The Raiders ultimately concluded the town wasn’t big enough for Derek Carr and Khalil Mack.
It’s the biggest factor in an expected deal first reported by ESPN that will likely get the Raiders two first-round draft picks and possibly more.
The Raiders could have afforded Mack in terms of actual dollars but thought the price tag was too high for someone who plays defense in a league designed to reward the offense.
Jon Gruden, the Raiders head coach and decision-maker, is an offensive guy. General manager Reggie McKenzie, a former linebacker whose job it is to build the team to Gruden’s specifications, would have done things differently.
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It wasn’t clear at the time, but the die was cast for Mack to leave the building the moment Carr signed his five-year, $125 million contract. Carr had to be signed first because he was a second-round draft pick and thus had no fifth-year option.
It was then up to the Raiders to construct a roster which could bring aboard two players that make more than $20 million per year — something no team has faced. McKenzie had worked toward that goal.
It’s a sign that Gruden has changed in terms of his view of a franchise that he’s willing to part with his best player to build for a better future. When he was traded from the Raiders to the Bucs, Gruden wasn’t happy when general manager Rich McKay wasn’t aggressive enough in procuring players for the here and now. Some 16 years later, Gruden is taking the long-term view.
But getting back to the crux of the matter, if the Raiders had to sign either Carr or Mack, they chose the right guy.
They didn’t take care of their best player financially and instead rewarded their most valuable one.
It’s a league built on quarterbacks, and the Raiders are all-in on Carr. If the contract extension wasn’t proof, then bringing in Gruden to be his coach and essentially his partner is evidence of which side of the ball is the most valued.
Hard as it is to part with a talent like Mack, there was really no choice for the Raiders once they determined they couldn’t or wouldn’t have two mega stars with mega contracts.
Gruden caught a lot of heat for telling the NFL Network the Raiders weren’t a very good defensive team with Mack on the field. Never mind that it’s true — the Raiders weren’t very good. In fact, they were awful.
In 2016, it was Mack who won the NFL’s defensive player of the year and was named All-Pro at two different positions. Yet it was Carr and the offense that got the Raiders to 12-3 before the quarterback was injured on Christmas Eve.
As soon as Carr left the field, the Raiders fell apart, and there was nothing Khalil Mack or Deacon Jones or Lawrence Taylor or Ray Lewis or Dick Butkus or any defensive player you care to name could have done about it. In the modern era of football, there doesn’t exist a player on defense that can have even remotely the same impact as a quarterback.
Raiders defensive end Bruce Irvin, a proponent of signing Mack, pretty much summed up how his team will react with a profane tweet followed up in short order by another expressing shock but vowing to move on and beat the Rams in Week 1.
Player are businessmen first and athletes second, and that’s as it should be. They play on a team but are governed by their own self-interest. They understand that Mack was using the only leverage he had to get his maximum value. And they will work in such a way to ensure they get their own maximum value as well, whether it’s from the Raiders or somewhere else.
Irvin won’t go in the tank because Mack isn’t around, nor will his teammates. Going into a catatonic state because Mack is gone won’t put any more dollars in their pocket. In fact, they’ll need to be better to compensate for his loss. It’s the only approach that makes sense, both for the players as well as Gruden and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.
And here’s the thing about the Raiders’ defense: it will be better, probably by a considerable margin, than anything we’ve seen in recent years. Granted, considering some of the defenses the Raiders have trotted out in the last decade or so, that is faint praise.
But if Guenther, some intriguing young talent and a host of new acquisitions can get the Raiders from terrible to average in a year, the loss of Mack, although a shock at the moment, won’t seem so bad. Nor will it seem bad if the Bears are still awful or if Mack is injured.
It’s Gruden’s job to make Carr all he can be, because that would be the real disaster if the Raiders can’t get the player who dominates their salary structure to also dominate on the field.
Gruden and Carr are tied at the hip when it comes to the lame duck years in Oakland as well as the early Las Vegas years. Their success together will determine whether the Khalil Mack trade is a disaster or a historical footnote.