn’t have been as big if Penn were available all year, even at a new position.

Oct. 14: Marshawn Lynch was the team’s best offensive player early this season, and a leader on the field with his aggressive rushing style. His loss due to injury sent the offense into a bad place, struggling for first downs and touchdowns alike. This was a big blow to an offense that lost direction after Lynch went down.

Oct. 16: Derrick Johnson wasn’t used much and was given his release, a sign that some of the aging veterans signed in free agency weren’t going to work out. That left the Raiders to play young kids at key spots and let them grow up on the job.

Oct. 22 A.M.: Amari Cooper was traded to Dallas for a first-round pick, furthering the belief that Gruden was in the midst of a full-scale teardown and a pervading, though inaccurate theory that the Raiders were tanking.

The Raiders got great value for Cooper, a dynamic talent who can blow up at times and disappear at others. He would’ve cost a pretty penny when eligible for an extension, maybe more than he was worth. The Raiders cut bait when a first-round pick was offered. The Raiders got another top draft slot, and the Cowboys got a player who led them to the NFC East title. That’s a virtual win-win, though the Raiders were slammed for trading yet another superstar.

Oct. 22 P.M.: The Cooper trade went over like a lead balloon, and was followed with reports that quarterback Derek Carr had lost parts of the locker room and that Gruden’s moves had frustrated veteran portions of the roster. It was yet another distraction weighing the midseason down, forcing tight end Lee Smith to come to Carr’s defense. Gruden’s plan and the face of the Raiders' franchise were under siege at this point, and it would get worse before things got better.

Oct. 30 A.M.: Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie retired, becoming an example of veteran frustration with the Raiders and their direction under Jon Gruden. This 1-6 team was in the midst of a teardown and suddenly skewing younger, with many veterans disenchanted with Gruden’s vision for the season.

Oct. 30: The NFL trade deadline passed without any more Raiders shipped out, despite Karl Joseph and Gareon Conley reportedly on the block late in the trading window.

The Raiders tried to move Bruce Irvin and couldn’t do it, upsetting a veteran who was clearly being phased out of the Raiders plans.

Nov. 1: The Raiders reached rock bottom against the geographic rival 49ers on national television. They got beat in every way by a crappy team starting undrafted former practice squad quarterback Nick Mullens for the first time. He carved the Raiders up, and the 49ers run game ate the Raiders alive.

There were rational questions about whether players had given up, disproven only by improved effort in later games.

Nov. 3: Irvin wasn’t happy about a lack of playing time in recent games, and was finally waived when he couldn’t be traded. He ended up signing with his hometown Atlanta Falcons, and threw shade on his former team by saying, “I’m free!!” upon joining his first Falcons practice.

Nov. 11: The Raiders lost their fifth straight game by at least 14 points, a franchise record that was one short of the longest lopsided-loss stretch in NFL history. This was the toughest on-field sequence, including three games in which the offense failed to score a touchdown.

Dec. 10: Owner Mark Davis fired Reggie McKenzie with three games left in the season when the longtime GM decided to walk rather than finish out the season as a lame duck. Gruden made criticizing McKenzie’s draft picks a regular thing over the course of the season. He wasn’t often wrong about a lack of production from three classes starting in 2015, but it portended a Gruden-McKenzie fracture at season’s end. This breakup came as no surprise. Davis hoped Gruden and McKenzie could work together, but that didn’t pan out, and the Raiders have now replaced him with former NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. Letting McKenzie walk was the final end of the previous era, and the new one is completely under Gruden’s control.

[RELATED: Report: Raiders to hire former Colts GM to support Mayock]

Dec. 11: The hits just kept on coming for the Silver and Black. The City of Oakland sued the Raiders and the NFL for antitrust violations and breach of contract, which prompted the Raiders to pull their lease offer to play the 2019 season at Oakland Coliseum. The Raiders are still looking for a place to play this fall.

Dec. 24: The Raiders finally had a good night at the office, beating Denver in what may have been their last game at Oakland Coliseum. The crowd was into it and partying well after the final whistle. Carr had a great night, and the Raiders defense played its best game all year. If it was the last game at the aging stadium, the Raiders sent it out right.