McKenzie a veteran in rookie GM role
It was probably more symbolic than anything else but, as he hustled through the lobby of the posh Palm Beach, Fla., hotel where the NFL convened its annual meeting six weeks ago, on his way to a session for top executives from all 32 franchises, Reggie McKenzie wore a tweed sports coat and green slacks.
No sign of a silver-and-black running suit, or a white and black one, to be found. No gaudy jewelry around his neck or ostentatious championship ring on his finger. No nasally, caricature-ish Brooklyn-born accent.
The transition from the late Al Davis, who proudly wore some variation of the franchise’s colors wherever he went in public isn’t quite complete yet seven months after his death. But McKenzie, 49, ostensibly the Raiders’ first general manager, and the first football executive of GM-level since Bruce Allen exited the club after the 2003 season, certainly appears to be his own man.
And not just in his sartorial choices or his dialect, either.
Hired in early January after a long tenure as the Green Bay director of football operations, highly recommended to new owner Mark Davis by a trio of onetime NFL executives and coaches with undeniable Raiders’ ties, McKenzie is anything but overt about the change. He is, conspicuously, mindful of the lineage Davis established with the franchise. But there are indications, as well, that, for Oakland, it won’t exactly be business as usual moving forward.
"We’re going to do things the way we’re (accustomed) to doing them," McKenzie told The Sports Xchange. "We’ll cover all the bases, be very thorough, and make the kinds of decisions that are in the team’s best interest."
At the time, McKenzie, who spent the first four of his six NFL seasons with the Raiders, was specifically addressing the then-upcoming draft. He could have been speaking, though, of the Raiders’ football operation in general.
A team that hasn’t qualified for the playoffs since 2002, Oakland is in need of a makeover. That isn’t meant to be an indictment of the iconic Davis who might never have tinkered with the operation, but simply the truth. Only two other franchises, Buffalo and Cleveland, have missed the playoffs every year since the Raiders last appeared in the postseason. Time, indeed, for an overhaul, and the untimely death of Davis, ironically, provided an excuse for updating the operation.
There’s still going to be a "commitment to excellence," of course. But the pride and poise so often trumpeted by Davis, in a nod to the franchise’s past greatness, has become a punch-line. It’s time for the Raiders to start slugging back, even if it might take a while to develop a wallop.
"(McKenzie) was absolutely the right guy," said longtime NFL executive Ken Herock, whose Raiders roots run deep, who championed McKenzie for the position, and whose son, Shaun, was named last week as the team’s college scouting director. "He knows football talent and he has a plan. He’ll get it right."
So far, "getting it right" has in part included getting rid of many of the longtime Oakland employees of the past generation. Although coach Hue Jackson was with the club for only one season, McKenzie wanted his own man in place, and hired Denver defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to run the team on the field. Allen, in his first head coaching job, had no previous ties to the Raiders, a notable break from Davis’ tradition of hiring from within the franchise’s "family."
More recently, McKenzie retooled the personnel department, dismissing longtime top executive Jon Kingdon and Bruce Kebric in addition to Kent McCloughan’s retirement.
"I had talked to Al Davis when I turned 65," said McCloughan, who first joined the organization in the mid-1960s as a standout cornerback, "and he said, ‘Listen, young man: You’re not quitting before I do.’ I owe him a lot. He was so nice to my family and me. We had some great years, including when Ron Wolf was with us. We won a lot of games. I had the opportunity to work 47 years with one team. I enjoyed it so much. I thought Al Davis was an outstanding person and boss. I enjoyed the scouting department, the coaches and players I had the opportunity to work with, and I’ll always be a Raider. I’m going out about as good as a person can go out. You couldn’t have written a better story for me. … I wish Reggie and the entire organization the best."
McKenzie brought in Herock — while Wolf’s son Eliot, a scout with the Packers, was promoted to McKenzie’s old seat in Green Bay — McKenzie’s own twin brother, Raleigh, and still hopes to pry close friend and New York college director Joey Clinkscales from the Jets.
"He’s going to want people like himself, who can tell him who the players are and who they aren’t," said Ron Wolf, who also boosted McKenzie’s candidacy. "There’s always going to be a recognition of what the team is about, what it’s been. But there’s also going to be change. There already has been."
For sure, in his first year of presiding over the Oakland draft, McKenzie didn’t exactly go for flashy players, instead preferring serviceable ones. Because of trades engineered by his predecessors, McKenzie didn’t own a choice until the third round, and his first two picks were actually compensatory slots, awarded by the league at the NFL meetings.
Still, the initial choice of the McKenzie Era wasn’t a fleet, deep-threat wide receiver, or the cornerback with the fastest 40-yard time at the combine. Davis had grown obsessed with speed and raw athleticism, perhaps to a fault. Instead, McKenzie’s top pick was offensive lineman Tony Bergstrom of Utah, a fairly nondescript prospect by recent Oakland standards. Of the club’s six draft selections, just one, Arizona wide receiver Juron Criner (fifth round), plays a "skill position" spot.
Perhaps the only flashback from the past is that all but one of the six Oakland picks had played basketball in high school, a reminder that McKenzie, even while strongly stressing character, still emphasizes all-around athleticism.
"There’s a little bit of a difference (with McKenzie)," allowed one Oakland veteran to The Sports Xchange last week.
And it’s not just about McKenzie’s fashion choices, either.