ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Really, the only surprising thing about the Oakland Raiders parting ways with general manager Reggie McKenzie on Monday is the timing.
It was a move expected to be made shortly after the season ended, not with three games remaining and the Raiders having won two of their last four games following a 1-8 start and two extremely winnable games upcoming against the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos.
Wait, so you were surprised that McKenzie was relieved of his duties in any capacity?
You shouldn't have been. Since Jon Gruden was hired in January and given a 10-year contract worth a reported $100 million, it was obvious this was Gruden’s show. Especially since, on the morning of the Raiders’ 2017 season finale at the Los Angeles Chargers, McKenzie was just as taken aback by reports that Jack Del Rio was about to be fired as coach and Gruden was returning to Oakland.
McKenzie, the 2016 NFL executive of the year, was out of that loop.
The signs were everywhere, even as McKenzie insisted after the trade of Pro Bowl receiver Amari Cooper to the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 22 that he and Gruden were on the same page when it came to the Raiders’ vision. Yes, even after trading All-Pro edge-rusher Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears on Sept. 1.
McKenzie said his job as general manager was to get players for Gruden that he and his staff wanted, rather than going the traditional route of getting players he liked and then telling Gruden to coach them up.
As it stands today, only nine of the 50 players McKenzie drafted, from 2012 through 2017, before Gruden returned are on the Raiders’ current 53-man roster -- QB Derek Carr, RG Gabe Jackson, DT Justin Ellis, OL Jon Feliciano, SS Karl Joseph, RB DeAndre Washington, CB Gareon Conley, OT David Sharpe and LB Marquel Lee.
Plus, a whopping 36 players on Oakland’s current 53-man roster did not spend a single day on the Raiders’ 53-man roster last season.
Talk about turnover, and talk about McKenzie potentially not recognizing the team he built after getting the Raiders out of “salary cap hell” when Mark Davis hired him three months after the death of his father, Al Davis.
And Davis gave clues that McKenzie was on thin ice in an ESPN.com exclusive interview last month, the night Oakland fell to 1-8 following a loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. Davis, while lauding the financial efforts of McKenzie, questioned his draft success, or lack thereof, saying the talent on the roster was missing, and that Gruden was the “constant” in the organization.
“The drafts did not help supplement what we were doing in the free-agent market,” Davis said at the time. “If you look at our roster now, it's a bunch of free-agent, one-year guys that are mercenaries. And they're great guys and they're Raiders. Once a Raider, always a Raider... but we just don't have the overall talent of a 22-man roster.
“Reggie and I need to sit down and talk and figure out how we are going to go about the future. We've got to look in the mirror and figure out, where the hell did we go wrong in trying to build this thing?”
Perhaps ironically, McKenzie came to Oakland without a first-round or a second-round pick in his first year (he whiffed on cornerback D.J. Hayden in 2013) and now, thanks to the Mack and Cooper trades, Gruden will have five first-rounders over the next two years.
Oakland is scheduled to have 10 selections in the 2019 draft, including three first-rounders, and might pick up a few compensatory picks, too.
That’s a lot of draft capital, and while McKenzie only truly nailed one draft (2014 with Mack, Carr, Jackson and Ellis, with a nod to 2015 with Cooper), he missed badly on such first-rounders as Hayden, while Joseph and Conley are still rounding into shape, along with second-rounders like offensive tackle Menelik Watson, defensive ends Mario Edwards Jr. and Jihad Ward, and safety Obi Melifonwu.
Gruden? Well, in seven years running the show for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, only three of his 61 draft picks went to a Pro Bowl -- cornerback Aqib Talib, right guard Davin Joseph and offensive lineman Jeremy Zuttah.
Timing is everything, as is perspective. So does Gruden need a general manager he trusts, so to speak, or a yes man? And if his old friend Bruce Allen is sent packing by Washington, expect his name to be at the top of rumor lists, along with Mike Holmgren, who spent time with Gruden in late October when his former mentor was in town to call a game for Westwood radio.
Keep an eye on the Raiders’ current college scouting director as Shaun Herock will handle McKenzie’s day-to-day responsibilities the last three weeks of the season -- “I expect him to be a big part of the organization moving forward, honestly,” Gruden said -- as well as the Raiders’ director of football research Dave Razzano, a longtime Gruden confidante. Player personnel director and McKenzie’s right-hand man Joey Clinkscales also remains with the team for now.
“You can’t keep all your players,” McKenzie said in October, “for whatever reasons. But losing (Mack and Cooper) is not something that I set out to do after that 12-4 season (in 2016). But as we go from year to year, we can’t keep them all.
“I am never going to be blindsided thinking that I have all the players, that I am going to be able to keep all my impact players.”
You shouldn’t be blindsided either, then, by McKenzie’s departure.