Reggie McKenzie knew where to apply when it was time to pursue a career as a pro football executive.
It was 1994, and McKenzie – his playing days over and looking to become a scout – sent his résumé to the evaluator who first evaluated him.
As a scout for the then-Los Angeles Raiders in 1985, Ron Wolf recommended to Al Davis, the team’s managing general partner, that the team draft McKenzie when he was a linebacker coming out of Tennessee. So when Wolf became the general manager of the Green Bay Packers, he had a fairly good idea what to expect in McKenzie – a hard worker who knew, loved and respected the game.
Wolf barely finished interviewing McKenzie for a scouting position when he’d made up his mind.
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“I think I hired him on the spot,” Wolf said last month.
McKenzie didn’t know it at the time, but he was stepping into a hothouse where Wolf was growing a crop of future NFL player personnel executives.
The same year Wolf brought in McKenzie, he also hired Scot McCloughan as a scout. The staff already included John Schneider and John Dorsey, and the director of pro personnel was Ted Thompson.
Within four years, the Packers were rebuilt into Super Bowl champions. As a testament to Wolf’s greatness, all five became NFL general managers, and Wolf later was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Thompson, who succeeded Wolf at Green Bay, and Schneider, now the general manager with the Seattle Seahawks, both created Super Bowl championship teams, like their former boss. Dorsey took a Kansas City Chiefs franchise that had endured five losing seasons in its last six and turned it into one that has made the playoffs twice in his three years. McCloughan, from Alameda, improved the losing Washington Redskins into a divisional champion in one year. It was McCloughan’s second stint as a general manager – 49ers fans will remember him during the team’s mediocre 2008 and 2009 seasons.
With his other protégés having experienced varying degrees of success, Wolf thinks McKenzie’s time has come “to get on with it.”
In four years, the Raiders are just 18-46, but Wolf gives McKenzie something of a mulligan. McKenzie walked into the job in 2012 with the franchise suffering under the weight of several years of bad drafts and lousy contracts that left it short of talent, and it has taken him a few years to work through the mess and mold the team into his own.
McKenzie has had three consecutive productive drafts and two strong offseasons of free-agent acquisitions. He also hired coach Jack Del Rio, who created a new energy and sense of confidence around the team. Now, in McKenzie’s fifth year, the Raiders have a decent chance of winning the AFC West.
“You had to turn that whole thing around, and evidently he’s been able to do that – to the satisfaction of the ownership there,” Wolf said. “That’s a really big plus for him. And nobody’s rooting for him harder than I am. He’s a heck of a person.”
BRINGING STABILITY TO RAIDERS
McKenzie became the Raiders’ general manager less than a year after the death of Davis, who saved the franchise in 1963 as head coach and later ruled it for 39years. With Davis having complete and unchallenged authority, his teams won three Super Bowls. It had become almost inconceivable to think of the Raiders without Davis in charge. And in 2012, that inconceivability for McKenzie was topped off by the unsettling realization that he, of all people, had been named as the replacement.
“You had to step back and let it all sink in,” McKenzie said.
While nobody knows where the Raiders will play home games over the long term, the team is moving ahead with a sense of stability. It starts with McKenzie, and Al Davis’ son, Mark, now the chief executive of the team, acknowledged as much just before training camp began in late July when he signed McKenzie to a four-year contract extension.
“A lot of hard work went into it,” McKenzie said of the drafts and player acquisitions that elevated the Raiders from laughingstock to contenders. “Hopefully, we can reap some benefits. It’s good to see that Mark Davis sees the vision coming into play. We’re on the same page, moving forward with this great organization. So I really feel good about the future of the Raiders.”
With McKenzie at the controls, the Raiders in 2014 drafted defensive end Khalil Mack, now an All Pro. They also went for a second-rounder, Derek Carr, who looks like a future star at quarterback. In 2015, McKenzie drafted Amari Cooper, a potentially great wide receiver, and used the draft to load the team from front to back on both sides of the ball with talent and potential.
McKenzie’s most prominent free-agent acquisition probably was wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who revived his career with the Raiders after falling out of favor with the 49ers. McKenzie stocked the offensive line with free agents, including Kelechi Osemele and Rodney Hudson. On defense, he signed lineman Dan Williams and linebackers Bruce Irvin and Malcolm Smith and defensive backs Sean Smith and Reggie Nelson.
McKenzie says he also looks for character in every rookie he drafts and every free agent he signs. The result is the most tangible of the intangibles – chemistry.
Del Rio thinks the Raiders have it, and he credits McKenzie.
“We’re very pleased the way it has worked out for us,” Del Rio said. “We feel like the guys who have come in really fit in well. They’re good teammates, and the chemistry appears to be really good.”
FINDING DIAMONDS IN DRAFT
Chemistry is great, but there has to be talent, too. The Raiders don’t like to discuss their evaluation process, but the guru who spotted the ability that McKenzie brings to the job says it’s pretty simple.
“What makes a good evaluator,” Ron Wolf said, “is the ability to determine who can and cannot play.”
Anybody can spot an Aaron Rodgers or a Peyton Manning, Wolf said. The genius is in finding a starter with a lower-round draft pick, such as running back Latavius Murray and tight end Mychal Rivera (both sixth round), linebacker Ben Heeney (fifth round) and defensive tackle Justin Ellis (fourth round). It takes hundreds of hours, Wolf said, sitting in the dark, studying film, to separate who can help from who cannot.
“Reggie had an advantage because he was a player, and he could fall back on his memory of who the good players were and the attributes they had,” Wolf said. “Eventually, he became my right-hand man with the Packers. He was a guy I trusted implicitly with running our football operation, our scouting operation. He did a masterful job of that. He had a knack of being able to pick out the guys who could play. He also had a command of all the other people who were playing in the league, and that was really beneficial.”
In 17 years with the Packers, McKenzie moved up from scout to director of pro personnel under Wolf and then to director of football operations under Thompson. The Packers made the playoffs 13 times, played in three Super Bowls and won two of them.
McKenzie watched and learned from Wolf, came to know him as one of the best talent evaluators in the history of the league. Wolf also knew how to scout a scout and what went into becoming a good one. Then, from the ones he hired, the Hall of Famer molded a wave of future executives who are among the most successful in the league.
Is McKenzie poised to join them? If so, it will probably be from the one thing he remembers the most from Wolf.
“No matter how anybody else sees it, he sees things with his own eyes,” McKenzie said of Wolf. “That’s what he told me – ‘Trust your own eyes.’ You can’t see for anyone else. You can only see for your own self.”
at New Orleans
vs. San Diego
vs. Kansas City
at Tampa Bay
at Kansas City
at San Diego