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As of 1:15 p.m. Monday at Raiders headquarters, Jon Gruden had yet to speak with his former general manager.
Gruden drove home Sunday night after upsetting the Steelers, and that’s about as much as he revealed about the chain of events since the final whistle that led to 2016 NFL Executive of the Year Reggie McKenzie being shown the door.
“Obviously, there was a meeting last night and changes have been made,” Gruden said. “I respect everything that this organization is about. I can’t exactly answer why the change was made last night, but changes were made and we’ve got to continue to fight and continue to build this team back. And that’s what were going to do.”
Gruden, despite his repeated comments about McKenzie’s lackluster draft classes of recent years and comments contradicting McKenzie’s about trading Khalil Mack, insisted there was no disconnect between he and his “very good friend.”
“I’m not gonna sit up here today and talk about any disconnect,” Gruden said. “We were connected. We were very good friends and very connected. I’ll leave it at that.”
Gruden seemed to distance himself from the decision to fire McKenzie as much as possible. Asked if owner Mark Davis spearheaded the decision, Gruden responded, “we all work for the same man.” He also claimed he was surprised by the move when asked at what point during his Raiders tenure he sensed this was a possibility.
“I really didn’t have a sense of it. I’ve been in a dark shaft room trying to get ready for the next game. This is all somewhat surprising,” Gruden said. “There has been a lot of speculation and a lot of rumors coming out of here since early in the season. You don’t know what’s real. You don’t know hat’s smoke, what’s fire. You really don’t.”
The team put out a statement 10 minutes before Gruden spoke, but didn’t explicitly say McKenzie’s replacement will assume the title of general manager.
“The Raiders have released Reggie McKenzie from his duties as General Manager. We are grateful for everything Reggie has done for this organization as a player, executive and member of the Raider family. We wish the best for Reggie, June and the entire McKenzie family,” the statement said. “The Raiders will immediately begin a search for a new front office executive and will have no further comment until that process is complete.”
Gruden expects Davis to compile a list of candidates for discussion later this week. For the remainder of the season, college scouting director Shaun Herock will assume the bulk of McKenzie’s duties. Director of player personnel Joey Clinkscales is also still employed by the Raiders, Gruden said, before adding he hopes Raiders scouts aren’t concerned about their job security and that he’d meet with them Monday afternoon to reinforce his confidence in them.
McKenzie’s firing shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the timing seems rather odd. Multiple reports said McKenzie was presented the option to ride out the season, but he declined. It’s possible Sunday’s CBS Sports report that McKenzie would be fired after the season accelerated the inevitable. Regardless, not two years after winning 2016 NFL Executive of the Year following the Raiders’ breakout 12-4 regular season, McKenzie is out.
He’s responsible for drafting the likes of Derek Carr, Khalil Mack, Amari Cooper and Gabe Jackson since joining the Raiders in 2012, though his recent drafts haven’t been as fruitful. Gruden, the clear No. 1 at Raiders HQ since the day he was hired in early January, made it clear on multiple occasions he didn’t think highly of McKenzie’s recent drafts. When discussing the Mack trade the week before the season, Gruden said he wasn’t even involved in sending a 2020 second-round pick to the Bears in addition to the star defensive end.
Both general manager and head coach insisted they worked seamlessly together, but it was evident that wasn’t always the case beyond a personal level. Gruden released, traded or benched a handful of McKenzie draft picks – Mack, Amari Cooper, Jihad Ward, Obi Melifwonu and more – and began the process of building his Raiders from the ground up.
“I don’t think you can write the book yet. A lot of those guys are still developing and are still part of the NFL,” Gruden said. “Some aren’t with us. Some are. But I’m not going to sit up here and reiterate anything that went wrong. I do know this. We have to get better in a lot of areas and that’s what were going to strive to do.”
One of Gruden’s biggest priorities in that rebuild is finding a new personnel man, or whatever the Raiders choose to title McKenzie’s replacement.
“A guy that works hard, that loves football, that loves this organization, that will scratch and claw and fight with the rest of us,” Gruden said of what the organization will look for in McKenzie’s replacement. “It all starts obviously with expertise in personnel, great leadership skills. A number of things go into this job. It’s a tough position in this league.”
McKenzie had no comment when asked about the CBS Sports report before the Raiders’ 24-21 win over the Steelers on Sunday, and stood by his October comments about his relationship with Gruden.
“Gruden and I, we work together very well. Let’s make no mistake about it. Him pushing me out, that’s not happening,” McKenzie said on Oct. 23 when addressing local reporters after trading Cooper. “Me not being able to work with Gruden, that’s furthest from the truth. OK? We work really well together.”
Now it’s up to Gruden to hire a personnel man whose opinion he really values, because it was clear McKenzie didn’t fit that bill.
Doing so is one of the most important steps in returning the Raiders to a respectable NFL franchise.
“When you’re 3-10 I’m not surprised with anything that happens in this league,” Gruden said. “I’ve been fired. I’ve been traded. It’s a horrible part of this business and Im sensitive to it.”