Written by Rhys Robinson
Photography by Gavin McIntyre
Raider Nation, I know times are tough and there may be a crisis of faith. Your days spent defending the last decade, football Sundays spent walking away from the Coliseum in shame, or cursing at the TV.
But better days are ahead.
The last time the Raiders made it to the playoffs was in 2002. Since then, the team has used 15 starting quarterbacks and seven different head coaches to attempt turning things around. But like most problems, the first step in fixing any issue is understanding the problem.
“There is the ridiculous amounts of money that has been shelled out to certain players,” says NFL reporter Jason Leskiw. “Darrius Heyward-Bey was given a $40.9 million rookie contract with more than half guaranteed. Rolando McClain and JaMarcus Russell were another pair of players in the same boat. Al Davis was a fiercely-loyal person. Something that’s usually a good thing, but it can be catastrophic in the NFL.”
The Al Davis era was riddled with front office mistakes that left the Raiders in terrible shape after his passing in 2011. Their track record of first-round picks since 2004 is horrendous, and is highlighted by such busts as Robert Gallery (second overall), JaMarcus Russell (first), Darrius Heyward-Bey (seventh, and taken before 49ers star wide receiver Michael Crabtree), and Rolando McClain (eighth).
In addition, the team has hurt itself by acquiring players via trade who were past their primes rather than using the draft to collect young, cheap labor. Both Carson Palmer and Richard Seymour were traded to Oakland in exchange for first-round draft picks. The Patriots—trade partners in the Seymour deal—used their pick to select tackle Nate Solder, who has quickly established himself as one of the premier young lineman in the NFL. The Bengals, who received a second-round pick in addition to the first-round pick, selected cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and running back Giovani Bernard.
Neither Palmer nor Seymour is still with the team. They were let go as part of new Raiders General Manager Reggie McKenzie’s purge on overpaid contracts.
“I’m optimistic about the future. But as far as the direction the team is going, it’s kind of in limbo for me right now,” says former Raiders strike player Stephen Johnson. “The NFL stands for Not For Long, and if any winning doesn’t start happening this year, then I’d look for a coaching change.”
But it’s hard to win without talent. Head coach Dennis Allen was hired before the 2012 season. He subsequently inherited an aging roster lacking secondary depth and marred with swirling legal issues. Now he’s being asked to win with a depleted roster—a necessary, yet trying step in revitalizing the team.
McKenzie, who was hired out of Green Bay where he mentored under Packers GM Ted Thompson, has released several veterans to free up salary cap space for the future. His philosophy is simple: Build from within.
“I really like what McKenzie has done,” says Leskiw. “It’s really unorthodox and a large departure from the Raiders as we’ve come to know them. But by releasing the big money players, he’s sped up the rebuild in a major way.”
The guaranteed money remaining on the contracts McKenzie terminated was accelerated and used as dead money against the salary cap for this season. After unloading the crippling contracts of players like Seymour, Palmer, Heyward-Bey, and McClain, the team accumulated over $50 million in dead money, and was unable to re-sign promising young players like Phillip Wheeler, Desmond Bryant and Brandon Myers.
The team enters the 2013-14 NFL season with roughly 38 percent of their salary cap devoted to this dead money. After releasing most of their standout veterans, and with only a $69 million roster (nearly half what other teams have shelled out), the Raiders will find themselves outgunned and overmatched in most contests this year. But it’s all part of McKenzie’s plan.
“[McKenzie] should be able to take the Raiders into the postseason,” says Leskiw. ”And there’s a solid possibility it could happen during the 2014 season.”
Next year the Raiders are projected to have over $60 million in salary cap space—an unprecedented number that trumps every other team and could make them big players in free agency. With so much money at their disposal, it will be interesting to see whom they decide to target.
“It’s hard to say, but there are several players who should look interesting,” says Leskiw. “But I expect the team to enter into a more frugal spending path rather than attempting to sign the bigger names. The most successful franchises use the smaller named players and the draft to build super-teams.”
The lack of talent on the current roster may also be a ploy by the McKenzie regime to solidify a high draft position. NFL Draft experts are salivating over once-in-a-decade defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who is projected to be the No.1 overall pick in the 2014 draft and the type of player a team can build a franchise around. But with so many glaring holes on the team, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which position they’ll target.
Nevertheless, with several unjustifiable contracts now off the books, the most projected salary cap space in 2014 and a potential top-ten pick in next year’s draft, brighter days are ahead for the Black Hole Faithful. It just won’t be for another year.