It was exactly a month ago that Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis was caught on camera during his team’s game against the Chargers, admonishing a fan who was begging him to fire head coach Josh McDaniels. “Smarten up!” Davis said back, multiple times, dismissing what that fan—and most reasonable people who had been watching the Raiders lately—had seen. The McDaniels-era Raiders were a complete disaster: an expensive and haphazardly constructed roster, heavy on ex-Patriots and light on difference-making talent, and a poorly coached team that was getting embarrassed on the field with stunning frequency.
Davis finally was the one who smartened up.
Davis made the surprising move to fire both McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler late Tuesday night, 24 hours after an embarrassing loss on Monday Night Football and shortly after the trade deadline passed without the Raiders making any moves that could help them become a better team in the short or long term.
Davis hired the duo of McDaniels and Ziegler as a package deal out of New England in 2022, envisioning that they’d take a Raiders team that made the playoffs in 2021 “to the next level.” It was a splashy hire—McDaniels had been a hot head-coaching name for years, despite a failed tenure as Denver’s head coach more than a decade ago and his bizarre decision to back out of an agreement to become the Colts head coach in 2018. He had a reputation of being an offensive guru—he was Tom Brady’s coordinator during the peak of the Patriots dynasty and in 2021 coached a rookie Mac Jones to the playoffs.
But that success never translated to Las Vegas, and the lasting image from his tenure with the Raiders will be of his star wide receiver, Davante Adams, slamming his helmet to the ground in disgust and firing off expletives during what was yet another feeble offensive performance. The Raiders were a rudderless team, and McDaniels and Ziegler appeared to have no answers for how to fix the team’s many issues.
Was it the clear frustration from a veteran leader like Adams that finally convinced Davis that McDaniels and Ziegler had to go? Did he realize that the brain trust he hired to level up his franchise less than two years ago was wasting the prime years of the careers of Maxx Crosby, one of the league’s best edge rushers, Adams, a three-time All Pro, and running back Josh Jacobs? Was it the fact that McDaniels’s chosen quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, was leading the NFL in interceptions despite missing 2.5 games because of injury? Was it the brain trust’s unwillingness to deal Adams (or Hunter Renfrow, or others) at the trade deadline? Or was it the combination of everything, too many embarrassing losses stacking on top of each other?
The bottom line was the Raiders were utterly broken, and firing McDaniels and Ziegler was the first step toward fixing the franchise.
Davis once celebrated the foundation built by Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock, the since-fired head coach and GM. He lauded the culture interim head coach Rich Bisaccia cultivated so quickly after Gruden’s calamitous departure and the awful Henry Ruggs III situation in 2021. Those 2021 Raiders won their last four regular-season games and made the playoffs, before losing in the wild-card round to the eventual AFC champion Bengals. The foundation, surely, was there: an above-average QB in Derek Carr, a stud pass rusher in Crosby, a budding star running back in Jacobs, and beautiful new facilities in Las Vegas. Davis plucked McDaniels and Ziegler out of New England, just the latest in a long history of attempts to recreate the Patriot Way.
Asked why he chose both of them specifically, Davis highlighted McDaniels for his ability to adapt and change, presumably after coaching rookie QB Mac Jones to the playoffs in 2021, and Ziegler for developing a roster of “no-names” in New England and winning with them. Davis also showered praise on the Patriots organization and the impact that his team’s new brain trust had on the dynasty. McDaniels said “there’s no question” he could win with Carr as the starting QB, and Ziegler threw out enticing buzzwords like character, hard work, and loyalty when discussing how he’d build the team.
It was all bullshit. McDaniels and Ziegler reshaped that foundation by signing more than 20 different free agents in their first offseason, including a number of former Patriots: from expensive ones like defensive end Chandler Jones, who got $32 million guaranteed over three years at age 32; to guys like safety Duron Harmon, fullback Jakob Johnson, and running back Brandon Bolden on shorter, cheaper deals. The biggest move of Ziegler and McDaniels’s first offseason, though, was trading a first- and a second-round pick for Adams and signing the star playmaker to what was at the time the biggest wide receiver contract in league history. Then they signed Carr to a contract extension that was really just funny money; with no guarantees beyond 2022, Carr—the same QB that McDaniels said he could win with—was essentially playing for his job last season, and lost it.
For McDaniels it was essentially the same script he followed when he was hired as head coach of the Broncos in 2009. He gutted the roster—notably trading quarterback Jay Cutler, who was coming off a Pro Bowl season—and over the course of the next two years signed former Patriots like a well-past-his-prime Ty Law, long snapper Lonie Paxton, and running back Laurence Maroney. He failed at turning Denver into New England West, and he was fired after a spying scandal erupted in his second season.
And it didn’t work in Las Vegas, 13 years later. McDaniels is 20-33 as a head coach when you combine his Broncos and Raiders tenures. We know exactly who he is as a coach (and let this be a warning to any future NFL team that considers hiring for a head job): He’s a guy who routinely botches in-game management decisions and struggles to relate to players—respondents in this year’s NFLPA player survey said McDaniels “is less likely to listen to his players and keeps them for longer hours than other head coaches around the league” (and former Raiders tight end Darren Waller is still probably upset about McDaniels revealing private details of Waller’s wedding to WNBA star Kelsey Plum); he gets himself into awkward situations with his quarterbacks (see: the way he benched Carr late last season before cutting him in February); and will default to signing former Patriots, like he did in Vegas with Garoppolo and receiver Jakobi Meyers, as part of a roster overhaul. Of the 27 Raiders players who played 400 or more snaps during the 2021 season, only nine remain with the team today.
Mathematically, the 3-5 Raiders have a chance to resurrect this season, though they’d be a long shot’s long shot to make the playoffs. But anyone who watched the Raiders score just seven offensive points Monday night, or saw them lose to the Bears and undrafted rookie quarterback Tyson Bagent in Week 7, knows this team is beyond saving.
McDaniels’s offense was arguably the Raiders’ biggest problem—because that was supposed to McDaniels’s strength. He said he could win with Carr, but couldn’t. He then hand-picked Garoppolo, and they couldn’t score. McDaniels also simply couldn’t figure out how to effectively and consistently use Adams, the star receiver for whom they traded a first- and a second-round pick in March 2022. Adams had just one catch for 11 yards on seven targets in Monday’s loss to the Lions.
Two weeks ago, Adams had a lot to say about his involvement in the offense. He told the local media after a narrow Week 6 win over the New England Patriots that he is “one of the bigger pieces as to why this offense is going to go” and that if he wasn’t getting the ball, “then that’s obviously not according to plan.” That take should not be a surprise. Last spring, he told The Ringer that he didn’t see “eye-to-eye” with the front office and the direction they were taking the team after they let Derek Carr, Adams’s friend and college teammate, go and replaced him with Garoppolo. Now, he’s at a loss for words.
“I honestly don’t know what to say at this moment,” Adams told reporters after the game Monday night. “I truly don’t. I wish I had the words to say something that’s not going to get blown up in the media and taken out of context, so, I’m just going to, I truly just don’t know.”
But what Davis seems to have finally realized is that the Raiders’ problems during the McDaniels-Ziegler era ran much deeper than a flawed offensive system and a coach whose game-management style had become a comedy of errors that was no longer funny.
Adams is now free of McDaniels, but he’s stuck in Las Vegas. ESPN reported days before the trade deadline that Adams wouldn’t be going anywhere, and indeed, the trade deadline passed without a move. Interim head coach Antonio Pierce, a former Giants linebacker, will first have to figure out what to do at quarterback, and try to find a way to get Adams more regularly involved in the offense. The Las Vegas Review Journal reported late Tuesday that Aidan O’Connell would start in Week 9 against the Giants. But then what?
The Raiders’ new coach and general manager, whenever Davis hires them in the winter, will have big questions to answer about the future of Adams, who has no guaranteed money remaining on his deal after 2024 and could be a prime trade candidate in March, and Garoppolo, who, thanks to a contract restructure McDaniels and Ziegler sneaked in days before the season opener in September, has a dead cap hit of more than $28 million in 2024. They’ve also got to deal with Jacobs, who is on an expiring contract after being given the franchise tag this offseason, and find creative ways to add talent at all three levels of the defense and on the offensive line ahead of next season (preferably, with fewer former Patriots).
But even before all of that, Davis needs to figure it out. When he announced McDaniels and Ziegler in January 2022, he mentioned that it was an “extensive” and “exhaustive” hiring process multiple times. He’s now hired four head coaches (Dennis Allen, Jack Del Rio, Jon Gruden, McDaniels) and three general managers (Reggie McKenzie, Mike Mayock, Ziegler) in the 10-plus years since he took over the team following his father’s death. They’ve all failed. No, scratch that. Davis has failed. Hiring and firing that many coaches and general managers in such a short span is his failure. However extensive and exhaustive the process has been previously, it hasn’t been enough and desperately needs to change.
The only silver lining is that Davis didn’t wait any longer to admit his failure and fire both McDaniels and Ziegler. Raiders fans were, quite literally, begging for it. But it’s now time for Davis to truly smarten up and put an end to this hellish hiring and firing cycle, lest he wind up back in this position in a few short years.