ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) — When the Oakland Raiders lost the first 10 games in general manager Reggie McKenzie’s third season back in 2014, fired his hand-picked coach and fell to 11-37 under his leadership, few would have questioned owner Mark Davis had he made a change.
Instead, Davis stuck with McKenzie , and is receiving the dividends for his patience this season.
The Raiders have used a young core led by 2014 draft picks Derek Carr and Khalil Mack; two strong free-agency classes aided by McKenzie’s moves early in his tenure to get the salary cap in order; and more shrewd pickups in the draft and from street free agents. Oakland (12-3) is back in the postseason for the first time since 2002, with a chance to wrap up the AFC West on Sunday.
“We were in constant communication throughout the four years leading up to this year,” McKenzie said about Mark Davis, who showed more patience than his father Al did when he had six coaches in his final nine seasons before dying in 2011.
“Nobody’s excited about losing seasons, but he did see the promise and he believed in me. So to me, that’s enough said, I told him my process and he knew it wasn’t going to be a quick fix. We could try it, but that wasn’t my style. That says a lot, because he’s probably getting it from a whole lot of people to hurry up.”
The Raiders aren’t the only contender that has benefited from patient leadership. Similar moves have paid off to various extents in Dallas, Detroit and Tennessee.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones stuck with coach Jason Garrett despite one playoff berth and winning record in his first five full seasons. Now, Dallas is the top seed in the NFC.
Garrett began his tenure with three straight 8-8 seasons, but Jones believed he was learning on the job. The Cowboys then went 12-4 the following year before dropping to four wins in 2015 when Tony Romo missed most of the season. They rebounded this season behind rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott.
“I can’t say enough the job that Jason is doing,” Jones said. “Now, I have seen Jason do some really good things. Last year was, I think, a little ‘come to Jesus’ for everybody. And we didn’t do well. And we certainly didn’t make the kinds of adjustments this year to be going with our third-string quarterback is remarkable. And, so, I am excited. But let me not slight it at all. I am just thrilled with Jason’s job he’s done coaching.”
Many expected Bob Quinn to fire Jim Caldwell in Detroit after taking over as general manager last offseason with the Lions coming off a 7-9 year. Instead Caldwell came back for a third season and his calm ways seemed to help the Lions rally from an NFL record eight fourth-quarter comebacks.
The Lions head into the final weekend needing to beat Green Bay to win the franchise’s first division title since 1993. Detroit also could get into the playoffs as a wild card if Washington loses to the Giants.
If Detroit makes the playoffs, Caldwell will likely be back next year for a fourth season. If the Lions fall short, Caldwell’s chances of being retained could take a hit.
Tennessee general manager Jon Robinson could have easily searched for his own coach after taking over the Titans last January. He decided to give interim coach Mike Mularkey a chance at the full-time job despite a 2-7 record in place of Ken Whisenhunt in 2015 and two failed tenures in Buffalo and Jacksonville.
Tennessee was in position to win the AFC South before a loss last week, a development Robinson said might not have been possible without the continuity of keeping Mularkey on board.
“Mike and his staff have done a real good job of promoting confidence with the players and really harping on guys on what they can do, and telling them we can compete against these guys, and telling them we can go out and we can win football games,” Robinson said. “Not just play and give a good showing, but win.”
But patience is far from the norm in the NFL, as evidenced by Buffalo’s decision to fire Rex Ryan this week after less than two full seasons, part of an AFC East revolving door of coaches outside of New England.
Since Bill Belichick arrived in 2000, the Bills, Jets and Miami have combined for 23 coaches as they all try to chase the Patriots.
“Sometimes people act quickly and they get to do what they want to do because they’re the owners and they’re the ones pulling the strings,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “We all get so much better at this as we work at it. I’m a pretty good indication of that.”
After being fired after one season by the Jets in 1994 and lasting three seasons in New England, Carroll has found great success first in college at USC, then in his third NFL job with the Seahawks, winning a Super Bowl and making five straight playoff appearances.
In fact, 13 out of the last 19 Super Bowls have been won by coaches on their second or third jobs.
“You’re never as good in your first couple of years as you are later on,” Carroll said. “There’s so much to be gained from the experience of it. … Coaches get way better as they’re doing it. I think patience is rewarded.”
But it doesn’t guarantee success. Just look at what happened in Los Angeles and Jacksonville this season.
The Rams brought coach Jeff Fisher along for the move from St. Louis despite failing to post a winning record in his first four seasons. Things only got worse as the offense stagnated, No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff struggled to get on the field, and Fisher was fired with a 4-9 record.
It was a similar situation in Jacksonville, where the Jaguars brought coach Gus Bradley back despite a 12-36 record his first three seasons, only to fire him earlier this month with the Jaguars mired at 2-12.
The conundrum for executives is figuring when one more season could be enough for a coach or GM to turn things around, and when it’s a lost cause.
Things in Oakland didn’t look bright when Mark Davis decided to stick with McKenzie. His first two drafts yielded few key contributors and most of the free agents were second-tier players as Oakland placed a high priority on getting the cap in order after years or mismanagement under Al Davis.
But there were signs of hope in the play of Carr and Mack as rookies during that 3-13 season in 2014 that saw coach Dennis Allen get fired after four games.
McKenzie then hired coach Jack Del Rio, added key free agents such as Pro Bowlers Rodney Hudson and Kelechi Osemele on the offensive line, Pro Bowl safety Reggie Nelson, big-play receiver Michael Crabtree and pass rusher Bruce Irvin.
A strong 2015 draft class led by Pro Bowl receiver Amari Cooper, and several undrafted free agents who are making a big impact, have the Raiders back in the playoffs. They will go there without Carr, who broke his right leg last week.
“We felt like we had some players to build on,” McKenzie said. “I would be fooling myself if I didn’t say I thought we could compete, and win some ballgames. What record did I expect? I don’t know, but I knew we could win.”
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