It's been 13 years, but the Oakland Raiders are back in the playoffs, clinching their spot thanks to a 19-16 win over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. They also received a little AFC West help, with the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs both losing in Week 15.
This will be Oakland's first trip to the playoffs since the 2002-03 season, when the Raiders went the Super Bowl (falling to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). The years in between have been tumultuous, to say the least, but all of that strife can easily be forgotten with another deep playoff run. Organizational chaos has given way to front office competence in the post-Al Davis era. It's almost as if the Raiders are once again a model franchise for the decade.
The years between the 2002 season and now have been fraught; only the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns have struggled equally or more in that span. After three straight winning seasons -- 12-4 in 2000, 10-6 in 2001 and then 11-5 in 2002 -- the team never did better than eight wins and followed their Super Bowl appearance with eight years of five or fewer wins. One big issue among many: riding the coaching carousel, all the way off the cliff.
Bill Callahan had a four-win season in 2003-04, and Davis fired him. Next came Norv Turner, serving as head coach from 2004 through 2005; he brought four, then five wins and was out the door. Art Shell was brought back -- he had coached the Raiders from 1989 to 1994 -- but was given only one season before being shown the door. Lane Kiffin was then brought in for a disastrous 2007 season, with the Raiders going 4-12. He was then fired in an infamous manner (via Davis and his overhead projector) on Sept. 30, 2008 and replaced with Tom Cable, promoted from offensive line coach.
Cable's Raiders had a 4-8 record in 2008 and went 5-11 in 2009 before improving to 8-8 in 2010, thanks mostly to the rushing attack behind Cable's hand-built offensive line. Darren McFadden rushed for over 1,100 yards that season, while Oakland went undefeated in the AFC West. Regardless of the improvement, Davis chose not to renew Cable's contract; offensive coordinator Hue Jackson was then promoted to head coach. The 2011 season was to be the turning point for the Raiders, though no one knew it when Cable was out and Jackson was in.
On Oct. 8, 2011, Davis died at the age of 82. With Davis' son Mark taking over operations of the franchise, the Raiders traded a 2012 first-round draft pick and a 2013 second for disgruntled Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, who had very recently threatened his long-time franchise with retirement if team owner Mike Brown didn't deal him (the Bengals had just drafted quarterback Andy Dalton as Palmer's replacement).
But a major change struck the Raiders upon Davis' death, and it is likely the one that has brought the team back to playoff relevance and on the edge of an AFC West championship: the hiring of a general manager. Davis had long been responsible for the personnel side of the Raiders organization, a hybrid owner-GM just as Jerry Jones is for the Dallas Cowboys. But upon his passing, Mark chose to hire Reggie McKenzie, a former Raiders linebacker and at the time the Green Bay Packers' director of football operations, to become GM. McKenzie's first action, five days after his hiring, was to can Jackson after one season, preferring instead to hire a head coach of his own choosing. That was Dennis Allen, who had been serving as the Broncos' defensive coordinator.
McKenzie inherited a mess. The Raiders had too many high-priced contracts compared to a salary cap that was just shy of $121 million in 2012, a struggling defense and a lack of draft picks (losses beyond those assets traded away for the rights to Palmer) that made Oakland's first pick in 2012 No. 95, in Round 3. Unsurprisingly, the Allen years were lean times for the Raiders, who went 4-12 in both 2012 and 2013. Allen was fired on Sept. 30 of the 2014 season, replaced by offensive line coach Tony Sparano, but that didn't make a difference; Oakland still totaled only three wins on the season.
The 2014 season -- and particularly its draft -- became the Raiders' turning point, even with the continuing coaching tumult. Beyond McKenzie moving on from expensive, underperforming (or regularly injured) players like Rolando McClain and Richard Seymour, as well as trading Palmer to the Arizona Cardinals for a trio of late-round draft picks, his prowess in drafting to repair holes on the roster has been the biggest reason for the Raiders' recent success. The 2014 draft yielded linebacker Khalil Mack (30 career sacks and counting) and quarterback Derek Carr. In 2015, the team added receiver Amari Cooper, defensive tackle Mario Edwards and tight end Clive Walford via the draft, three players who have been crucial o the Raiders' success over the past two seasons.
2015 also marked the hiring of another new head coach, Jack Del Rio, again a Broncos defensive coordinator and one-time head of the Jaguars. The Raiders went 7-9 a year ago and felt very much on the brink of great things, thanks to the Mack-led defense and the Carr-led offense that also had the assistance of a seemingly reborn Michael Crabtree, a former Round 1 draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers.
It's been a long and winding road for the Raiders to return to the postseason. But the good news is that the Raiders circuitous turnaround provides a blueprint for other struggling franchises on how positive institutional change is possible. It requires finding a GM with a strong vision (and a good one), a head coach who can resonate with the locker room, a point of view in the draft that allows for player development as well as instant impact, the managing of the salary cap in a way that keeps talented veterans in the fold along with the ability to extend second contracts to younger players.
It's easier said than done -- and it took the Raiders 13 years. But the Black Hole is now a supernova. Enjoy it while it lasts.