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Raiders’ Mark Davis opens up about firing McDaniels, Ziegler

HENDERSON, Nev. — When Raiders owner Mark Davis sat down with The Athletic for an interview in March, he didn’t have any bold proclamations for what he expected from coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler. His only mandate was a reasonable one: He wanted to see progress.

Over seven months later, that hadn’t come to fruition for the Raiders. To Davis, the exact opposite had occurred. And in response, he fired both McDaniels and Ziegler just 25 games into the regime’s tenure on Tuesday.

“I just didn’t see the progress,” Davis told The Athletic in a phone interview Wednesday. “I saw regression.”

While the Raiders (3-5) getting outscored 56-26 in losses to the Bears and Lions the last two weeks played a factor, Davis’ decision to move on wasn’t a snapshot judgment. It was a cumulative process based on his overall assessment stemming back to last year’s miserable 6-11 campaign. When the team got off to a rough 1-3 start this season, he set the NFL’s trade deadline on Oct. 31 as his deadline for when he’d decide about McDaniels’ and Ziegler’s futures with the franchise. Based on what he saw, he felt like it was time to make a change shortly after the trade deadline passed.

When Davis last conducted a coach and general manager search last January, he became enamored with McDaniels, who was then the Patriots’ offensive coordinator. He saw McDaniels orchestrate some of the most prolific offenses in the league and help win several Super Bowls in New England and believed he could bring some of that magic to Las Vegas. McDaniels would only come if it was as a package deal with Ziegler, and Davis felt strongly enough about him to bring them both on board.

“I was really excited because I believe Josh McDaniels has a very fertile offensive mind and I’ve seen him in the past be able to adjust to so many different variables,” Davis said. “I thought that he could bring a fresh, explosive offensive mind to the Raiders.”

That didn’t materialize. The Raiders offense was solid in 2022, but it fell short of expectations considering it was a unit that boasted quarterback Derek Carr, running back Josh Jacobs, receivers Davante Adams and Hunter Renfrow and tight end Darren Waller. In response, Ziegler and McDaniels released Carr, traded Waller to the Giants and reconstructed the offense with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, receiver Jakobi Meyers and tight end Michael Mayer.

Despite the series of changes, the Raiders offense got significantly worse. In eight games with McDaniels at the helm, they averaged just 15.7 points per game (30th), 268.3 yards per game (31st) and 4.6 yards per play (27th). They couldn’t run and Garoppolo played like one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. They turned the ball over too much, couldn’t extend drives and couldn’t convert in the red zone. In the midst of it all, McDaniels appeared to have no idea how to fix it. Ultimately, that cost McDaniels, offensive coordinator Mick Lombardi and Ziegler their jobs.

With nine games left to play, Davis had to make some short-term decisions about who would take over the reins this season. Replacing Ziegler was the easy part. Davis quickly tabbed assistant general manager Champ Kelly as the interim general manager. Kelly actually interviewed for the full-time GM position during the previous search, and Davis strongly considered him for the job.

“Had I not done the pair of Dave and Josh, Champ may have gotten the job at that time. We were fortunate and grateful that he decided to come on board as the assistant general manager,” Davis said. “So, there was not even a question as to who would actually step into that position.”

Interim head coach, however, was a different story. Davis considered “several” candidates on the coaching staff before landing on linebackers coach Antonio Pierce.

“I wasn’t very familiar with Antonio over the course of the last 1 1/2 years or so, but I’d gotten to know him a little bit,” Davis said. “When I saw Antonio’s background and resume, I was intrigued. So, when I sat down with him and interviewed him, I just felt he was the right guy at the right time to fit the role that I was looking for.”

When it comes to the outlook for the rest of the season under Kelly and Pierce, Davis is remaining measured. He hopes to see the offense improve with interim offensive coordinator Bo Hardegree, who’d been working as the quarterbacks coach since last year, taking over playcalling duties and rookie Aidan O’Connell replacing Garoppolo at quarterback. He also believes that the improved defense can reach another level. In terms of the outcome, though, he’s maintaining a holistic view.

“That’s why they play the game,” Davis said. “I’d like to see progress and I’d like to see the culture of the team together. I won’t say that we lost the culture because those guys never quit. Even when they were behind, they continually played. They played really, really hard. I think it’s a great group of young men and it’ll be interesting to see with new leadership whether we can get more out of it.”

Taking the realistic view, the Raiders going on another run to the playoffs with an interim coach like they did with Rich Bisaccia in 2021 probably isn’t happening. But however the rest of the season plays out, Davis will have to select the Raiders’ sixth full-time head coach and fourth full-time GM since he became owner in 2011.

None of his decisions thus far have panned out, particularly his coaching choices. Davis thinks that a big reason why that’s happened is he’s been too locked in on which candidates before the search even begins. He wanted to hire Jon Gruden in both 2012 and 2015 before ultimately succeeding in 2018.

“Eventually, I finally got that part done,” Davis said, “and, obviously, that didn’t work out for other reasons that didn’t have anything to do with football.”

Gruden resigned following the leak of racist, homophobic and misogynistic emails just five games into the 2021 season. By the time the offseason arrived, Davis was zoned in on McDaniels.

“I had known of Josh and really respected him,” Davis said, “and thought that he could be the answer.”

Davis is vying to avoid making the same mistake. He said he intends to go into this search with an open mind.

“This time, I don’t really have anybody in mind that would potentially prejudice my thinking, so to speak,” Davis said. “My thought process is wide open.

“And there’s a very good chance that the head coach and general manager that we have right now may end up getting the jobs.”

(Photo: Kevin Sabitus / Getty Images)

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