For years, the Oakland Raiders had one man in charge of all football operations. Former owner and coach Al Davis had a strong hold on everything from scouts to the roster to the coaching staff. On occasion he would hire people with football knowledge to advise him, but make no mistake — the final decisions were always made by Davis. That all changed when he passed away in 2011, leaving the Raiders like a ship without a captain.
The ensuing power vacuum led to one of the worst NFL trades in recent memory. Then head coach Hue Jackson traded a first and a second round draft pick to the Cincinnati Bengals for the veteran quarterback. After the season, new owner Mark Davis hired Reggie McKenzie to run the team’s football operations as the general manager. He soon fired Jackson and began to overhaul the entire organization.
One of the key reasons the younger Davis brought McKenzie to Oakland was to fix the cap situation. After years of his father trying everything he could to “just win baby,” the Raiders found themselves in salary cap hell. Much of his first two years with the club, McKenzie spent more time trying to fix the salary cap than he did trying to field a winning team. The results were mixed at best. The Raiders found themselves with the most salary cap space of any NFL team at the start of the 2014 offseason, but they were also coming off of back-to-back four-win seasons.
But now that McKenzie is free from the restraints Davis placed on the team’s payroll flexibility, we can finally see how he will manage the books in Oakland … as long as he is still there, that is. CBS Sports had former sports agent Joel Corry write a piece explaining the various ways an NFL contract can be structured. He then went and took a look at how every team typically approaches their contracts.
Corry came to the conclusion that McKenzie sticks almost exclusively to what he refers to as a “pay as you go” structure. What this means is that the Raiders have had the tendency to balance their contracts, making each year worth approximately the same amount — as opposed to contracts where money is bunched up either at the beginning or the end of the deal.
There are two primary differences to this approach. First, the Raiders will carry a higher yearly cap number than they would with contracts where the cap hit might be absorbed mostly in a year or two. Second, while this strategy may mean higher cap numbers, it also means more cap flexibility.
McKenzie’s contracts are also structured so that he can get out of the deals without harming the team. With the “pay as you go” style, there is little to no dead money (money that counts against a team’s cap number even if the team decides to cut the player). In other words, he can cut ties with players and without having to keep paying them.
This is definitely the more conservative route. It’s safe, and prevents the JaMarcus Russell-style contracts that haunt a team for years after the player is no longer wearing their colors. However, it also limits how much a team can do in free agency. With this type of contract, you won’t see McKenzie go out and put together an offseason like the Denver Broncos did this year, leaving people wondering how on Earth they were staying below the cap.
But McKenzie was never going to do that anyway.
This is exactly what Mark Davis should have expected when he brought McKenzie in: a smart and pragmatic approach to the contracts. This way, the team will not find itself in a situation where the cap is prohibiting them from doing their best to improve the team. It’s not sexy, but it sure is smart.