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The Raiders Are Stuck

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 13: Las Vegas Owner Mark Davis speaks with Head coach Josh McDaniels prior to the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Allegiant Stadium on November 13, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Sam Morris/Getty Images)
Sam Morris/Getty Images

A thing you need to understand in order to understand the NFL is that there's rich, and then there's rich, and Mark Davis is merely rich. Oh, do not misunderstand; Mark is doing fine. He's a regular at Supercuts and P.F. Chang's by choice, not necessity. But when it comes to spending—more specifically, having to actually think about and keep track of the money he spends—he's closer to you or I than he is to a David Tepper or a Stan Kroenke. A person with Davis's net worth and cash on hand would simply never be allowed to buy into the modern-day NFL, because his spending power is not functionally unlimited. Because of the league's salary floor, this isn't always obvious: the amount of money in each team's roster is more or less the same. But it shows up in other places. In Cincinnati, the other NFL franchise with notable cash issues, not too long ago that meant reused jockstraps and no Gatorade, and it still means no GM and only barely a scouting department. Mark Davis is not that cheap; firmly and forever in his father's shadow, he understands the value of appearances. But the Raiders still operate unlike most other NFL teams. When they make a financial commitment, they are stuck with it, for better or for worse. As it happens, it's usually been for worse.

Josh McDaniels was one such financial commitment. The long-coveted coach was finally given the reins to the Raiders this year, and it's not going well. He's turned a 10-7 team into a 2-7 one, and barely two months into the season, he's already throwing up all the traditional signal flares of a Dead Coach Walking. He's already given us the closed-door meeting with the owner, and the public apology to fans, and the signature loss, in this case to a team with no quarterbacks and with a coach who'd never coached above high school and with nothing to play for. The only thing missing from this résumé of remorse was the dreaded vote of confidence. That was, until this week.

"I like Josh. I think he’s doing a fantastic job," Davis told the local paper, as he made the media rounds to tell anyone who'd listen that McDaniels's employment is not in question. His next stop was to call up the national outlets:

"People in today's world want instant gratification. The guy's coached nine games. We're 2-7, not the results we're looking for but at the same time we've lost six one-score games with the ball and a chance to win at the end," Davis said.

Asked about giving a vote of confidence to McDaniels, who was hired in January, Davis said that happened when he signed him to a deal.

"I gave him my vote of confidence when I signed him to a contract to be coach of the Raiders. That's when I gave it to him," he told ESPN.

Davis added: "Rome was not built in a day."

Davis is correct in saying that the Raiders' record in one-score games is hideous, which is a little like saying the Romans could've won the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest if a few things had broken differently. But his point is clear: He's not firing McDaniels, not now, and probably not this offseason. Or, to put a finer point on it, he's not hiring and paying another coach while he still owes McDaniels money.

The Raiders were until recently still paying Jack Del Rio, who was fired one season into a four-year extension (the same contract situation McDaniels will find himself in this offseason). They are still paying Jon Gruden, who reached an undisclosed settlement on the $40 million he was still owed when he resigned midseason last year. Some NFL franchises can swallow paying two or even three head coaches at a time; the Raiders are not really one of those teams. “Raiders don’t have the money to fire [McDaniels], to pay him off," Bill Plaschke said Tuesday. "They’re cash-poor.”

The terms of McDaniels's contract aren't known, but he's not a stupid man. He had a cushy and desirable job with the Patriots, and he knew how badly Davis wanted him. It's a safe bet that his buyout terms would be extremely pleasant for him and a poison pill for Mark Davis, who's still having trouble choking down Gruden's payout. The most telling part of Davis's public defense of McDaniels was when he asked, rhetorically, "When you sign someone to a contract, don’t you expect him to fulfill the contract?" Put plainly: We're stuck paying him, so might as well let him do the job, no matter how badly he's doing it.

This is perhaps a financially prudent philosophy, though not necessarily a winning one. But at the very least it provides some stability to the players, as Davante Adams and a weirdly emotional Derek Carr pointed out in the wake of Davis's vote of confidence in McDaniels.

"It kind of let us know, the process, trust that process," Carr said. "There is a process and we do have time during the season that we know who our leader is, and we know that we're rolling, and that gives us confidence as a football team. So, absolutely, when he came out and did that, 'Whew, thank goodness.' That kind of thing."

Carr should not get too comfortable. When a team underperforms as badly as the Raiders have this season, it's rare that both the coach and the quarterback return. Normally the coach is cheaper to get rid of and easier to replace, but given Davis's finances, that's not the case here. Carr signed a three-year, $120 million contract extension this past April, but the Raiders have an out: If he's cut within three days of the Super Bowl, precisely none of it is guaranteed, and there will be minimal dead cap. But if Carr goes, what of Adams, who requested a trade specifically to play with him?

These are problems, though not materially different ones from those most struggling teams face. Where the Raiders differ is in their inability to paper things over. Most NFL franchises can eat shit and move on. Mark Davis cannot afford to make mistakes, which is not a great situation to be in when he keeps making them.

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