A franchise of a well-known Mexican restaurant opened near me not long ago. (Yes, this is a column about the Las Vegas Raiders. Trust me.) In the first few days the place was open, the servers scooped monstrous piles of steak into every taco and burrito. Once the word got out that the joint was open and piling up the meat, well, strangely enough, the servers tightened up, basically counting out steak bits. They’d already hooked you with the sizzle, now they could cut back on the (literal) steak.
The Raiders moved into their palatial new stadium in Las Vegas in 2020, a year in which, you may remember, we all had other things on our mind than football. The next year, the Raiders went to the playoffs, despite the fact that they fired coach Jon Gruden in the middle of the season thanks to a leaked email scandal. The hook was in, the scent of steak was in the air, all seemed right in the world … and then the Raiders managed to burn their meat and light themselves on fire at the same time.
Nobody was mistaking the 2021-era Raiders for the Chiefs, or even for versions of their Los Angeles and Oakland selves, but there was at least hope in Vegas, hope that this newly relocated NFL team could stand out and step up. In a town that, in just the last few years, has seen the Golden Knights win a Stanley Cup and the Aces win back-to-back WNBA titles, the Raiders seemed like they were at least staying competitive, if not challenging for championships.
But now the Raiders have the bone-deep stink of loser on them, and there’s nothing more toxic in Vegas than flop sweat. They fell from 10-7 in 2021 to 6-11 in 2022, and won only three games under now-fired head coach Josh McDaniels this season. If the Raiders were a blackjack player, they’d be sitting alone at a $200-a-hand table, shoving money they don’t have into a pit they can’t even hope to fill.
Any question of what the Raiders do now, in the wake of last week’s heave-ho of McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler, has to proceed from this image: a team and ownership that’s so completely in over its head that it needs an intervention.
NFL owners tend to get one caricature attached to them as a shorthand for their entire regime. Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones a freewheeling Johnny Walker Blue connoisseur. Colts owner Jim Irsay is an awkward rap-shuffler. Raiders owner Mark Davis has a goofy haircut and a predilection for P.F. Chang’s. It’s an easy way to put owners — at least the ones who make themselves public figures — into a meme-able box.
Every owner has to be sweating a bit now, though, because without Washington’s Dan Snyder, there’s now an open competition for Worst Owner. And Davis is edging his way up the polls, in large part because of his hiring record. The Gruden firing skewed Davis’ box score, but we’re still looking at a guy who’s hired and fired four coaches and three general managers in the decade of his ownership.
The many failings of McDaniels were enough to get Raiders fans whipped into a fury. Losing happens all the time in Vegas — it’s what the city was built on, of course — but losing without dignity? That’s so, so much worse.
It’s always a bad sign when the fans get in the owner’s face, and that’s precisely what happened earlier this year in a chaotic scene when several Raiders fans demanded Davis fire McDaniels. He responded by telling them to “smarten up!” ...
— Raider (@RaiderCanelo) October 3, 2023
… but as it turned out, the fans were just a touch ahead of Davis. And now it’s on Davis himself to smarten up when it comes to his hiring practices. He’ll need to bring in a general manager who can negotiate the salary cap implications of Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract, which has a dead cap hit of $55 million this year and $28 million next. He’ll need to hire a coach who can maximize the remaining prime years of Davante Adams and Josh Jacobs, among others. He’ll need to bring in someone to figure out what to do at the quarterback position, whether to stick with Aidan O'Connell, go shopping for a free agent, or draft and pray.
Interim head coach Antonio Pierce got off to a fine start Sunday with a thorough trouncing of the Giants. Yes, New York is a miserable franchise all its own, but the fact that the Raiders have the talent and ability to hang 30 on any NFL team but hadn’t all season until now is a searing indictment of the McDaniels era.
The 2023 Raiders aren’t a playoff team, but they don’t have to be an embarrassment, either. They have a tough schedule ahead, including Miami and Kansas City twice, but a little competence with this team will go a long way. When you promised steak but delivered ground beef, there’s a pretty easy way to start winning back trust.