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Davis had died on Oct. 8; Campbell went down eight days later against Cleveland. With a leadership void at the top, Hue Jackson pushed to trade for Palmer, whom he had worked with in Cincinnati. Palmer was sitting out, trying to force a trade from the Bengals, and Jackson believed he could win with him.
The Bengals wanted two first-round picks for Palmer, who was two months from his 32nd birthday and who had zero playoff wins since Cincinnati made him the first pick in the 2003 draft. Jackson was willing to deal, but it wasn't his call. It belonged to Mark Davis, who on the night of his father's funeral returned home and used his TiVo to find the Raiders' 2009 game against the Bengals. Palmer had been efficient in the first half: 8 of 10 for 129 yards, but he had only 78 passing yards in the second half, and Oakland rallied for a 20--17 win. Pressed by the approaching trade deadline, Davis consulted Wolf, Madden and Ken Herock, the team's personnel director for seven years in the 1970s, all of whom were in town for the funeral.
"Two out of three said, Go ahead and do a deal," says Davis, who sent a first-round pick in 2012 and a high conditional pick in '13 to the Bengals for Palmer. "I felt we had a pretty good team and could make the playoffs. It turned out not to be the greatest bet, but I'd do it again. Everybody is blaming Hue, but I made the decision. I don't pass any of that on to him."
The deal proved costly, not only against the salary cap (Oakland inherited Palmer's salary of $12.5 million in 2012, $13 million in '13 and $15 million in '14), but also in the draft, where in '12 the Raiders would be without a first-round pick for the second straight year. (In fact, before receiving two compensatory picks, they didn't have a draft choice until the fifth round in '12.) That, combined with the league-high $31 million the Raiders were over the cap made for an ugly situation facing whomever took over.
Yet McKenzie was eager to accept the challenge, with certain conditions. First, he would have final say on all football matters, including the future of coach Jackson, who in 2011 had shaken the Oakland offense from its slumber, but who had alienated some fans and players with an abrasive press conference following a Week 17 loss that cost his team the playoffs. Second, McKenzie would report to Mark Davis, not chief executive Amy Trask, who'd been a righthand person to Al Davis for more than two decades. And third, he would build for the long term instead of compromising the future with quick fixes.
Davis agreed to each condition, after which McKenzie set in motion his plan.
The 2011 season was simultaneously promising and disappointing. After a 7--4 start, Oakland's most successful opening in almost a decade, the Raiders lost four of five to finish .500. The pervasive expectation was that Jackson would get a second season at the helm. He'd taken the offense from the league's second-worst unit in '09, the year before he arrived as coordinator, to a unit that finished 10th and then ninth, respectively, in total yards—despite little change in personnel.
Two days after McKenzie was hired, Jackson walked into the G.M.'s office to break the ice and, after some chitchat, McKenzie informed him that he was being let go.
"Let me go?" Jackson recalls thinking. "I thought he meant let me go, [as in] out of the room."
McKenzie explained that he wanted to bring in his own guy. "That would have happened even if they went to the playoffs," the G.M. says now.