Basketball legend Charles Barkley once famously said that sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is a train. For many Oakland Raiders’ fans, that’s what seeing the team’s 2014 regular season schedule felt like.
During the last two years, General Manager Reggie McKenzie has stripped the Raiders down to what looks like an expansion team, repairing the salary cap and lopsided contract damage Al Davis created during his final years as the team’s sole decision maker. What was fielded in 2012 and 2013 was a mish-mash collection of castaways, practice squad guys, undrafted rookies and aging vets that other teams didn’t want. The results on the field corresponded with this collection of players posting back-to-back 4-12 seasons… but it had to be done and Raiders’ fans suffered through it because they saw the light at the end of the tunnel headed into 2014. The team had $69 million in salary cap space, a clean slate, draft picks and the money to get some key acquisitions. For the first time, in a long time, the Raiders started to look like a team that not only would be competitive on the field, but functional in the front office as well: The two things that separate the dynasties from the perennial strugglers.
Then the Raiders 2014 schedule was released. What was scheduled looked like the “who’s who” of last year’s playoffs, conference championships and the Super Bowl. The Raiders, statistically, have the hardest schedule in the NFL… for a team in a delicate state of the rebuilding process this “wrench in the game” may set the team back if the season goes poorly, and that dominoes into firings.
Oakland Raiders’ owner Mark Davis has said the deconstruction of the Oakland Raiders is complete and there are no more built-in excuses for losing, something that has rattled some fans because of the 2014 schedule. The questions remain: What is a successful season for the Oakland Raiders in Mark Davis’ mind and what are the long-term repercussions of a regime overhaul if the Raiders fail to win enough games to satisfy Davis? Is a straight win/loss form of evaluation going to be the determining factor for McKenzie and Head Coach Dennis Allen, or do the Raiders have, at least, a little “built-in” excuse?
One of the most important parts of the rebuilding process is creating stability in the coaching ranks. If the Raiders do not win and Davis fails to take strength of schedule into account, ultimately firing his regime, the consequences could follow the Raiders for years. The immediate impact this would have on the team in the middle of the rebuilding process could be substantial. The team is just getting over the hump, but is not out of the woods. Firings also would perpetuate the stigma that the Raiders’ head coaching job is a short-term, career-damaging pit. This notion about the Raiders has to change.
The Raiders ability to not just create, but show the football world, that stability at the head coaching position is a top priority is one of the most important parts of the rebuilding process. That stability will change the perception of the team to the outside world, and drastically change the culture within the locker room.
Under Al Davis, coaches didn’t last long, especially after Art Shell was first fired following the 1994 season. From 1995 through today, the Raiders have had 10 head coaches, with the longest tenure being Jon Gruden from 1998 – 2001. The reality is Al Davis’ revolving door of coaches damaged the team’s ability to recruit top coaches and, in turn, top players. Who really wanted to work under Al Davis and which players wanted to come to a place where they would play for a new coach every year?
Since Allen took the head coaching job, Raiders’ fans have been expecting the gauntlet to drop on him. Why wouldn’t they, especially after the first 4-12 season? That’s what Raiders’ fans have come to expect. That anticipation turned into shock after the second 4-12 season as Allen stayed in place, despite media claiming his days were numbered followed by fan pressure to get rid of Allen. Throughout this whole process, Mark Davis has shown that he is not his father. Not only did Allen and McKenzie stay in place, Mark Davis cemented his commitment to his GM and head coach by saying that the only people who ever replaced Allen as head coach of the Raiders was the media.
This 2014 season looks daunting, but the Raiders also have a much better team with key acquisitions and a good draft. I’m not being pessimistic, but rather being realistic. Every snap will count. The ability to win is one thing, but the ability to compete at a high level against the best NFL teams is another. Progress will have to be made this year, but how many nuances outside of straight win/loss percentages will Mark Davis take into consideration? Mark Davis will have to balance this out and weigh the potential positives and potential set-backs of firing his regime if the team again struggles to win.
For the Raiders, firing a coach is more than just getting rid of someone that isn’t working out and bringing in another guy to take over. Considering the history of the Raiders, the message firing the head coach will send to the football world and to the players in the locker room is drastically different than every other NFL team. In Oakland, firing coaches is not just about replacing an ineffective regime… it’s an identity issue with the Oakland Raiders that will continue to follow them. Other teams can hire and fire and it’s nothing more than hiring and firing… unfortunately for the Raiders, they do not have that luxury.