In the spring of 2017, when NFL team owners approved the Raiders’ move from Oakland to the Las Vegas market, it was assumed that Mark Davis could pull it off without embarrassment. After all, the franchise had bright prospects.
The Raiders’ brand was thriving again, and even Davis seemed to be stepping up, selling himself as a man ready to exceed his reputation. To the NFL’s fraternity of owners, the Las Vegas approval was something of a gift to Davis, granting him the opportunity to emerge as something more than the funny-haired, cash-poor heir to Al Davis.
And Mark Davis seemed ready to thrust himself toward that new frontier, celebrating the Las Vegas approval with some forward-facing nostalgia: “My father always said, ‘The greatness of the Raiders is in [their] future.'”
Nearly 19 months later, the Raiders’ present is bleak. The promising future looks anything but guaranteed. And the NFL, well, it should be very worried. Because Davis has already fallen flat on his face in the middle of the three-year transition to Sin City.
If the owners didn’t already know it before Thursday night’s embarrassment at the hands of a bad San Francisco 49ers team, they should know it now: This Raiders roster is the worst in the NFL. The kind that transformed a third-string San Francisco quarterback into a star. That had 49ers general manager John Lynch beaming in laughter on the sideline and defensive end Cassius Marsh reeling off more celebratory roundhouse kicks than a “Road House” marathon.
That’s how sad this has become in Oakland. The roster has almost no discernible long-term talent, after appearing to have some generational cornerstones only a season ago. Edge rusher Khalil Mack was no longer affordable. Wideout Amari Cooper had too many struggles. And now Derek Carr, the presumed franchise quarterback, looks more like a massively overpaid game manager. None of which speaks to the depth of the 53-man roster, which is aging its way toward the league’s scrap heap.
None of that is good. But here’s what is even worse: Head coach Jon Gruden has had a bonfire with most of general manager Reggie McKenzie’s remaining talent. The personnel evaluators and coaching staff don’t appear to be remotely on the same page. That means the shared mechanism meant to rebuild this franchise is either mismatched (best case) or completely broken (worst case). Now the Raiders are the worst team in the NFL – with an old roster largely devoid of talent – that is totally dependent on a mismatched leadership group that can’t replenish it quickly or reliably.
And this is what the NFL is sending toward Las Vegas. Basically the opposite of the Los Angeles Rams, who should arrive to their multibillion-dollar Inglewood stadium smack in the middle of a Super Bowl window. That’s how differently these two opportunities have worked out. Two diverging paths, both having everything to do with the owners’ choices.
The Rams’ Stan Kroenke went into his project with all the money in the world. Billions at his disposal. So he poured it into his roster and empowered his subordinates to find the right coach for the talent. Davis stepped into his project with hundreds of millions of dollars. A great deal of which he devoted to the 10-year contract for Gruden, who was then empowered to do whatever he felt necessary.
One plan has flourished. The other has flopped.
If the league’s owners aren’t furious about that disparity, they will be in 2019 because this franchise isn’t going to turn around in one offseason. And it likely won’t by 2020, either. Not when the future of the front office appears completely up in the air. Not when the quarterback looks increasingly likely to be traded when the season ends. And not when Gruden keeps grousing about the building wave of “negativity” like a man who doesn’t understand his Bay Area fanbase expected to be abandoned in 2020 – not 2018.
That latter part is particularly maddening – Gruden’s nose getting out of joint at the negative coverage of this calamity. This is a man who spent a decade as part of the media. His job was to be critical of others in an expansive library of ESPN appearances that are not aging well. He isn’t ignorant. He knows how this works.
He knew back in January that his massive contract would invite massive expectations – not a massive rebuilding project. If this cratering and rebuild was even a remote possibility, then Gruden was a fool for letting Davis present his arrival as the return of the prodigal son. And he most definitely should have never let anyone tease the idea that Gruden would deliver anything whatsoever on his way out of town.
But the hype machine was cranked up. Promises were made. Big f-ing talk was not in short supply. So there’s no getting out of this now. Gruden’s not quitting with so much money – and his football reputation – squarely on the line. Davis isn’t firing him. And the league can’t back out of a Las Vegas move that is just over the horizon.
If only for that reason, it’s time to hear Mark Davis step up and speak. He owes an explanation to his Bay Area fans. He owes a plan to a Las Vegas community that can see the glow of this garbage fire from thousands of miles away. And he owes something to the NFL’s team owners who bought a promise that “the greatness of the Raiders is in [their] future.”
Right now, only a Las Vegas stadium is promised in the Raiders’ future. The greatness has been lost. And someone needs to explain how the worst team in the NFL will change that by 2020.
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