Reggie McKenzie knew he faced a significant challenge when he was announced as general manager of the Raiders on Jan. 6, 2012. Over the previous nine years the team had gone through six head coaches, and it had lost at least 11 games in an NFL-record seven straight seasons. Oakland's last winning campaign, in '02, was a millennium ago by NFL calendars.
Still, the depths of the struggle might not have truly hit McKenzie until several months after his hiring, when he changed into his workout gear and headed to the back of the team's Alameda training facility, where his long jog around the practice fields was spoiled by wildly uneven footing and goose droppings.
If the choppy grass fields were hazardous to a 49-year-old such as himself, he thought, imagine the dangers for players. In the previous two seasons alone, running backs Darren McFadden and Marcel Reece, wideouts Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore, defensive tackles Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly and linebacker Rolando McClain had been hobbled by or missed significant time because of lower-body injuries.
When McKenzie asked who was responsible for the upkeep of the fields, which were riddled with dirt patches, the answer stunned him. The Raiders did not employ a full-time, on-site groundskeeper. Instead, the work was outsourced to a local company—astounding considering that the difference between the playoffs and a pink slip could easily come down to a turned ankle, a jammed toe, a tweaked knee or a pulled hamstring.
The field conditions were just the first of many reminders that restoring greatness to a franchise whose mottos had included "Pride and Poise" and "A Commitment to Excellence" would be about much more than just hiring a new coach and ridding the roster of its bloated contracts and underachieving players. It would be about transforming an entire culture and overhauling an organizational model that had become stale and outdated after nearly five decades under Al Davis, the iconic and imperious owner who died of heart failure at age 82 in October 2011.
No franchise in American sports has been more closely associated with its owner than the Raiders were with Davis. It was as if his face had been behind the eye patch, his head beneath the leather helmet on the swashbuckling team logo. He didn't own the team as much as he was the team. Every major coaching hire, every brilliant or head-scratching draft selection, every trade that lifted the Raiders to the league's mountaintop or dropped them into the division's basement was made by him. Davis even dictated the style of play on the field, demanding a vertical passing attack and bump-and-run coverage and often phoning the sideline from his suite during games with instructions.
For four decades his touch was golden: From 1963, when Davis took over the Raiders as coach and G.M., until 2002, when they made their last Super Bowl appearance, their regular-season winning percentage was .625, best of any team in pro football. The Raiders went to a Super Bowl in every decade but the 1990s, winning three titles in their five appearances. Davis proved himself time and again to be a personnel genius, mining college football's backwaters for future Hall of Famers and picking up future Super Bowl champions off the scrap heap.
But as his health deteriorated, so did the fortunes of the franchise. With every losing season Davis became more desperate for another title, and he knowingly mortgaged the future in a quest for immediate gratification. Among the most painful moves: In 2005 he traded a first-round draft pick (No. 7) and starting linebacker Napoleon Harris to the Vikings for Randy Moss, whose production was dropping in tandem with his attitude; and in '09 he sent the No. 17 pick to New England for Seymour, who was a month from his 30th birthday and entering the final year of his contract.
In free agency he gave insanely inflated deals with large guarantees to receiver Javon Walker, cornerback DeAngelo Hall, safety Gibril Wilson and tight end Kevin Boss—only to see Hall released after eight games, Wilson and Boss after one season and Walker after 11 games. He also turned the market upside down by awarding megadeals to his own free agents, notably Seymour and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
Several years before his death Davis was on the phone negotiating a deal for a free agent. The sides were close to an agreement, but Davis suddenly began coughing badly, and his caretaker ended the call so Davis could take his prescription meds. When the sides resumed discussions later that day, Davis asked where they had left off. Taking advantage of the opportunity, the agent reminded Davis that they had agreed on the guaranteed money—but quoted a figure $1 million higher than what they had come to. Davis okayed the move and an agreement in principle was reached that night.