Josh McDaniels’ legacy of bad football and bad roster decisions: Why the Raiders moved on, and what’s next

  • Bill Barnwell, ESPN Staff WriterNov 1, 2023, 08:00 AM ET

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      Bill Barnwell is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. He analyzes football on and off the field like no one else on the planet, writing about in-season X’s and O’s, offseason transactions and so much more.

      He is the host of the Bill Barnwell Show podcast, with episodes released once a week. Barnwell joined ESPN in 2011 as a staff writer at Grantland. Follow him on Twitter here: @billbarnwell.

The last image of Josh McDaniels as an NFL head coach will be from Monday night. Las Vegas Raiders receiver Davante Adams had gotten himself open for two long touchdowns in the second half against the Lions, only for hand-picked McDaniels favorite Jimmy Garoppolo to misfire on both his throws. The first, under heavy pressure from Aidan Hutchinson, landed 2 yards out of bounds. The second landed 2 yards past Adams’ fingertips. The star wideout went to the sideline, slammed his helmet on the bench and very visibly said he was tired of something I’ll summate as the Raiders experience.

Fast-forward to 24 hours later, and it turned out that Mark Davis was tired of that experience, too. The Raiders owner stunningly fired McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler on Tuesday night, ending the former Patriots coordinator’s head-coaching gig after 25 games, less than two seasons into a six-year contract. McDaniels went 9-16 as the Raiders’ coach, a step down from his 11-17 mark in 28 games with the Broncos (2009-10), where he was also fired halfway through his second campaign.

On the merits of their record and the season they’ve had so far, McDaniels and Ziegler did not deserve to go. They’ve been middling, sure, but plenty of coaches have done worse before improving. Davis didn’t fire Jon Gruden after he started 11-21 in his second gig with the Raiders. Kyle Shanahan was 10-22 across his first two seasons with the 49ers. Dan Campbell, who handed McDaniels his final loss, started his Lions career 4-19-1. He has gone 13-4 since then. Plenty of coaches have gotten off to slow starts and turned things around.

Instead, the case for firing McDaniels and Ziegler is more comprehensive. I’m not sure a coach and general manager have ever gotten as many of their big decisions wrong over the first two years of their tenure than the now-deposed Raiders pairing. Everyone makes mistakes, and it’s easy to use hindsight to correct calls, but many of the decisions they made looked foolish even in the moment. Running through them in chronological order gives us a brief history of the regime and why the pair is out in Las Vegas.

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Chronology of bad decisions
McDaniels’ legacy
What’s next for the Raiders?

McDaniels inherits fool’s gold

Depending on how you view the roster McDaniels inherited, you could argue that Vegas’ collapse over the past two seasons has been even more dramatic than a middling win-loss record. The 2021 Raiders made it to the playoffs! Las Vegas won its last four games, including that famous Week 18 overtime game over the Chargers, to sneak into the postseason. There, it went down 20-6 to the Bengals before launching a comeback and getting in position for the game-tying score, only for Derek Carr to throw an interception on fourth-and-goal that ended Vegas’ season.

Before and after the loss, Raiders players stumped for interim coach Rich Bisaccia to get the job. Davis fired general manager Mike Mayock and hired McDaniels and Ziegler instead. Bisaccia went to the Packers to serve as their special teams coach.

The first mistake McDaniels and Ziegler made was the most important one: They didn’t do a good job of self-scouting. Yes, the Raiders were a 10-7 team that made it to the playoffs. But a closer look would have revealed something different.

As I wrote before the McDaniels hire, the Raiders were one of the league’s luckiest teams in 2022. They had gone 10-7 but had been outscored by 65 points. They had gone 7-2 in games decided by seven or fewer points. Their four-game winning streak to end the season had included wins over backup quarterbacks Nick Mullens and Drew Lock and Colts quarterback Carson Wentz, who had chosen not to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and came back from the COVID-19 list hours before that game. Their young core was mostly missing after years of terrible draft picks and trades during the Gruden/Mayock era. The Raiders needed to rebuild.

McDaniels and Ziegler disagreed. Their first big choice signaled what they felt about the roster. With the Broncos trading for Russell Wilson and the Chargers making splash deals by trading for Khalil Mack and signing J.C. Jackson in free agency, the Raiders clearly felt like they needed to make their own move to keep up in the AFC West arms race. Let’s start our look at the big decisions from the ill-fated regime there …


A chronology of bad decisions and bad football

March 18, 2022: The Raiders send first- and second-round picks to the Packers for Adams.

Taking over a Raiders team that had question marks about the offensive line and just about everywhere on defense, McDaniels sent his top two picks to Green Bay to acquire … a great wide receiver. The Raiders dealt for Adams and gave him a five-year, $140 million contract, paying the superstar wideout nearly $68 million over the first three years of his new pact. The deal reset the wide receiver market, although Tyreek Hill topped it when the Chiefs sent him to the Dolphins eight days later.

When I wrote about the trade, I went through the assumptions the Raiders were making in doing the deal and why they didn’t add up. The most important ones were about self-scouting, Adams’ development and the Vegas time frame.

Adams was and is a great receiver, but he was turning 30 in December 2022. The track record of star wideouts as they hit 30 suggests that you cannot count on them to continue producing All-Pro caliber seasons year after year. He delivered one last year, but he’s on pace for 1,145 yards and six touchdowns this season. Those are good numbers, of course, but the Raiders gave Adams a market-resetting contract and sacrificed two valuable picks to get the right to pay Adams that deal. And while paying him close to $23 million per season is a lot, giving up another $10 million or so per year in surplus value from the lost draft picks made Adams overwhelmingly expensive. He would have to be the best receiver in football every season to justify that pact, and that’s too difficult for any non-Jerry Rice receiver to do in their 30s.

Trading for Adams added a star to the Vegas roster, but even a great wide receiver can’t single-handedly swing a team into contention when Patrick Mahomes is in the same division. The Raiders weren’t as good as their record and were stuck behind teams with significantly better quarterbacks in a stacked AFC. The other moves in the AFC West race failed, too — Mack had a quiet year, Jackson got hurt and Wilson was a disaster — but adding Adams was never going to keep the Raiders in the hunt with the best teams in the conference, even if he had the sort of season we saw in 2022.

The big-picture problem, though, is that McDaniels and Ziegler didn’t recognize how eroded the roster was after years of poor decisions. The Raiders desperately needed to add young, cost-controlled talent to their roster as opposed to relying on veteran imports and short-term fixes. If anything, Ziegler should have been trying to acquire more picks. Instead, he traded his top two selections for a 29-year-old wide receiver. Whether it was delusion or naivete, McDaniels and Ziegler were foolishly aggressive.

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March 16, 2022: The Raiders sign Chandler Jones to a three-year, $51 million contract.

Well, this technically happened two days before, but it goes right alongside the Adams deal. One of the few things the Raiders did not need on defense was edge rushing help, given that one of their few budding stars was Maxx Crosby. Yannick Ngakoue, signed the year before, was under contract on the other side of the line.

No team can have too many pass-rushers, but with limited resources and a roster crying out for young talent and depth, the Raiders signed a 32-year-old edge rusher to a massive deal. Vegas then traded Ngakoue to the Colts for cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, who had been benched for stretches in Indy. Ya-Sin started nine games last season before leaving in free agency.

Jones proceeded to become one of the worst free agent signings in recent league history. He mustered only 4.5 sacks in his first season with the team, and his relationship with the Raiders broke down this summer. The Raiders paid Jones $33 million for one season before releasing the longtime Patriot. McDaniels couldn’t have anticipated the move would go as poorly as it did, but again: The Raiders were not a 32-year-old pass-rusher away from being a Super Bowl contender.

April 13, 2022: The Raiders sign Carr to a three-year, $121.5 million extension.

Extension should be in quote marks here. While McDaniels publicly suggested that Carr would be their quarterback for “this season and beyond,” anyone who had the ability to read an NFL contract could see through that statement. Carr’s deal had just $5.1 million in actual guarantees. The Raiders had paid Carr that $5.1 million and given him a no-trade clause for the option of paying him $33 million in 2023 and the first $7.5 million of his deal for 2024. It wasn’t the last time McDaniels would be deliberately misleading about the status of his quarterback.

Of course, despite McDaniels’ claims and the gaudy “extension,” he quickly fell out of love with Carr. By the end of December, McDaniels benched his quarterback to avoid an injury that would trigger his extension. Carr, who had repeatedly expressed his desire to stay with the Raiders, left the team before the end of the season. When McDaniels tried to trade him after the season, the quarterback invoked his no-trade clause, forcing the Raiders to release Carr without any compensation.

April 28-30, 2022: The Raiders get little out of the 2022 draft.

It’s admittedly going to be tough to land starters when you trade away your top two picks, but the Raiders still can’t feel great about the players they landed in April 2022. Ziegler and McDaniels came from New England, where Bill Belichick has made a cottage industry out of moving down and grabbing extra selections.

While the Raiders did make a couple of small trades down, they also moved up twice in the fourth round. First, they grabbed running back Zamir White, who has barely seen the field behind Josh Jacobs. Then they traded a pair of fifth-round picks for defensive tackle Neil Farrell, who lasted one season before being traded to the Chiefs for a future sixth-rounder.

The only starter they appear to have landed is offensive lineman Dylan Parham, who moved around the line last season and struggled in pass protection (though he was solid as a run-blocker). Seventh-round pick Thayer Munford has settled in as a backup lineman, but this isn’t a great haul for a team that desperately needed youth to build around.

April 29, 2022: The Raiders decline Jacobs’ fifth-year option.

With a trio of fifth-year option decisions coming for the infamous draft class of 2019, McDaniels and Ziegler declined across the board. They passed up fifth-year guarantees for Clelin Ferrell, Johnathan Abram and Jacobs, all of whom had failed to impress after being drafted by Gruden. Abram was gone by midseason, while Ferrell left the team after an anonymous year and signed with the 49ers.

Jacobs, of course, took a circuitous path to stardom. The Raiders played Jacobs with their third-stringers in the Hall of Fame Game, an ignominious task for a player who had been the team’s starting running back for three seasons. If McDaniels was attempting to motivate him, it worked; Jacobs responded with the best season of his career, leading the league in rushing yards and being named a first-team All-Pro. He is the best on-field success story of the McDaniels era.

On the other hand, declining the option meant that the Raiders then had to use the franchise tag to keep Jacobs around for 2023. An upset Jacobs then refused to sign the tag until the Raiders gave him a restructured one-year deal at the end of August, keeping him out of training camp. Since then, he has been one of the worst backs in football this season, struggling to create the big plays we saw during his breakout 2022 season. In the end, even something that seemed like a success for McDaniels turned out to be a failure.

June 10, 2022: Hunter Renfrow signs a two-year, $32 million extension.

If there was ever an obvious fit of player and coach, it appeared to be Renfrow and McDaniels. The Patriots coordinator had built offenses catering to the talents of shifty slot receivers like Wes Welker, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman. Renfrow was coming off of a career year in 2021, having established himself as a viable third-down and red zone target. With Adams and Darren Waller in the mix, Renfrow felt like one of the best third options in football.

But it has been all downhill since. Renfrow struggled with injuries in 2022 and finished with 330 receiving yards in 10 games, often while playing behind Mack Hollins on the wide receiver depth chart. In 2023, McDaniels has barely used Renfrow, playing him on about 38% of the offensive snaps. He has yet to top 25 yards in a game this season, and the Raiders didn’t move their 27-year-old wideout on at the trade deadline.

Sept. 10, 2022: Waller inks a three-year, $51 million contract.

McDaniels seemed to solidify his receiving corps by inking his veteran tight end to a new deal. While the Raiders reportedly turned down attempts from Green Bay to insert Waller into the Adams deal (and further attempts to acquire the tight end at the trade deadline), Waller was three days from turning 30 and was coming off an injury-plagued season. McDaniels seemed to be signaling that he was building around Adams, Renfrow and Waller as his big three.

Waller battled injuries again, but he managed only 388 receiving yards in nine games in 2022. After the season, the Raiders shipped Waller off to the Giants for a late-third-round pick. While the Giants picked up the vast majority of Waller’s extension, the Raiders essentially paid about $4.5 million for the right to trade Waller for less draft capital than they would have netted (or saved) in their dealings with the Packers.

September 2022-January 2023: The Raiders regress toward the mean.

In the 2022 edition of my annual column on the teams most likely to decline, the Raiders were an obvious pick. Their record in close games was unsustainable; the incredible fourth-quarter work of kicker Daniel Carlson would be hard to repeat; and their roster wasn’t very good (even after the additions of Adams and Jones).

The Raiders dropped from 10-7 to 6-11, and they fell from 7-2 in one-score games to 4-9 in those same contests, including narrow losses in each of their first three games. They lost in vicious ways. McDaniels’ team blew a 20-0 halftime lead over the Cardinals, gave up a fourth-down conversion and a 2-pointer to Kyler Murray to send the game to overtime, and then lost the game when a Renfrow fumble went to the house. Arizona went 3-12 the rest of the way.

There was more. They lost to the Titans when a game-tying 2-pointer failed. They lost to the Chiefs when a 2-pointer to take the lead failed. They lost 25-20 to the Colts in Jeff Saturday’s first and only win as a coach, famously allowing a 39-yard scramble to Matt Ryan when he ran past Ya-Sin. They lost 17-16 to the Rams in Baker Mayfield’s debut, when he was playing behind third-string linemen and barely knew the playbook.

You can’t even say that the Raiders were blindingly unlucky. They won a game against the Patriots where they converted a fourth-and-10 to extend the game, marched down the field and scored — and then were gifted a game-winning fumble recovery for a touchdown when Jakobi Meyers had a brain freeze and threw the ball to Jones. The Raiders were so impressed that they signed Meyers to a contract in free agency the next year. They won overtime games over the Broncos and Seahawks with late comebacks in the fourth quarter to force an extra period.

In all, Las Vegas had a total of two wins over teams with winning records in McDaniels’ year and a half at the helm.

March 17, 2023: The Raiders sign Garoppolo.

When the Raiders moved on from Carr, their next move seemed clear. With Garoppolo leaving the 49ers after the ascension of Brock Purdy, a reunion between the former Patriots offensive coordinator and backup quarterback was too obvious to ignore. The move quickly came together, as Garoppolo was said to sign a three-year, $72.8 million deal with $45 million in guarantees.

There was only one problem: Garoppolo couldn’t pass a physical. Vegas’ oft-injured new quarterback failed his physical because of a broken foot, something McDaniels and the Raiders decided against mentioning when they announced the deal in March. Garoppolo had surgery after signing the deal, and the Raiders had Garoppolo sign a waiver allowing them to cut their new quarterback if he was unable to pass a physical. The Raiders sent reporters home from an initial news conference to announce the signing before calling them back the next day, presumably while negotiating over what they found in Garoppolo’s foot.

Whether it’s rust from missing time with the foot injury or a product of not playing in the quarterback-friendly 49ers offense, Garoppolo has been a mess this season. He has already missed time with a concussion and a back injury, and when he has been on the field, Garoppolo has thrown a league-high nine interceptions on just 168 pass attempts. After torching his relationship with the organization’s long-term starter to bring in his old friend, McDaniels has managed to coax only a 35.2 QBR out of Garoppolo this season. That ranks 31st out of 32 starting quarterbacks.

I should throw in a brief aside here about how many Patriots these guys brought in to fix the Raiders. In 2022, Vegas added Jones, tackles Jermaine Eluemunor and Justin Herron, quarterback Jarrett Stidham, running backs Brandon Bolden and Jakob Johnson, and safety Duron Harmon.

Apparently, McDaniels thought he hadn’t done enough to import former Belichick players into his regime, though. In 2023, he and Ziegler added Meyers, Garoppolo, wideout Kristian Wilkerson, quarterback Brian Hoyer and defensive tackle Adam Butler to the mix. Meyers has had a solid start to his Raiders career, but the influx of Patriots hints at an inability to identify new talent and serves as a reminder of how little this team has done in the draft.

April 27-29, 2023: The Raiders have a tough time at the draft again.

With a full complement of draft picks for the first time, McDaniels and Ziegler had their chance to implement their best vision of what a draft should look like for the Raiders’ roster. Acknowledging that they had been too aggressive in going after veteran talent in 2022, this was their chance to atone and make better decisions.

They traded up four times. This time, they didn’t even trade down. They moved up for Michael Mayer, Jakorian Bennett, Aidan O’Connell and Christopher Smith. It’s way too early to evaluate any of those players, and none of the trade-ups cost astronomical prices, but it’s the principle. As I keep saying here, this team needs more young talent. McDaniels and Ziegler come from a place that has repeatedly been built, at its best, by trading down and taking advantage of other teams being desperate and stupid. They decided to approach this rebuilding draft by falling in love with specific players and giving up draft capital to get them. Heck, they even made one of these trade-ups with Belichick. Shouldn’t they have known, more than anyone, that those trades are a bad idea?

Las Vegas stayed put at No. 7 and used its first-round pick on edge rusher Tyree Wilson, who took over as a regular when Jones left the organization. With Crosby wrecking shop on the other side of the field, Wilson should be enjoying plenty of one-on-ones. But through eight games, Wilson has played 41% of the defensive snaps and has one sack and two knockdowns. Per Pro Football Reference data, he has whiffed on more than 13% of his tackles. And Wilson has six pressures and a pass rush win rate of 5.9% at edge — 77th out of 83 edge defenders with at least 50 pass-rush attempts this season.


McDaniels’ legacy

Outside of maybe Urban Meyer, there’s a pretty strong case to be made that McDaniels is the worst head-coaching hire of the past two decades.

Taking over for Mike Shanahan in 2007, McDaniels alienated 25-year-old starting quarterback Jay Cutler after he had made the Pro Bowl the prior year, traded him away for two first-round picks and then used a first-round selection on Tim Tebow. McDaniels traded a future first-round pick to the Seahawks for a second-round selection and used it on defensive back Alphonso Smith, who lasted one season with the team before being traded for Dan Gronkowski. The Seahawks used the first-rounder on Earl Thomas. McDaniels was also fined for videotaping a 49ers practice in London, reportedly told his players he could turn any high school quarterback into an All-Pro and started 6-0 before finishing his Broncos career by losing 12 of the next 17 games.

I already covered his Raiders career, but you might have forgotten the other team that hired McDaniels to be its coach. After the 2017 season, the Colts brought in McDaniels to take over in the hopes of revitalizing Andrew Luck. McDaniels agreed to take the job and hired coaches to join his staff in Indianapolis, only to change his mind and renege on the agreement, returning to the Patriots.

Things worked out well for Indianapolis. Matt Eberflus, McDaniels’ choice as defensive coordinator, stayed with the team and did well enough to earn a head-coaching job with the Bears. The Colts settled for Frank Reich, who coaxed a career year out of Luck before the Stanford quarterback suffered a calf injury and retired. We don’t know what McDaniels would have done in Indianapolis, but given how his stints in Las Vegas and Denver ended, it’s tough to imagine that he would have had more success had he gone to the Colts.

Assuming McDaniels is done as a head coach, he finishes his career with a 20-33 record. I cannot find another coach since 1970 who was fired before the end of his second season with two different teams, and that’s without even considering how he left the Colts at the altar. He will probably get another chance as an offensive coordinator, possibly with his old team if Bill O’Brien moves on after the season, but McDaniels’ résumé without Tom Brady in the mix does not inspire.


What’s next for the Raiders?

Vegas will play out a lame-duck 2023 without a full-time coach or general manager, with the Raiders promoting Champ Kelly to interim general manager and former Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce into the interim coaching role. We’ve seen them rally in this situation before — they were 3-2 when they fired Gruden, fell to 6-7 and then ran off those four straight wins to make it to the postseason in 2021 — but they’re already three games back of the Chiefs in the AFC West. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives them a 2% chance of making it to the playoffs.

There just isn’t enough cost-controlled talent here to meaningfully compete in the AFC. Gruden landed a total of five starters in his drafts from 2018 to 2021 in Crosby, Jacobs, left tackle Kolton Miller, cornerback Nate Hobbs and safety Tre’von Moehrig. Crosby is a superstar, and Miller’s an above-average left tackle, but Jacobs is struggling and is a free agent after the season. Hobbs and Moehrig are solid players, but this team is woefully lacking in young stars beyond Crosby.

Dismantling this roster won’t be fun, especially given that the Raiders didn’t make any moves at the trade deadline. They can designate Garoppolo as a post-June 1 release after the season and cut Renfrow. Trading Adams after the season would leave the Raiders with more than $40 million in dead money on their 2024 cap unless they wait until after June 1, which would reduce the number of suitors for their No. 1 wideout. They won’t get a first-round pick in return for Adams, who will be 31 this December.

Trading Crosby would be heartbreaking given how the 2019 Day 3 pick has molded himself into a superstar edge rusher, but he’s the only player the Raiders have who would return something more than a first-round pick. (Miller is the only other player who would net a single first-rounder.) Crosby won’t turn 27 until next year and will have three years and $61 million remaining on his extension, which is a bargain in a market where Nick Bosa just landed $34 million per year on a new deal. By the time the Raiders are good again, Crosby will be on a new deal. As good as he is, the Raiders need the draft capital even more.

Even if the Raiders do this right, they’re going to be bad for a couple of seasons. Things aren’t as bad as the final days of Al Davis’ run as team owner, when the Raiders were in salary cap hell that took years to escape, but this team has been mismanaged for half a decade. Starting over won’t be fun, but it’s the only way the Raiders can build a team that is actually capable of competing with the best teams in the AFC.

Davis, 68, will need to make the right hires. The owner gave former GM Reggie McKenzie time to rebuild the roster and eventually saw a 12-4 season in 2016 for his efforts, but after one disappointing year, Davis fired coach Jack Del Rio and handed over power to Gruden as part of a 10-year deal. Gruden fired McKenzie, hired Mayock and presided over some of the worst drafts of the past decade.

Gruden resigned after inappropriate conduct and was replaced by McDaniels and Ziegler, who got virtually every big call wrong before being fired 20 months into their long-term contracts. Davis has shown patience at times, but when he decides something’s wrong, the mercurial owner is prone to making sudden dramatic changes. Like his dad, Mark Davis has run the team in his own unique image.

Unlike his father, though, Mark Davis’ decisions haven’t led to a single playoff victory, something the Raiders haven’t realized in more than 20 years. Davis and Raiders fans are sick of the rebuilds and the mediocrity, but unless they take a long look in the mirror and admit that they need to start over, this organization is going to spend more time wandering in the desert.