Oakland Raiders: It takes more than one man to make a team great

SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 23: Khalil Mack #52 of the Chicago Bears prepares for their NFL game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium on December 23, 2018 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 23: Khalil Mack #52 of the Chicago Bears prepares for their NFL game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium on December 23, 2018 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden shocked the world by trading away Khalil Mack and months later, is still being crucified for it.

When you trade away a generational talent, you can and probably should expect to take some heat for it. Just ask Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden. Here we are months after he orchestrated the trade that sent all-world everything Khalil Mack to Chicago, and Gruden is still catching heat for it.

Of course, given the team went 4-12 last season and Mack alone only had half a sack less than the entire Raiders defense, that spotlight — or is it the light of the torches of the angry villagers, pitchforks in hand, coming for Gruden?  — burns ever brighter.

It’s been a little while since we’ve seen Gruden burned in effigy publicly, but ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio recently lit those fires again with a recent article he penned rehashing the trade for the umpteen thousandth time.

In the piece, Florio takes exception to Gruden’s explanation/justification/rationalization for making the deal.

Said Gruden:

"“If we did come up with the money to make the [Mack] contract happen last year, we wouldn’t have any of these men we’re talking about now. We would not have [tackle] Trent Brown. We would not have [receiver] Antonio Brown. We wouldn’t have [safety] Lamarcus Joyner. We wouldn’t have [linebacker] Vontaze Burfict and we wouldn’t have [receiver] Tyrell Williams. And we wouldn’t have the three first-rounders that we’re talking about.”"

Based on what he argues in his piece, it’s all a matter of moving numbers around a spreadsheet. And he argues that if you move the numbers around well enough, despite common belief, you actually can have your cake and eat it too.

Like so…

"“But that’s not accurate. First, teams can do a lot more with the cap than they claim that they can do. While it’s possible that the Raiders were limited more by cash concerns, it’s not as hard as it used to be to create cap space to permit moves that a team wants to make — especially with the cap going by up more than $10 million every year.”"

One of the mechanisms for creating cap space is the infamous contract restructuring, of course. Converting payments into bonuses, trying to spread out the cap charge into subsequent seasons, blah, blah, blah.

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The problem with that argument, aside from it being a bit shortsighted, is that all you’re truly doing is robbing Peter to pay Paul. Yes, you can open up some immediate (and very temporary) cap relief by restructuring deals and converting salary to bonuses and whatnot, kicking the can down the road, but eventually, that bill is going to have to be paid.

That bill will always need to be paid at some point. It’s one of the only certainties in life — death, taxes, and Nickelback will always suck, and the money due from restructuring will always, always, always come due.

Just ask Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints about the pain of kicking the can down the road.

"“If Brees never plays for the Saints again after the 2019 season, he will leave a dead-money hit of $21.3 million. If Brees continues to play for the Saints, his 2020 salary cap charge will be that $21.3 million plus whatever salary he agrees to with the Saints, likely north of $40 million.”"

So yes, technically speaking, Florio is right — the Raiders did have the ability to free up cap space to sign some of those other guys. But they’d be mortgaging the future and leaving the team in a bad cap situation down the road.

Which isn’t an ideal recipe for long-term or sustained success.

By trading Mack, Gruden put the team in a far better financial situation — and accrued a ton of draft capital along the way. And when you’re a team with as many holes as Oakland has, you need all the resources and flexibility you can muster.

And there doesn’t seem to be any logical, reality-based way to make the argument the Raiders aren’t a better team today without Mack than they were with him — or rather, would be if they’d opted to pay him what Chicago did.

Between that deal they would have had to have given Mack, plus Derek Carr’s contract, plus the contract they were going to have to dole out for Amari Cooper, you’re talking very nearly $70 million dollars in deals — nearly a third of the entire total cap space — for three guys.

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But by not having that monster of a deal for Mack on the books, the Raiders have been able to address some key areas of weakness.

With Carr having taken 51 sacks last year, obviously, they needed some help on the line. They got Trent Brown who can hopefully help Kolton Miller and Brandon Parker improve.

They needed help at linebacker. They were able to sign Vontaze Burfict and Brandon Marshall giving them an intriguing group that should be a big improvement on their linebacker corps the last few years.

Help in the secondary was critical, so they added Lamarcus Joyner, Nevin Lawson, and Curtis Riley.

Building a wide receivers group was absolutely imperative since they had basically one viable target for Carr last season in Jared Cook.

Enter Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, and J.J. Nelson. This group (and whoever they add in the draft) have the potential to be one of the best in the league and will help elevate an offense that was among the worst in the NFL last season.

There have also been a number of smaller, under the radar type signings that help flesh out a roster with some role players and add some depth that’s very much needed to succeed in the league.

Unless you were willing to mortgage the future, there is no real way the Raiders could have somehow managed to add all of these guys and still pay Mack (and Carr), then somehow turn around and pay Cooper on top of all of it.

It’s an argument that defies logic and responsible salary cap management constraints.

While the Raiders would undoubtedly have found ways to bring some (not all) of these guys in with that millstone of Mack’s contract around their necks, Gruden’s statement is not nearly as disingenuous as Florio is making it out to be.

Further down in the article though, Florio delivers a zinger designed to mock the “Alpha Award” by MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics for “best transaction.” Sure, it’s an easy award to mock — that’s a given.

But it’s also where his argument may have jumped the shark. Just a bit.

"“Even if one or more of those guys could have been signed if Mack hadn’t been traded, it doesn’t take a degree from MIT to conclude that Mack can do far more to impact games and deliver victories than those other four players combined.”"

While you cannot deny the impact Mack has on a game, to say he can do more to deliver victories than the all of the guys the Raiders brought in — combined, no less — is absurd on its face.

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  • Yes, Mack can dominate a game. He can help alter the flow of any contest he’s in. There is no question. But the last we checked, he was not blocking along the offensive line and helping keep Derek Carr upright.

    Nor was he catching passes downfield like Brown and Williams.

    Nor was he defending the pass.

    Mack is great at what he does with the potential to be one of the greatest ever. But when the team around him is as talent deficient as the Raiders have been — because they say, don’t have the money to flesh out an entire roster — how many wins can he actually deliver?

    Oh wait! We know the answer to that one — 29.

    29 is the total number of wins the Raiders had between 2014-17 when Mack wore the Silver and Black. And they had 29 wins in four seasons — with 12 of those coming in one year — because the Raiders did not have a solid team overall. Because they had a roster that was deficient in too many ways for Mack to compensate for.

    Arguing that paying Mack more money — strapping the team financially and not giving them flexibility or the draft capital they’ve accrued — and still expecting them to be competitive doesn’t work. Having a talent as great as Mack is great and all, but when he’s playing for a team whose talent level if as subpar as Oakland’s has been, that greatness is wasted.

    And as we saw over Mack’s four years with the Raiders, doesn’t typically result in a lot of wins.

    Next. Post Free Agency 3-Round Mock Draft. dark

    Make no mistake, there are no words that can adequately or accurately describe the absolute suck that is losing a player of Mack’s caliber. But on the other side of the coin, considering the position the trade put the Raiders in moving forward, it’s impossible to not see the silver (and black) linings.

    Unless you’re really working hard not to see them, anyway.