Mark Davis made some news over the weekend, informing public relations director Zak Gilbert that his silver-and-black spin-doctoring services were no longer required.
Because this happened as May turned to June – and because so many consumers have an insatiable appetite for NFL-related happenings – it qualified as a nationally relevant story, with the added intrigue of a certain Yahoo! Sports columnist having his sentiments redeemed on a widely read pro-football-obsessed website.
Understandably, many fans have since questioned why a firing that has industry insider written all over it should be assigned any relevance, particularly to an already frustrated fan base pining for its first winning season in more than a decade.
I'm here to tell you why, as a member of Raider Nation or as an NFL fan in general, you should care why Zak Gilbert got the axe.
While Davis is easy to criticize, and seems to be living down to the Tommy Boy nickname I bestowed upon him after the 2011 season, he is the boss, and I can somewhat sympathize with the frustrations that may have triggered this transaction.
In making this move, Davis, who took over as owner in October of 2011 after his legendary father Al died, was sending a message to everyone in the organization – most importantly, it was a message to Reggie McKenzie, the general manager he chose to lead the team into a new era 17 months ago.
McKenzie, the only man Davis interviewed for the job, proceeded to initiate an extreme home makeover, firing coach Hue Jackson (though Jackson believed that was the owner's decision), getting rid of high-priced veterans and putting up a firewall between the team's football operations department and virtually everyone else in the organization, including CEO Amy Trask, a Jackson confidante who resigned last month.
Gilbert, hand-picked by McKenzie (whom he'd gotten to know while both men worked for the Green Bay Packers) to run the PR department, immediately embarked upon a mission to herald a new era of Raiders football which, we were told, was a drastic departure from the Al Davis-led past. And Gilbert sold the hell out of what I would call the Reggie McKenzie Mantra, the key talking points of which can be summed up thusly:
• McKenzie was firmly in charge of all football-related organizational endeavors, empowered by Mark Davis to do whatever it took to reshape the franchise, even if it required some patience on everyone's part.
• The Raiders' pronounced and prolonged struggles since their Super Bowl XXXVII defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January of 2003 were largely the result of Al Davis' outdated sensibilities and shortsighted spending habits seeking instant gratification. By extension, he was also responsible for the team's salary-cap issues.
• The only way out of this financial Black Hole was to tear down the existing roster and employ a deliberate rebuilding approach embraced by McKenzie during his time with the Packers, emphasizing the draft and eschewing splashy free-agent signings.
This narrative was rammed down people's throats – indeed, Gilbert and his emissaries preached it a bit too fervently for my tastes – and almost universally accepted as gospel, ultimately serving as a ready-made excuse when Year One of the McKenzie regime proved to be a massive bummer.
The propaganda campaign actually commenced upon McKenzie's arrival. When Jackson was fired after an 8-8 season in which he reaffirmed his abilities as a gifted offensive strategist, the move was championed as a byproduct of McKenzie's justifiable desire to bring in his own guy.
As it turned out, McKenzie's own guy – former Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen – brought in his own guy, Greg Knapp, to run Oakland's offense. The disastrous shift to a zone-blocking scheme neutered the Raiders' most potent weapon, halfback Darren McFadden, and was a major reason for the team's 4-12 record. At season's end, the Raiders admitted their error by firing Knapp; that mistake, at the very least, was on McKenzie.
Through it all, McKenzie stuck to the narrative. After last season, he continued getting rid of veterans, including quarterback Carson Palmer, while doing little to instill tangible hope that the Raiders would be vastly improved in 2013. He seemed to be operating under the assumption – or, more accurately, the certainty – that his job would be safe no matter how poorly Oakland performed this coming season. And, of course, there were the ready-made arguments why he shouldn't be held accountable: Al Davis' mismanagement and the salary-cap hell McKenzie inherited.
While it amazes me that so many Raiders fans have so willingly accepted these rationalizations as fact, I can certainly understand why McKenzie would want this to be the case. In selling this narrative, however, I believe the rookie general manager may have misjudged one member of his audience: The man who signs his paychecks.
If Mark Davis, as has been reported, decided to fire Gilbert because of his displeasure with an unflattering Sports Illustrated article that appeared in the magazine earlier this spring, that's a fairly ridiculous act – not to mention a lousy way to treat a hard-working employee who uprooted his family to join the Raiders a year earlier.
That said, by virtue of his seat in the big chair, Davis doesn't need an overhead projector to justify such decisions, and I can certainly understand why he'd be fed up with the prevailing message emanating from team headquarters on his watch.
For one thing, whining about the salary cap is unbecoming and, in this case, a bit disingenuous. Yes, McKenzie inherited somewhat of a mess, but plenty of other men in his position encounter similar challenges and find creative ways to address such issues while remaining competitive. For all his aggressive spending in the latter part of his life, Al Davis managed to field reasonably respectable rosters – indeed, the 2011 team that Jackson coached was regarded as immensely talented in league circles.
If any team has a right to complain about cap issues, it's the Washington Redskins, who were docked $36 million over two seasons by an NFL edict that seemed specious at best. Deprived of a level playing field, Mike Shanahan's team won the NFC East in 2012. Yet if Washington had failed to make the playoffs, all the bitching and moaning in the world might not have saved the coach's job.
By contrast McKenzie, empowered by the widespread acceptance of the Mantra, has spent the past 17 months operating as though he is immune from responsibility for the team's performance. He has been Draconian at times – according to numerous team sources, several of Jackson's assistants were locked out of the building in January of 2012 after the GM decided not to retain them – and borderline reckless at others, waiting until the final seconds to swing a draft-night trade with the Miami Dolphins that spared him from spending the No. 3 overall selection on cornerback D.J. Hayden.
While there has been speculation that Allen wouldn't be able to survive a second desultory season on the job, conventional wisdom (and Davis' own public statements) have suggested that McKenzie will survive no matter what happens in 2013.
By firing Gilbert, I believe Davis delivered a metaphorical kick to conventional wisdom's crotch – and put McKenzie, Allen and everyone else in the building on blast.
Again, I'm not endorsing this move, but I don't find Davis' frustration with Gilbert's approach all that surprising. How many times can a man stomach a Mantra that paints his Hall of Fame father as the root of all dysfunction – and McKenzie as the lone, beyond-reproach fixer – without reaching for the Pepto-Bismol? And the fact that the on-the-field product has been correspondingly abysmal does not help McKenzie's cause.
If I were McKenzie, I'd come up with a new set of talking points for Gilbert's successor and cross my fingers that Allen has a significantly better sophomore season than he did as a rookie. And I'd take my head out of the clouds and start paying closer attention to the obvious signs occurring right in front of my face.Given that Davis was "embarrassed, pissed, disappointed" following a blowout defeat to the New Orleans Saints last November, how do you think the owner felt before deciding to send McKenzie's designated message-deliverer packing?
Put it this way: If McKenzie doesn't start backing up his no-fault Mantra with some tangible progress, Davis might well decide it's time to dust off his late father's overhead projector.
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