Draft vitally important as McKenzie tries to rebuild Raiders
NFL insiders believe general manager needs time fix mess he inherited
Published: Saturday, April 20, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 20, 2013 at 10:20 p.m.
Reggie McKenzie has been Raiders general manager for just 15½ months. He has never had the authority to make a first-round NFL draft pick, or even a second-rounder.
So is it too soon to call the 2013 draft a defining moment for the soft-spoken former NFL linebacker?
Not necessarily. This is, after all, the National Football League, where patience is measured in minutes and loyalty is as rare as a fullback who carries the ball.
“Well, it’s the start of a new regime, and the first step on the road, hopefully, to championship football,” said Bill Polian, the long time Bills and Colts GM who now does studio analysis for ESPN. “Last year was a situation where he had to come in and essentially dismantle an organization that had fallen on awfully hard times. He was hamstrung by the (salary) cap and by the number of choices he had. He did the best he could.”
Indeed, just about everyone would give McKenzie a pass for the Raiders’ 4-12 season in 2012. Backed into a financial corner — the Raiders were $31 million over the cap — he couldn’t afford any prominent free agents. And the wheeling and dealing of late owner Al Davis and former coach Hue Jackson had left Oakland without a draft pick until No. 95 overall, deep into the third round.
This offseason is different. The Raiders still don’t have a lot of spending money, and their modest free-agency activity reflects that. But they own the third overall pick in the draft, a selection that will help to shape McKenzie’s tenure with the team.
Matt Millen, for one, downplays the importance of this one draft on McKenzie’s reputation. Millen played alongside McKenzie for four seasons with the Los Angeles Raiders and later served as general manager of the Detroit Lions for seven-plus years.
“Once you get a coach in, you have get the kind of people to fit the kind of schemes you want to run. That usually takes three years,” Millen said. “Also — and this part is kind of untalked-about — it usually takes a good three years to get your staff right. I told Reggie all that. Coach (John) Madden told me that years ago. This draft is, while pivotal, and it will be part of his base there, still not a defining one.”
The big question is whether current Raiders owner Mark Davis shares Millen’s longsighted view. Davis suggested as much in the current issue of Sports Illustrated.
“Reggie’s my guy,” he is quoted as saying. “He did inherit a mess, and he’s still cleaning. I can be patient with him. I’m giving him the whole shot.”
Davis did not sound as placid last Nov. 18, after his team had lost to the Saints 38-17 to fall to 3-7. Standing in the Raiders locker room after that game, Davis said: “I’m patient. But I want to see progress. I don’t want to see regression. Nobody does. And that’s why I’m unhappy today.”
That’s more like what we’ve come to expect in the NFL, the capital of What Have You Done for Me Lately.
“It’s very extreme now,” Polian said. “I think that’s because of the advent of the Internet and talk radio in the last eight or 10 years, all those things that exacerbate the noise — and much of it uninformed. Owners react to that. People in the league office react to that. So it’s hard to create a blueprint and build and grow in this kind of atmosphere.”
McKenzie has dramatically reshaped the Raiders roster during his short time in Oakland, signing, drafting or trading for 43 of the 61 players now on the team.
His willingness to release established starters — the list includes cornerback Stanford Routt, tight end Kevin Boss, linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, safety Michael Huff and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly — has drawn praise around the league. So has his preference for high-character guys over the raw athletes cultivated by previous owner Al Davis, as well as his calm demeanor.
“I think there’s no doubt that it helps to have somebody that can keep their cool in different situations, and really having a guy that’s not gonna be swayed by maybe public opinion or a lot of outside sources,” Raiders coach Dennis Allen said. “He’s got a plan, what he wants to do and how he wants to do it. ... And I think anytime you get a guy that’s that rock-solid at the top, that isn’t gonna be swayed, I think that’s a positive for your organization.”
McKenzie spent 18 years with the Packers, contributing to consistently productive drafts throughout his tenure, and to two Super Bowl victories. But while he worked his way up to pro personnel director there, he never had full control of roster decisions before Mark Davis hired him in January of 2012 to be the Raiders’ first true general manager in decades.
And only now is McKenzie getting the chance to prove his ability to judge talent by making a high pick.
His decision will greatly affect his short-term future — and the Raiders’.
Davis knows that, just as he knows the hurdles McKenzie faced when he took the job.
“Mark is competitive. Mark wants to win,” said Millen, who knows Davis well from his time with the Raiders. “He’s been around world champions. But he knows it’s like, ‘Here’s a ’57 Chevy. Once we get it up and running, it’ll look fantastic. But we’ve got a ways to go.’ ”
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