Raiders go all in to win now

This is my Friday column on the Raiders. 49ers fans — feel free to skip this.

I wrote off the Raiders 15 minutes after free agency began, wrote them off as soon as general manager Reggie McKenzie let franchise left tackle, Jared Veldheer, sign with the Cardinals. The Raiders will be lucky to win five games next season, I wrote.

Since then, the Raiders have signed 11 new starters. All but one are older than 28. McKenzie is building a win-now team. Think about that. He is not building for the long term. He wants to win now.

Let’s try to see things from his perspective.

He signed a quarterback, Matt Schaub, who is six months younger than Eli Manning. Like Manning, Schaub was a Pro Bowler in 2012. Like Manning, Schaub stunk in 2013. His passer rating was 73 – awful, but not as awful as Manning’s, which was 69.2.

Schaub’s 89.8 career passer rating actually is much better than Manning’s, which is 81.2.

Here’s the thing.

Schaub may have the football equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder. In four-consecutive games last season, he threw an interception that got returned for a touchdown. An NFL first. If you type into Google, “How many pick sixes,” Google assumes you’re asking about Schaub. “How many pick sixes has Schaub thrown,” pops up on your screen.

The Pick-Six King.

If he can overcome that stigma and stop throwing touchdowns to the other team, the Raiders have a puncher’s chance this season.

McKenzie signed three new starting offensive linemen – Donald Penn, Kevin Boothe and Austin Howard – three new starting defensive linemen – Justin Tuck, Antonio Smith and LaMarr Woodley – and two new starting cornerbacks – Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, former 49ers. Those three position groups should be strengths for the Raiders next season.

McKenzie signed a running back, too. Maurice Jones-Drew, who is two years younger than Frank Gore, and has 509 fewer carries. In 2011, Jones-Drew led the NFL in rushing yards despite playing for the Jaguars, a team that finished 5-11.

McKenzie also signed a wide receiver, James Jones, who led the NFL in touchdown catches two seasons ago.

Here’s the thing.

The Raiders have the most difficult schedule in the NFL next season. They play the 49ers, Seahawks, Cardinals and Patriots, for starters. The Raiders also play in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, the AFC West. All three of the Raiders’ division opponents – the Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers – made the playoffs last season. And even though the Raiders have improved this offseason, so have the Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers.

The Raiders could win seven games if Schaub and Jones-Drew bounce back and the rest of the old guys stay healthy. Are seven wins enough for the Raiders to climb out of the AFC West basement?

Probably not.

The Raiders may be more competitive than last season, may even come close to doubling last season’s win total, which was four. But if the Raiders yet again finish dead-last in the division, who cares how much they improved?

Remember, it’s a win-now roster. McKenzie went all in. If he were building a team for the future, then improvement would be an appropriate metric to judge the Raiders by. But none of the 11 starters McKenzie signed this offseason is a young, franchise player whom the Raiders can build around for the next five seasons. McKenzie mostly signed players who are on the downsides of their careers. Veldheer was a young, improving, franchise left tackle, but McKenzie inexplicably let him go.

To justify all of McKenzie’s moves, the Raiders have to make the playoffs next season. Make the playoffs, or you’re fired, Reggie.

Here’s the thing.

That’s how things would work in the real world. The Raiders may not be in the real world.

Mark Davis, the owner, actually might be satisfied with 7-9, even from this win-now roster. I can understand why. Firing McKenzie and bringing in a new GM would mean more roster adjustments, more rebuilding, starting over yet again. The Raiders probably would get worse before they get better.

How much more losing can Davis stomach? During his three seasons as the owner, the Raiders have lost 32 games. Embarrassing. Competitive must sound dandy to Davis right now. Seven wins might just save Reggie and coach Dennis Allen. They have different standards in Raiders World.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at

This article has 29 Comments

  1. Wow – the 2014-2015 schedule is atrocious! I do like McKenzie’s picks – after a horrendous FA Day One – where I actually felt sorry for him and Raiders fans! All the games with the playoff-caliber teams mentioned, the Raiders record could realistically be 0-10… Win the other 6 games (no gimme NFL games for sure), I’d be pleasantly surprised if the Raiders win 6 or more next season.

  2. How much more losing can Davis stomach?
    He saw the team endure countless losing seasons under who I am imagining he assumed was the best owner in the league. Why should he feel anything is wrong with losing?

    1. Al Davis won Super Bowls and AFL titles. Mark Davis never has been competitive.

      1. It’s been over a decade since the Raiders were a competitive team and it was over a decade before that before last being competitive. Yes, Gruden strung together a few good years. Having 3 good years out of two plus decades isn’t exactly setting a winning tone for your Chico graduate son to be owner.

  3. To justify all of McKenzie’s moves, the Raiders have to make the playoffs next season. Make the playoffs, or you’re fired, Reggie.

    I disagree and it’s an irrational standard to set. This is a team that is just starting to put the pieces together because they didn’t have any the past two years due to carrying record amounts of dead money.

    Veldheer is a good young player, so is Houston, but not keeping them doesn’t mean the Raiders are going all in to win now. The reality is they needed to sign a lot of players to fill the roster and in FA this is the what you get. You can’t build a team through FA and McKenzie knows that coming from GB. What he’s done is put together a group of veteran players who have won elsewhere to try and make the Raiders more competitive now, but also so they can have a positive influence on the draft picks from last year and over the next couple of years. Changing the culture of the Raider locker room is almost as important as the talent they acquire.

    I have no idea what Mark Davis says behind the scenes, but in interviews he’s made it pretty clear that he wants to see progress and that is fair. Progress in this situation however is winning more than 4 games and being competitive. Expecting playoffs is absurd considering the gutting process the team has gone through and the fact McKenzie has had one full draft to put his stamp on the team.

    Mark Davis knew what was going to happen when he allowed McKenzie to start dumping contracts and accumulate dead money. McKenzie made no secret about the fact it was going to take time and be quite painful. All that has happened now is they have gotten out of the Black Hole – pun intended – of Cap hell, and can now start to build a team with no handcuffs financially.

    McKenzie has improved his team quite a bit from the one that took the field the past two seasons, but now the key is to build a foundation through the draft. This draft coming up is huge for him and will play a part in his long term future with the team, but what he’s done this year in FA is fine and makes sense to me. He hasn’t crippled the team with bad contracts and anyone of the players signed can be cut at anytime with no salary cap repercussions. If McKenzie fails it will be because he couldn’t draft the players he needed to build a solid foundation; not because of what has transpired in FA.

    1. The key is to build a foundation through the draft AND free agency. Remember, the 49ers signed Justin Smith. If you build only through the draft, you end up like the Packers:

      “Thompson’s aversion to veteran acquisition, whether through unrestricted free agency, street free agency or trade, must end for the Packers to hang with the top teams.

      John Schneider, Dave Gettleman and Trent Baalke, the personnel-oriented GMs in Seattle, Carolina and San Francisco, have their teams among the final four in the NFC partly because of their veteran additions.

      In the trades of 2013, look what Anquan Boldin did for the 49ers, what Alex Smith did for the Chiefs, what LeGarrette Blount did for the Patriots, what Jerry Hughes (10 sacks) did for the Bills, what Carson Palmer did for the Cardinals and what Jon Beason did for the Giants.

      In free agency, some of the wise signings on offense were tight end Martellus Bennett by the Bears, guards Louis Vasquez by the Broncos and Matt Slauson by the Bears, and running back Danny Woodhead by the Chargers.

      The list on defense includes ends Michael Bennett by the Seahawks and Mike DeVito by the Chiefs, nose tackle Glenn Dorsey by the 49ers, inside linebacker Karlos Dansby by the Cardinals, outside linebacker John Abraham by the Cardinals, cornerback Keenan Lewis by the Saints, safety Glover Quin by the Lions, kicker Phil Dawson by the 49ers and receiver-returner Ted Ginn Jr. by the Panthers.

      Green Bay’s only signing was Matthew Mulligan.”

      McKenzie failed to sign one player who will be a foundational piece for the next five seasons. Veldheer would have been one. McKenzie now has to nail almost every draft pick or else the team will be back to square one in a couple of seasons, but McKenzie never has drafted a franchise player before.

      1. You build through the draft and fill in the blanks with FA imo. This was a less than normal situation the Raiders were in with a ton of money to spend, but only half a roster under contract. They needed to sign a lot of players and they did. Keeping Veldheer would have been ideal I agree, but not keeping him is not going to be the difference in the teams long term future. What McKenzie gets from last years draft and the ones going forward will be the deciding factor.

        Think about it this way Grant, if McKenzie hits on some good young players this year and next in the draft, he will be sitting there with a core group of young players and a ridiculous amount of cap room again due to all of these contracts only being two years long. He can also cut some of the players he signed this year and replace them in FA next year if he chooses. He has a lot of flexibility with the way he’s set things up. The key is the draft. Everything rides on his ability to draft good talent. If he can’t; he’s gone.

        1. Think about it this way though. If McKenzie doesn’t hit on a bunch of draft picks the next two years, the Raiders have no future.

          Justin Smith wasn’t filling in a blank. He was the foundation.

          I agree, losing Veldheer isn’t the difference in the future. Still, bad move. McKenzie should have signed at least one foundational piece, and he tried to with Saffold, although I disagree that Saffold is a foundational piece.

  4. Absolutely, signing all these “old guys” is a “win now” approach. Still, the Raiders will be lucky to get to .500, let alone the playoffs, let alone advancing in the playoffs. Another year to write-off as a Raiders fan. And after the 2014 season ends, the talk will be about getting some young guys to replace the vets, many of which will be described as “over the hill.”

  5. Grant’s way off. McKenzie isn’t trying to win now. He’s trying to change the culture in Oakland. He’s doing this by keeping a young, energetic head coach in place when many other owners and GMs would have fired Allen. McKenzie is also bringing in free agents with rings. Justin Tuck, last year’s acquisition of Woodson, James Jones, an O lineman from the Giants and a D player from the Steelers. They all have rings. Schaub played qb for a competitive team in the Texans. MJD is a high character guy. Rogers and Brown went to 3 NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl.

    Let’s not forget that the NFL will fine a team if the team is too far under the salary cap. Let’s also not forget that Reggie dumped a lot of the malcontents on the team in 2012 like Tommy Kelly. So if you dump a lot of the old rot, and you get fined for being too far underneath the cap, that spells one thing – free agents. You almost have to. But McKenzie didn’t go out and get guys who were young. He went out and got guys in their last contracts who could teach the younger players how to be NFL players.

    How long does it take to know if your draft class is any good? 3 years is a fair number. In 3 years Woodson, MJD and LaMarr Woodley will be out of the NFL, but their knowledge about how to win will be passed on to the younger players.

    Were McKenzie’s Hayden, Watson and Moore any good? Time will tell. But it’s certain the Raiders will get an impact player at 5 overall. People saying the Raiders should trade back are insane. Teams don’t get a chance to pick top five or top ten. When you do, you maximize it like Vernon Davis or Aldon Smith. McKenzie will probably pick Greg Robinson or Kalil Mack. Both would be great choices.

    All in all, in five years these free agents will be gone but their legacies (part of their legacies at least) will be ingrained in the new Raider blood. And trust me, new blood and a new culture was much needed in Oakland. In five years, McKenzie will be nominated for executive of the year.

    1. To change the culture, you have to be an impact player. You can’t change the culture if you stink and don’t make an impact, no matter what you did in the past.

      1. That’s not correct, Grant. To change a culture you have to have credibility and be a leader. In this case the Raiders now have a bunch of these guys with credibility. Who are you going to listen to in the cold tub after a game? Hayden or Rogers? I’ll listen to Rogers even if he’s done. You can be a leader even if you’re no longer getting it done on the field. Think Ed Reid doesn’t impact younger players on the Jets? Think Ronnie Lott didn’t impact and help younger players on the Raiders and Jets after his time in SF? There’s no way you measure their impact. I say they do, you say they don’t.

        “You can’t change the culture if you stink and don’t make an impact, no matter what you did in the past.” This might be the dumbest thing you’ve ever written – and you’ve written some dumb stuff. This statement is dumb because young guys look up to veterans who’ve been to Super Bowls. They want to know how to get there themselves. It’s also a stupid thing to write because you’re implying Tuck, Schaub, MJD, James Jones, Rogers, Brown and others stink. They don’t. You’re taking a calculated gamble that amassing a huge pool of older free agents won’t work with a younger head coach, and that’s an easy gamble to make. Amassing a large number of free agents like this rarely works out. I think Denver just made a huge mistake. But the benefit will be having the young players starting out following guys like Tuck and MJD and not being warped by malcontents like Tommy Kelly. The win / loss totals don’t even matter today or tomorrow. They matter in four or five years. Nobody will remember what McKenzie did in four or five years, but it will have an impact. Very few 49er fans remember the good things Nolan and McCloughan did to help shape the 49ers. The real question in my mind is whether or not Mark Davis will stand behind Reggie McKenzie after the 2014 year. I think Mark Davis will retain McKenzie. Allen might get fired – because the Raiders had to offer someone as a scape goat, but all the Raiders are trying to do is buy time while they develop talent and teach that young talent how to act like pros and have a winning mind set. The Raiders haven’t had a winning mind set (consistently) in forever.

        What you’re doing, Grant, is chicken droppings. You’re betting that a collection of free agents won’t work, which they rarely do. And you’re betting that an young and inexperienced head coach won’t inspire veterans. McKenzie’s plan has a low chance of success on the surface, but in the long run it’ll do the rookies and second year players a lot of good. But you won’t recognize this. Just like you won’t recognize how wrong you were about the 49ers drafting Fleener in the first round.

        1. To change a culture you have to produce. Has beens don’t change cultures. The Raiders need impact franchise players, not more coaches.

          What NFL locker rooms have you been inside?

          1. I haven’t been in a single locker room, but I guarantee I have more insights than you do. I haven’t been around an NFL GM like you have, but none of their insights or magic gold dust rubbed off on you when you wanted Toby Fleener in the first round, comparing him to Gronk and Graham. I wanted Alshon Jeffrey and we argued a lot, you trying to dismiss Jeffrey. How’d that work out of you? So because you’ve been around a GM, you’re more qualified? Not a chance. And because you’ve been in a locker room you know how to change a culture? You’re one fallacy after another.

            You don’t think MJD will push McFadden to produce and play while injured? You don’t think Brown will play solid, effecting the play of Hayden and others? You don’t think Carlos Rogers will be a positive impact on and off the field with his level-headed approach to the game, calming younger, more excitable players? Tuck is a role model and a spokes person for the new face of the Raiders. They don’t have to win a single game. They’ve already changed the culture by bringing in new faces. The Raiders could go 0-16 and the rookies and second year players will get invaluable help and lessons from the free agents just brought in. Allen may or may not get fired, but McKenzie will turn that ship around. And to your main premise – do you really think McKenzie thinks a Super Bowl is in his sights or that the team will go to the playoffs this year? I don’t. I think he’s trying to build a team with a five year plan. He’s starting year two with a bang…. and still very little expectations.

            1. “I haven’t been in a single locker room, but I guarantee I have more insights than you do.”

              “The Raiders could go 0-16 and the rookies and second year players will get invaluable help and lessons from the free agents just brought in.”

              Again, that’s what coaches are for. There is no culture change if the team goes 0-16 and the veterans get hurt and/or don’t produce. Injured players and non-impact players do not change locker rooms or cultures, no matter what they did in the past. I’m telling you from experience.

              Did Ed Reed change any culture with the Texans or Jets? Of course he didn’t.

              You think the Raiders don’t have to win a single game to change a losing culture? What insight!

              1. That’s right. The Raiders could go 0-16 and still change their culture. In fact, they already have. I don’t think the Raiders will improve much on their 4-12 record. I think they’ll go 7-9, but the key will be progress and a more workman-like approach. And you calling this a “must win now,” approach is what happens when a kid runs a blog.

              2. The Raiders had a workman-like approach last season. Progress means nothing because the veterans are getting worse with time. McKenzie neglected the future for short-term respectability.

              3. The coach creates the culture of the team. Not a bunch of over the hill players.

              4. Reggie McKenzie is pushing to be the second best GM in the Bay Area. Behind Pete Myers. I read it on the internet, so it must be true.

              5. Your problem is you only see one indicator that a culture is changing – and that’s winning. And that’s predictable being that you run a blog. But think of it this way: Would you say that a team’s draft class was a success if in that same year the team went to the playoffs? Is that how you evaluate a draft class? No. And it’s the same with changing a culture. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes 3 years or so for a draft class to completely contribute and for people to be able to evaluate the players. It’s the same with changing a culture. You don’t get immediate returns from Carlos Rogers or Justin Tuck or MJD. You get long-term results from them.

                And with their “workman-like” approach last year, who were their veterans? I can only think of one – Woodson.

                I think the Raiders go 7-9 next year, with a debate about whether Allen keeps his job. McKenzie continues to draft well and in two more years the Broncos are sunk. Then the question for the Raiders becomes whether or not they can draft and develop a qb while stop-gap Schaub tries to resurrect his career. McKenzie’s got this team on the right path.

              6. The Jaguars’ culture sure got long-term results from MJD. Oh, wait.

                Rashad Jennings, Pat Sims, Kevin Burnett, Nick Roach, Lamarr Houston. You must not be familiar with the Raiders.

                McKenzie continues to draft well? Not at all. His best pick to date has been Sio Moore.

              7. McKenzie’s only had one draft. Children evaluate a draft after one year. I think McKenzie did well in the draft not because I’m evaluating his picks but more so because McKenzie didn’t panic being in an inherited mortgaged position without picks (Palmer).

                Regarding your comments about Jaguars players.. you’re once again missing the point and playing red herring fallacy games…. maybe intentionally. MJD is a much different, much more respected player than the others you listed. Add MJD to Tuck, Brown, Woodley, Rogers, Schaub and JJ and this a good list of free agents and very different in credentials and league-wide respect than your list of past Jaguars… but nice try.

  6. Jack Hammer,
    Normally I’d agree with your comment that coaches change the culture, but not in the case of the Raiders. Mediocrity and resentment were at toxic levels in Al’s last couple of years. Marcus Allen? Claims by Tim Brown and Jerry Rice that head coach Bill Callahan threw the Super Bowl? Mike Shanahan claiming that Al still owed him money? This isn’t a normal culture change in Oakland that McKenzie is attempting. Al did a lot of damage. “The evil that men do lives after them.”

    And what head coach is going to take this project on? What experienced, good head coach who’s capable of changing this culture takes on the Raiders? Nobody. No experienced head coach takes on the Raiders after that dude who was claiming he was “Building a Bully,’ while getting a pedicure and trading away the farm for Carson Palmer brought this organization to its knees.

    So it’s gotta be a young guy and he’s going to need a ton of help to change the culture to reverse undead Al’s decade of spite and poor dermatology. Enter McKenzie’s plan to bring in older winners from past winning organizations. Personally, I think it’s a great plan. I don’t think it will translate next year to many more wins, like I wrote above. But wins aren’t an indication the culture has changed…. not in this case. In four more years the Raiders will be competitive, not a laughing stock, and people will have forgotten all about the significant moves McKenzie made to help Allen and other coaches change the culture after Al Davis’ tenure of terror.

    1. McKenzie is trying to do both, and it won’t work until he hires a competent head coach. Dennis Allen is in way over his head. His moves last year with the QB position had a very “Singletarian” quality about them.

      1. A guy would have to think long and hard about taking the HC position with Oakland. Somebody could probably turn that franchise around, but I doubt anyone would get the authority and autominy they’d need to get it done. Al was still The Man (Warlock?) when Kiffin was hired. I absolutely knew he would fail as soon as he was announced. His Dad knew about Al and had to have told Lane. Lane took the job anyway. What’s wrong with you? How could anyone in their right mind work for Al there at the end? He’d turned into Howard Hughes. Judgement that poor by Lane doesnt get rewarded by Fate.

  7. Personally, The oracle of humble wisdom that is The Snake thinks Bobby Knight said it best to Grant.
    errr…No, wait…Upon further review, he was talking to Jeremy Schaap;)

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