After enduring three years of losing as he tore down and then tried to build back up the Raiders, general manager Reggie McKenzie at last is seeing the payoff of his work in year four.
With a pair of strong drafts that have provided foundation pieces to the organization with quarterback Derek Carr, receiver Amari Cooper and pass rusher Khalil Mack and a free-agent class that has supplemented the young players, the Raiders (3-3) have already matched last season’s win total and have showed signs of being able to compete in the AFC.
It’s been a long process as Oakland won just 11 games in McKenzie’s first three years in charge, extending a run for the organization of 12 straight years without a winning record or a playoff berth.
“You knew you had to take the punches,” McKenzie said in his first extensive interview with beat writers since the first week of training camp.
“The key was really looking at the big picture, not get so down on myself and the team at that point knowing what was ahead of me. It wasn’t easy. I’m used to being in the playoffs. I haven’t been since I’ve been here. That’s the goal.”
The foundation began to get set in 2014 when McKenzie hit on picks throughout the draft, led by Mack, Carr, guard Gabe Jackson and defensive back TJ Carrie. Those players didn’t lead to immediate success as they went through growing pains as rookies.
But they have all made big steps forward this season, led by Carr, who has shown significant improvement in all categories as his passer rating has jumped from 76.6 to 101.0.
“He’s right where we thought,” McKenzie said. “I’m never surprised with that guy. He wants it bad. He’s a competitor. He’s smart. He’s going to find a way to get it done. Even if he slips and has a bad game, bad plays, or whatever, he’ll bounce back. That’s just him. He’s doing exactly what we felt like he could.”
While McKenzie has preached building through the draft from the day he was hired from Green Bay, his moves in free agency this past offseason have gone a long way in contributing to the team’s early success.
Center Rodney Hudson has solidified the line and J’Marcus Webb has stepped in at right guard. Michael Crabtree has given Carr another capable outside option at receiver and Oakland now has two players on pace to top 1,000 yards receiving — a mark no Raiders player has hit in a decade.
Tight end Lee Smith has helped the run game with his blocking and the additions of defensive tackle Dan Williams, edge rusher Aldon Smith and linebackers Curtis Lofton and Malcolm Smith have made the Raiders’ front seven stout against the run.
“I don’t know if it’s unusual, because I’ve never done it before, gone after that many free agents,” McKenzie said. “But we were in a situation where we kind of got the money situation right, with the cap and had a lot to spend so I couldn’t keep it in my pocket so we had to spend it. We went after some guys and we were fortunate that the decision they made was to come here. So we’re happy with the guys we got.”
The other big offseason move was the hiring of coach Jack Del Rio, who came with the experience of having coached a playoff team with Jacksonville and the knowledge he had gained after losing that job and spending three years as a defensive coordinator in Denver.
With a staff filled with former players, the Raiders have been willing to make quick adjustments with scheme and personnel when things didn’t work as planned.
McKenzie said he appreciated the patience owner Mark Davis showed the past few years and believes the owner is happy with the results, even as his main focus is on the franchise’s long-term stadium plan.
“He’s been very understanding of the direction of where I want to go, bringing in coaching staff, and all that,” McKenzie said. “He’s been good. He’s been really good, and I think he’s been now more preoccupied with the stadium stuff, but with the way the team is playing, he’s been good. He likes what’s been going on.”
NOTES: McKenzie said the team did an extensive background check before signing Aldon Smith last month and hopes he will be part of the team beyond this year. … Safety Nate Allen (knee) returned to practice from short-term IR.