Pump the brakes: Raiders' trade for Carson Palmer wasn't nearly as bad as some claim
He sat at a podium and called it "the greatest trade in football," a calculated burst of hyperbole that would haunt him like a silver-and-black poltergeist.
Now, 18 months after championing his team's costly, driven-by-desperation deal for Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer in the middle of the 2011 season, former Oakland Raiders coach Hue Jackson admits he'd like to take it back.
No, Jackson doesn't regret the organizational decision to send first- and second-round draft picks to the Bengals for the then-retired Palmer, a much-maligned transaction that officially ran its course last Friday when Cincinnati selected running back Gio Bernard with the 37th overall pick of the 2013 draft. Rather, the do-over Jackson desires is a retraction of that five-word statement accompanying Palmer's arrival in Oakland in October of 2011, a proclamation that many Raiders fans now regard as the ultimate irony.
"In hindsight, calling it 'the greatest trade in football' wasn't the best idea," says Jackson, now the Bengals' running backs coach and special assistant to head coach Marvin Lewis. "I shouldn't have said it. That's on me. Lesson learned. I'll file it away and I'll grow from it.
"I know why I said it – to let our players know that we're not done, that we've got a quarterback and we've got a chance. But if you say things like that and you don't win, it's going to come back to bite you in the butt."
The fallout from the trade has reverberated from Oakland to Arizona, where the recently acquired Palmer now sits atop the Cardinals' depth chart, to Cincinnati, where Jackson landed as an assistant after getting fired by Raiders owner Mark Davis following the 2011 season. Within Raider Nation, the Palmer deal is commonly portrayed as the most ruinous move in recent franchise history, one that significantly derailed the organization's current rebuilding efforts under second-year general manager Reggie McKenzie.
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As someone who has spent much of his adult life living in or near Oakland, I absolutely understand the frustration of so many Raiders fans, and it's easy to see why they'd feel burned: Last month the team shipped Palmer to Arizona, trading a seventh-round selection for the Cardinals' sixth-rounder to move up 43 spots in the just-completed draft. (Oakland will also receive a seventh-round pick in 2014 if Palmer starts at least 13 games this season.)
While the Bengals have made consecutive postseason appearances, the most recent of which came with Jackson standing on the sidelines, the Raiders have now gone a decade without a playoff game or winning season. Coming off a 4-12 campaign, they look poised for an eyesore of an encore, which is one reason Palmer refused to take a pay cut and essentially forced his way out of Oakland.
Yet with all of that said, I don't agree that the Palmer deal was the worst trade in football, or anywhere close to it. I was comfortable with the Raiders' rationale at the time, and I don't think the damage was nearly as severe as many critics make it out to have been.
Instead of buying into the knee-jerk notion that the acquisition of Palmer set the Raiders back years – one of several misconceptions about this notorious swap – you'll need to get beyond the sound bites and embrace sound logic. I'm here to do a little myth-busting:
Jackson doesn't deserve the bulk of the blame: Because Jackson sold the deal to a skeptical public – and given his past associations with the quarterback in Cincinnati (where Jackson had been a receivers coach) and USC (where Jackson, then a Trojans assistant, recruited Palmer, the eventual Heisman Trophy winner) – it has always been viewed as his trade.
The coach, however, did not have the power to make this deal; only Davis, the owner, possessed that authority. The Oct. 18, 2011, transaction took place during a strange and disquieting time for the Raiders' franchise: Al Davis, Mark's iconic father, had died 10 days earlier, with no clear plan in place as to who would succeed him as the team's front-office chieftain. In other words, there was a power vacuum, with Jackson, a flamboyant first-year coach, and CEO Amy Trask, who'd long been in charge on the business side of the organization, joining Mark Davis as the obvious candidates to fill the void.
"People acted like there was a letter on Al Davis' desk that said, 'If I die, Hue runs the team,'" Jackson says. "It wasn't like that."
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When starting quarterback Jason Campbell went down with a broken collarbone in the Raiders' Oct. 16 victory over the Cleveland Browns and with the trade deadline fast approaching, Jackson called his former and current boss, Lewis, and inquired as to Palmer's availability. That was a tricky question: After seven seasons in Cincy, Palmer had made it clear he no longer wanted to play for the Bengals, telling owner Mike Brown he would retire rather than return to the team.
The Bengals had picked Palmer's replacement, Andy Dalton, in the second round of the 2011 draft. Like the Raiders, the Bengals were off to a 4-2 start. Brown, who'd previously resolved not to trade Palmer because of the precedent it might set for other disgruntled players, began to soften his position.
"At that point in the season, I thought it was a possibility," Lewis says. "We had moved on. The possibility of getting two No. 1 picks made it worth it. Otherwise, you can't allow a player to dictate to a franchise, because it sets you up for future misery."
After that initial conversation, Lewis says, Trask and Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn spoke on the phone, and from that point on Jackson was no longer the principal contact on Oakland's side. Surely, Jackson was lobbying his owner, though the initial feedback was not promising.
"When I first told Mark he said, 'I probably can't do this. It probably won't work,'" Jackson recalls.
Eventually, however, Davis decided it was worth taking a risk. He agreed to the terms – a first-round draft pick in 2012 and a conditional second-rounder in 2013 that would become a first-rounder should the Raiders reach the AFC championship game in either the '11 or '12 seasons – to land the then-31-year-old Palmer.
To Davis' credit, he recently made a point of accepting responsibility for the move, telling Sports Illustrated's Jim Trotter, "Everybody is blaming Hue, but I made the decision. I don't pass any of that on to him." Davis told Trotter that he ran the scenario by former Raiders coach John Madden, ex-Packers general manager Ron Wolf and ex-Falcons GM Ken Herock and that "two of the three said, 'Go ahead and do a deal.' … It turned out not to be the greatest bet, but I'd do it again."
Standing pat wasn't a very appealing option: The Raiders, who'd begun the season with such promise in Jackson's first year, looked poised to end their long stretch of postseason futility.
Campbell's injury, however, presented a major problem. Backup Kyle Boller was a drastic downgrade – indeed, the immobile veteran would struggle so mightily in his lone start, a 28-0 defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs on Oct. 23, that Jackson would throw the just-acquired Palmer into the fray at the start of the second half. The only other quarterback on the roster, then-rookie Terrelle Pryor (a third-round pick in the supplemental draft), was so raw and unprepared that coaches doubted his ability to enunciate a play in the huddle. Had the Raiders stuck with the status quo, Jackson felt that a golden opportunity to uplift the franchise would likely have slipped away.
"'I lived in the city, in Jack London Square," Jackson says. "The community and city deserved and wanted a winner. Everywhere I'd go – the grocery store, the gas station, the barber shop – the people wanted to win so badly. They could taste it. The people deserved the opportunity. And to say I [wanted Palmer] because I was trying to save my job, that's wrong. I wanted to win for the city, for the players, for everybody, and I didn't want injuries to derail that opportunity. We were honestly trying to win for the right reasons. That weighed on me. I wanted to give people the happiness they deserved."
The Raiders came very, very close to winning the AFC West, which would have at least made the trade look good in the short-term: Even after the Raiders' most prolific player, halfback Darren McFadden, went down with what turned out to be a season-ending foot injury in that Oct. 23 defeat to Kansas City, Jackson's team was in prime position to win the division and host a playoff game.
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"When we were 7-4, nobody was saying, 'That's a bad trade,'" Jackson says.
In losing four of their last five games, the Raiders were done in by a deficient defense that surrendered an average of 38.5 points in those defeats, with monumental late-game collapses against the Detroit Lions and San Diego Chargers. The Broncos, meanwhile, needed all the magic of Tebowmania – including Marion Barber inexplicably running out of bounds in Denver – to steal the division title.
Jackson remains convinced that "if McFadden doesn't get hurt, we win 10-11 games, easy. He was one of the best players in the league at that time." Yet even a playoff appearance wouldn't have saved Jackson's job: McKenzie told SI's Trotter that the coach's dismissal "would have happened even if they went to the playoffs."
Palmer was good in Oakland – and would have been even better had Jackson remained in charge: Though his 2011 numbers didn't necessarily reflect it – in nine games Palmer completed 60.7 percent of his passes for 2,753 yards, throwing 13 touchdowns and 16 interceptions – the quarterback performed admirably under the circumstances. Remember, the Raiders also were plagued by injuries at the receiver position, and Palmer, with minimal preparation, found a way to make it work.
Insists Jackson: "There's still not another quarterback in the NFL, I think, that could've gotten off the couch and do what he did for me and give us a chance to make the playoffs."
The subsequent decision by Davis and McKenzie to fire Jackson negatively impacted the investment in Palmer. Had the quarterback been able to spend the offseason further familiarizing himself with a system that resembled the one he ran in Cincinnati, he'd likely have been better equipped to succeed in 2012.
Instead, with Jackson's replacement, first-year coach Dennis Allen, hiring Greg Knapp as his offensive coordinator, Palmer had to adapt to a new scheme that did not especially suit his abilities. (It also deployed a zone-blocking style that was disastrous for McFadden, whose yards-per-carry average declined from 5.4 in 2011 to 3.3 in 2012. Knapp was fired after the season.)
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And yet, despite those challenges, Palmer was alarmingly productive in 2012, throwing for 4,018 yards and 22 touchdowns in 15 games.
"Look at our team last year," says one Raiders front-office source. "Yeah, we went 4-12, but how many games did he keep us in?"
Said another team source: "Carson Palmer wasn't the reason the Raiders lost 12 games; he was the reason they won four and competed in some of the others."
Not surprisingly, when McKenzie elected to cut ties with the incumbent, trading for Seattle Seahawks backup Matt Flynn and anointing him as Palmer's replacement, not everyone in the building was thrilled.
The lost picks were a bummer, but RG3 wasn't walking through that door: Surely, McKenzie would have loved to have had a first-round pick last year and a second-round selection (in addition to the one he secured in a trade with the Miami Dolphins last Thursday night) in 2013, the impact of these lost choices is inevitably overstated.
Not all high draft picks are transformative; a decent percentage of them, in fact, turn out to have minimal impact. The Bengals used the 2012 first-rounder (17th overall) they acquired from Oakland to take Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who suffered a knee injury in July and appeared in just five games, making two defensive tackles. On Friday, Cincinnati used the second pick acquired in the trade (37th overall) to select Bernard, who was the first running back off the board.
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"Consider who the Bengals drafted in those spots," says the Raiders' front-office source. "Let's look in three years and say, as a football organization, 'Would you rather have that No. 1 and No. 2 pick, or would you rather have a franchise quarterback?'"
Even allowing for the fact that the 2011 Raiders, without trading for Palmer, would likely have finished with a worse record than 8-8, it's tough to make the case that not having that 2012 first-rounder was cataclysmic. Quarterbacks Andrew Luck (first overall to the Indianapolis Colts) and Robert Griffin III (second overall to the Washington Redskins, following a trade with the St. Louis Rams) would not have been available, and fellow breakout star Russell Wilson (third round, Seattle Seahawks) wasn't rated nearly that high on any team's draft board.
Let's say Oakland had gone 6-10 and picked eighth, ahead of the Dolphins. Theoretically, the team could have taken quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who had a promising rookie season with Miami after being picked in that slot, or middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (ninth overall, Carolina Panthers), who won NFL defensive rookie of the year honors.
Then again, Oakland could have ended up with, say, cornerback Stephon Gilmore or defensive tackles Dontari Poe or Fletcher Cox, who were the 10th, 11th and 12th picks of that draft. Thus far, none of those players has been a difference-maker.
As for this year's second-rounder, the players selected immediately after Bernard were Manti Te'o and Geno Smith. As an exercise, imagine the 2013 Raiders with Tannehill and Te'o on the roster. Does that team seem like a legitimate playoff contender? Only in some people's dreams.
A whole lot of other dubious decisions helped put the franchise in this mess: Since Davis' death, it has become fashionable to blame the Hall of Fame owner for most of the Raiders' current shortcomings, as his desperate attempts to build a winner included overpaying since-discarded veterans such as Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly, Michael Huff and Kamerion Wembley.
That's a separate column's worth of material, but this much should be stated: Many NFL executives believe the Raiders' oft-cited salary-cap problems are being used as a crutch by the new regime as it attempts to fight its way through a rough rebuilding process. Surely, there are legitimate reasons to analyze decisions made by Al and Mark Davis, McKenzie, Jackson and Allen – among others – and question how much they might have contributed to the franchise's current state of malaise. Tracing the team's struggles to a single trade, however, is a serious stretch.
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"To say it set the organization back for years? I don't agree with that," Jaskson says. "At that time, this organization, this city, this team needed a shot in the arm. They needed to win. People say, 'This is the organization killer. This is what brought the organization to its knees.' I'll never feel that way."
Lewis agrees, saying, "Hue, Amy and Mark were trying to give their team a chance to win. Carson gave them that chance. That's why you make the deal. I think both teams benefited from the trade."
While that comment likely makes most Raiders fans want to scream with rage – just as memories of Jackson's "greatest trade in football" boast surely induce post-traumatic stress – the deal wasn't nearly as disastrous as current public perception would suggest. And while the team's ex-coach wishes he'd have sold the trade in different terms, Jackson is most haunted by the fact that he couldn't parlay Palmer's acquisition into a playoff run.
"People still don't realize how close that team was to making the playoffs, how close that organization was to getting over the hump," Jackson says. "Are there some things I've learned, that I wish I could say better or take back? Yes. But I knew where my heart was coming from. It was a trade that impacted a team and gave it a chance to win. We didn't win. By definition, it failed. But it failed because we didn't close the deal at 7-4. It didn't fail because we gave up the draft picks."
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