Raiders finish strong as focus turns to major decisions now

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
The Sporting Tribune's Steve Carp writes the Raiders' need to make the right moves now after winning three of their final four games.

LAS VEGAS — For the last few weeks, the focus seems to be on the head coach of the Raiders. Players, fans, media, NFL insiders all have been voicing their opinions as to what owner Mark Davis should do.

Some advocate taking the interim tag off of Antonio Pierce and make him the permanent head coach. Others are pushing Jim Harbaugh hard, even though the current Michigan coach will have other suitors should he decide he’s done coaching at the Big House and needs to change his Bo Schembechler look. And should Bill Belichick become available, there’ll be a faction of support to bring him from New England to Las Vegas even though he’s 72 years old and his disciples failed miserably here. 

But Davis has a bigger decision to make. He needs to figure out who is going to be this team’s general manager. And that should take priority over hiring a coach.

The GM is essential in every sport. That’s the person responsible for acquiring and signing players for the head coach to work with. It’s the person who oversees the draft, works through free agency, deals with agents and tries to build a roster that can be good for the long haul.

Right now, Champ Kelly occupies the GM’s office at the Raiders’ headquarters in Henderson. Since he joined Pierce in replacing Dave Ziegler and Josh McDaniels late on Halloween night, he has kept a fairly low profile. While Pierce’s audition officially ended Sunday with a 27-14 win over the Broncos at Allegiant Stadium and he finished up 5-4, Kelly’s ledger is harder to ascertain. Other than making a practice squad or free agent pickup, how do we judge his performance?

He’s been with the Raiders for two years now. He was brought in by Ziegler as his consigliere so he has had a hand in the two drafts during Ziegler’s time as GM. He didn’t have the final say but he certainly had a voice.

On the surface, it appears he and Pierce get along, so if Davis decides to keep Pierce as his head coach, it would probably make sense to have a general manager who knows and understands the head coach. Kelly would likely remain and have his interim tag removed as well.

“Champ’s a good person,”Pierce said of Kelly. “Everyone loves and respects him. He’s put himself in a good position.”

Quarterback Aidan O’Connell, who was drafted in the fourth round in the 2023 NFL Draft which Kelly had a major hand in, said: “I think the guys love Champ. He’s easy to talk to. He’s been very supportive of me.”

But whoever winds up in the GM’s chair has a lot of hard decisions to make. The Raiders will draft at No. 13. They likely are going to look to either draft a quarterback or trade for one who is established and has some sort of track record of success. Jimmy Garoppolo, who actually played a series on Sunday after O’Connell injured his right index finger, will likely not be back. O’Connell has shown he can play in the NFL but not necessarily as a starter who can lead your team to a Super Bowl though he looked good Sunday against Denver, passing for 244 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Perhaps a change in philosophy with the offense could move O’Connell’s development up some, but the likelihood is that he will be somebody’s understudy in 2024.

The GM will also have to make decisions on whether to keep running back Josh Jacobs, wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, find a way to make Davante Adams happy enough to not demand a trade out of Vegas and get Maxx Crosby and Malcolm Koonce some help.

And assuming Pierce remains in charge, will he be asked to change up his staff? Would an upgrade from Bo Hardegree, who became the offensive coordinator after McDaniels and Mick Lombardi, then the OC, were let go, be a stipulation of Pierce getting to be the permanent head coach? Reports are the Raiders will not stand in the way of the current staff seeking employment elsewhere, which translated may mean that Davis is not 100 percent committed to retaining Pierce. 

We saw the offense’s shortcomings in real time. The shutout loss to the Vikings. Zero completed passes by O’Connell the final three quarters vs. Kansas City. Struggles to finish drives against Indianapolis. If the Raiders are going to take the next step and make it to the postseason, the offense will have to improve the way the defense improved during Pierce’s reign over the nine games he was in charge. The current Raiders defense is playoff-caliber and that was with Crosby essentially playing on one leg with a bum knee. But they can improve there as well. 

If Kelly can convince Davis he can do all that, then great, take off the interim tag and let him do his thing. But it’s a lot harder to identify a quality general manager than it is a head coach. Just because you were a successful GM at one place doesn’t guarantee you’ll be successful at the next stop. 

Perhaps the players will speak highly of Kelly the way they have of Pierce when and if Davis invites them to his office for a chat. Maybe Adams, Crosby and the other veteran players will get the opportunity to stump for Champ. He may very well be the right guy at this time.

But Davis’ track record hasn’t been good when it comes to GMs and more than it has been for head coaches. Reggie McKenzie made the playoffs once in his seven years running the Raiders. Mike Mayock’s three-year reign yielded one playoff appearance. Ziegler didn’t even make it to two full seasons after replacing Mayock.

So for all the griping we’ve heard about coaches and the Raiders not getting it right, think about the general manager’s seat. It hasn’t been great since Al Davis was calling the shots and even he saw a decline in the team’s fortunes late in his tenure as GM and Managing General Partner (I always loved that title he bestowed upon himself).

So what will Mark Davis do? The NFL has certain protocols in place that all teams must follow in the hiring process for both the coach and the GM and even if Davis decides to maintain the status quo with Pierce as his coach and Kelly as his GM, he still has to abide by the process and interview others.

In the end, all Raiders fans should care about is whether or not the owner gets it right. The track record has not been good when it comes to hiring coaches and GMs. But maybe Davis will get it right this time. The future health of his franchise, which has been mired in mediocrity for the majority of this century so far, will depend on it.