Oakland Will Spend Money, Just Not All at Once
It's the last thing Raiders fans want to hear, but you must be patient
By Andrew Brandt
These are salad days for NFL owners. Forbes values 23 of the 32 franchises at over $1 billion, record-level television contracts are kicking in, and there are seven years remaining on a favorable CBA. With young players being squeezed (drafted players must sign four-year contracts at fixed rates) and older veterans being purged (just look at this week’s waiver wire), those now carrying the banner for improved plater economics are the “sweet spot” free agents emerging from rookie contracts who are between the optimal ages of 25 to 27. Two days into free agency, the team to watch is the Raiders, who are flush with salary cap room like no other in 2014.
Under the leadership of the late Al Davis, the Raiders were reluctant to pay market price for coaches, executives and front office staff. But they were always willing to pay—and overpay—players. In the agent community, the best call one could receive was from Davis. He loved players: picking them, counseling them and paying them.
In Davis’ later years, many of those contracts had consequences when the players didn’t perform well. When new general manager Reggie McKenzie entered the picture two years ago, he turned the page on dozens of contracts with years remaining, leaving about $56 million in “dead money” in their wake. While other teams operated on a $123 million cap in 2013, the Raiders were left to compete with 60% of that number, roughly $75 million in negotiable dollars for their active players.
That was then; this is now.
Having atoned for previous contractual sins, the Raiders are now playing at an advantage compared to the rest of the league. They entered the 2014 league calendar with close to $60 million in cap room. And with their minimal spending last year and team minimum spending accounting ahead for 2013-2016, all eyes are on the Raiders’ checkbook.
In its new financial era, Oakland allowed Jared Veldheer, Lamarr Houston and Rashad Jennings to leave while acquiring tackles Rodger Saffold ($42.5 million, $21 million guaranteed) and Austin Howard ($30 million, $15 million guaranteed). Hopefully, with their ample cap room, the Raiders structured the deals with disproportionate cap containment this year, allowing them to exit the contracts later, if need be, with little pain.
Raider Nation, judging from Twitter and media reaction, was not impressed. After a two year grace period, fans are restless. In their minds, it’s time for a referendum on McKenzie. While I am not qualified to evaluate Saffold and Howard compared to Veldheer or anyone else, I can comment on the man who made those decisions.
I worked closely with McKenzie for nine years in the Packers’ front office. When negotiating contracts, I would often rely on him for unfiltered views on players that both the agent and I were using as comparables. He had vast knowledge of players from every team and made it very clear whom he liked and whom he didn’t.
Reggie had his terms of endearment for players. He valued brute strength in linemen, both offensive and defensive, and would slow the film down to watch plays that showed one lineman physically overmatching another. In his Tennessee drawl he’d say, “Look at this big joker…BAM!” When Reggie referred to a player as “country strong,” I knew that was a high compliment. He felt that way about several of the offensive linemen we had in Green Bay, especially Chad Clifton, and I’m certain he feels that way about Saffold and Howard.
And the slow teardown that the Raiders just endured fits Reggie well. If Reggie is anything, he is deliberate. He walks slowly, he talks slowly, he eats slowly and he will build slowly. Saffold and Howard are the first expenditures of the $60 million in cap room, and there will be more, with reports of veterans Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley set to visit. Cap room doesn’t have to be exhausted in March; it can be spent through December.
Reggie mirrors some elements of the two general managers we had in Green Bay. He has the courage of his convictions about players that Ron Wolf had, including blunt assessments of their talent. But Reggie also has the patience of Ted Thompson; he adheres to the draft-and-develop model of team-building. The latter means trusting scouts to constantly fill a pipeline of young talent, empowering coaches to play and develop young players, and identifying core players to secure contractually for the future.
I know the last thing Raider Nation wants to hear is a plea for more patience, but a new era of cap prosperity has just begun. I admit to bias, but Reggie is consumed with finding the right players for his team, no matter how long it takes or where he finds them. Saffold and Howard, however uninspiring, are just the start of the book on 2014. Let’s see how the chapters play out.
Those of you looking for a fast turnaround ... are not being realistic. Slow and methodical is Reggie's way.