The office of Oakland Raiders director of football research Dave Razzano is situated right next to that of head coach Jon Gruden, and the short path between the two men’s doors has been well-worn since February as they’ve plotted the team’s uncharted future.
GM Reggie McKenzie’s office is down the hall.
Razzano and Gruden have collaborated closely on almost every personnel move that has happened in the time since Gruden locked up one of the most stunning coaching contracts the NFL has ever seen — a well-documented $100 million over the next decade. That's likely more money than Bill Belichick even makes. And with that money comes power: say over all football-related moves, even if Gruden isn’t officially listed on the team’s front-office masthead.
Razzano, though, is Gruden’s main go-between and artery to the roster, and the head coach’s fingerprints are all over the stunning trade that sent All-Pro pass rusher Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears for a bounty of draft picks. It’s a move, sources have said, that Gruden at least has been pondering as a back-pocket option since his arrival.
Now the Raiders' pockets have been turned inside out.
Not that Gruden hasn’t respected Mack’s ability as a rusher; that much was emphasized to us. But ever since the head coach offered up an eye-opening quote at the start of camp — “We weren’t very good last year, on defense, with Khalil Mack,” Gruden said — there was always a sense in league circles that this wasn’t just a well-paid coach flexing his muscles for a negotiating foothold.
Still, to say that trading Mack was a fait accompli feels quite incomplete. A week ago, the sense around the team and the NFL at large was that a holdout for Mack could linger into the regular season and that the two sides, Mack’s camp and the Raiders, might still continue to ignore each other until cooler heads prevailed and further deadlines loomed.
Now we know that’s not how it played out. Gruden and his right-hand man ultimately decided that paying Mack a market-tilting contract wasn’t worth it; once the Bears were willing to meet the ransom of two first-rounders (and a cherry on top?) it became a done deal.
First things first: This wasn’t about cash specifically. The Raiders did have the actual money, we’ve been told, to have given Mack in the form of an escrow payment for a deal similar to the one the Bears will soon give him. The Raiders just felt that for this team right now it wasn’t smart to break the bank.
And so what does that tell you? If Gruden felt this team was anywhere close to competing, Mack would still be a Raider — happy or not. The club that finished 12-4 two seasons ago now is fully in rebuild mode, even with a well-paid franchise quarterback. We’ll get to what this means for Gruden, Derek Carr and the rest of the franchise’s foundation in a moment. It’s significant.
Gruden trusts Razzano’s instincts, and McKenzie and owner Mark Davis must reluctantly follow in lockstep trust for now. Razzano is the son of Tony, the well-respected longtime head scout for the 49ers in the late 1970s and early 1980s who quietly was viewed as Bill Walsh’s secret weapon in assembling one of the finest NFL rosters of that era.
But the younger Razzano doesn’t have quite as unimpeachable a personnel record, even with almost three decades of experience with a number of clubs, including his first season this year with the Raiders. He holds a title that did not exist previously with the club, and his exact duties remain a bit shrouded, but we’ve been told that he is the portal — not McKenzie — for Gruden on all scouting matters.
Razzano has been a part of several Super Bowl clubs, including the late-80s 49ers, the dominant St. Louis Rams of the late 90s and early 2000s and the Arizona Cardinals teams that went from 5-11 to back-to-back division titles and a Super Bowl appearance following the 2008 season. He also was said to like Jake Locker over Cam Newton, didn’t think much of Von Miller coming out and who once said he would take Matt Barkley in the top 10 picks … and that was when Barkley was an eighth-grader.
In a few years, the Raiders will move to Las Vegas. They’ll be a completely different team when they arrive than they are now. Gruden’s bold and controversial moves to this point, Mack by far being the biggest among them, are likely to continue as he remakes the team in the way he wants.
Gruden might have promised to give back his salary if things don’t work out, but don’t excuse that as him not going all in to do it his way before he hits the highway.
What must Carr think of this move? He and Mack are buddies, and the late-night Twitter exchange with the two of them was downright sad. It’s almost as if the two pillars of the franchise were resigned to the idea that they were not going to play together anymore. Two days later that became reality. It can’t hurt any less.
It also rekindles the idea that was raised prominently when Gruden was hired but had faded to the backdrop amid the Mack drama: How would Carr and Gruden coexist? That question had been answered diplomatically by both parties as they sought to craft an offense and an understanding of each other in the all-important head coach/QB relationship that is the lifeblood of NFL existence.
But now? Carr’s five-year, $125 million deal suddenly feels far more real than the contract Gruden signed. The Raiders actually can get out from Carr’s contract after this season with shocking ease ($7.5 million in dead money) if they so choose. If the Raiders are truly rebuilding, as the Mack move suggests they are, then why might Carr not be the next big name to go? His performance this season — and his alignment with Gruden — suddenly have been thrust back into the foreground as a huge narrative.
With two first-round picks next year (and at least one likely to be pretty darned high if the Raiders don’t find a way to improve without Mack’s services), Gruden can handpick his own replacement at QB if he wants. Look around the NFL and you see a lot of teams with at least one quarterback on their roster who ostensibly represents their franchise’s future or present hope. We can’t say that with full confidence about the Raiders, so you have to consider them to be among the favorites to target a passer early in the 2019 NFL draft.
Is McKenzie — who handpicked Mack and who has called him the team's best player in the past — suddenly looking into Green Bay real estate now, knowing his say on Raiders personnel matters essentially has been usurped? Does Davis regret giving Gruden carte blanche — only to see his coaching oligarch all but wave the blanche flag on this season?
The Raiders are a fascinating, frustrating conundrum whose fans now have been put through the blender a few times. First with the Vegas move, now with the Mack trade and the unknown future.
The 49ers across the bay have been celebrated for their direction. The team the Raiders will see in Week 1, the now-Los Angeles Rams (who once fought the Raiders for fans in the same city), will trot out their highly paid defender, Aaron Donald, to hunt after Carr. Meanwhile, Mack will be a few thousand miles away with another team’s jersey on.
Rebuilding is never easy on any team’s fan base. But it’s especially rough for a team that has twisted its contingent in the wind on so many things in recent years, cheaping out on a local stadium and paying top dollar for a coach who just ushered out their best first-round pick in a few generations.
That’s what $100 million is buying the team right now: a promissory note of distant hope that might not pay off until the franchise lands in Glitter Gulch down a pretty lonesome and dusty road.