Similar Paths: Atlanta Braves and Oakland Raiders take same roads back to relevance

Apr 4, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; A general view of the field prior to the game between the Atlanta Braves and the Washington Nationals at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 4, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; A general view of the field prior to the game between the Atlanta Braves and the Washington Nationals at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports /

What do the Atlanta Braves and Oakland Raiders have in common? More than you might suspect

The Atlanta Braves are a team in rebuild relying on the savvy of John Coppolella and the talent of precocious youngsters to return the team to its previous glory.

Sub out ‘John Coppolella’ for ‘Reggie McKenzie’ and you could describe the NFL’s Oakland Raiders as well.

Resident Braves/Raiders fans (an extremely thin sliver of the fandom Venn Diagram) Jonah Pryor and Colby Wilson traded emails about Coppy, team building and the state of each franchise and how they mirror one another. Read on…

Colby Wilson: So on a lark I threw out a ‘Hey, what if Jonah and I talked about the Atlanta Braves and Oakland Raiders in a back-and-forth email exchange for Tomahawk Take?’ at Jeff Schafer and he… I wouldn’t say loved it, but acknowledged that perhaps dozens of people would read it.

So whaddya say… want to talk about the similarities between Coppy and Reggie McKenzie for a while?

Jonah Pryor: I love it! I’ve been saying for the past three years that they both walked into similar situations and have been rebuilding in a way that has worked for the team in the past (70s Raiders and 90s Braves). I’m in!

CW: Terrific! Let’s start (as much as something like this gets started):

I’ve lived most of my life assuming that my brother and I compose almost the entirety of the sports fandom Venn diagram sliver that is Braves/Raiders fan. How did you wind up in this life? Because you were what, five, the last time the Raiders were good?

JP: The last time the Raiders were good I was four years old. That was the year they went to the Super Bowl against Tampa Bay. I’ve pretty much been a Raiders fan since birth, which I mostly attribute to my father. My family and I are from a central California town called Visalia, which is about 45 miles southeast of Fresno. My father played Raiders halftime shows with his band in the late 70s and early 80s (until the Raiders moved to Los Angeles). In a 1980 game between the Cowboys and Raiders, Dallas’ Ed “Too Tall” Jones approached my father on the sideline, put his chest on the bell of my father’s trumpet, and did a deep, Jabba the Hutt-type laugh. My father says he remembers the moment like it was yesterday.

Anyway, I moved to the Atlanta area in 2002. When I was seven years old, my father took me to my first Atlanta Braves game at Turner Field. They were playing the Cubs, and I do not recall who won the game, but I fell in love with Chipper and Andrew Jones and the atmosphere of Turner Field. So that’s how I ended up a Braves fan.

CW: Nice. So like me, I think you’ve got some thoughts on how the current Atlanta Braves rebuild is awfully similar to how the Raiders just finished a frame-off franchise restoration to get back to relevancy (this would’ve been a more fun exchange to have before Christmas Eve; get well soon, Derek Carr). What kind of ties do you see between what Reggie McKenzie did in Oakland and what Coppy is trying to do for the ATL-adjacent Braves?

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JP: When I look at the similarities between Oakland’s Reggie McKenzie and Atlanta’s John Coppolella, I see two men who both inherited bad situations.  After late Raiders owner Al Davis passed away in 2011, McKenzie was hired as general manager of the Raiders in 2012. McKenzie took control of a team that was in salary cap hell, with too many players with large contracts underperforming.  He understood that if Oakland was going to be competitive again, he had to stockpile young talent and build through the draft.

So in 2014, he set his sights on the future.  The 2014 NFL draft might go down in history as the best three days of Reggie McKenzie’s career.  On day one he drafted pass rusher Khalil Mack, who last season recorded five sacks in a single game and became the first player in NFL history to be named an all-pro at two different positions (defensive end and linebacker).  On day two he drafted quarterback Derek Carr, who has become Oakland’s undisputed franchise quarterback (sidenote: get well soon, DC), and Mississippi State guard Gabe Jackson. On day three he drafted defensive tackle Justin Ellis, who has played well for Oakland in a starting role the past two seasons.

I see the Atlanta Braves’ rebuild as being very similar to the Raiders’.  Where Reggie McKenzie was brought in to clean up Al Davis’ mess, John Coppolella was put in charge to clean up former GM Frank Wren’s mess.  Both McKenzie and Coppolella had to get rid of big-name underperforming players, like Richard Seymour and Rolando McClain in Oakland and Melvin Upton Jr. in Atlanta.  Both rebuilds have been heavily focused on stockpiling young talent, where the Braves have stockpiled young pitching arms and the Raiders have stockpiled quarterbacks and wide receivers.  Both GMs made a change at head coach to lead their teams into the future.  Oakland fired head coach Dennis Allen and replaced him with Jack Del Rio, and Atlanta fired head coach Fredi Gonzalez and made interim head coach Brian Snitker the full-time manager.

I believe the Atlanta Braves in 2017 will be where the Raiders were in 2015.  The 2015 Raiders had some nice young pieces at skill positions but were not well-rounded enough as a team to truly make a playoff run.  I see the 2017 Atlanta Braves in a similar light, where young players like Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies will give Atlanta a chance to compete for a wild card spot.

CW: It’s funny you mention Dennis Allen and Fredi Gonzalez; Allen was simply the latest in a long line of failed hires made by latter-day Al Davis (when you lose a pissing contest with Lane Kiffin, you’ve really accomplished something), while Fredi was the guy charged with replacing a legend in Bobby Cox–a legend who happened to be among his biggest backers and has to be at least somewhat responsible for him hanging around as long as he did.

I want to talk about the draft for a second because you mention 2014 for the Raiders–DC and Mack in the same draft is the type of coup that alters a franchise, but it also sets up a timeline very different from MLB. DC and Mack were day-one starters and became cornerstones midway through last season. With rare exception, it’s impossible to make that kind of projection with baseball players. Reggie McKenzie HAD to nail the draft somewhere along the line, because if he didn’t he would never be able to build a base of players and attract any useful free-agents (nobody worthwhile was beating down the door to play in Oakland during the JaMarcus years).

If Coppy screws up the draft every year, would we even notice at this point? He’s been so shrewd in his dealings that even if Allard, Anderson, Muller, etc., etc., etc. don’t work out for whatever reason, the depth he’s built in the system and masterful way he works opposing GM’s and free agents would keep the franchise from falling into complete disrepair. Who walks a finer line, in your opinion: the guy who HAD to nail draft picks to build a franchise or the guy who HAD to fleece opposing GM’s in practically every deal he’s made?

Atlanta Braves
Atlanta Braves /

Atlanta Braves

JP: I would argue that McKenzie walks a finer line simply due to the nature of the business he is in.  The NFL is not a league where patience runs high.  In baseball there are a few dozen rounds in the draft each year.  This allows room for error, which is why — as you pointed out — GMs can fleece other GMs when they trade prospects that have not worked out and hardly anyone notices.

In professional football, however, there are no minor leagues.  There is no farm system.  There are seven rounds in the NFL draft, and there is little room for error.  Drafted players get thrown into action much sooner than baseball prospects, so it does not take long to see whether a player is a boom or a bust.

McKenzie also initially walked a much finer line than Coppolella because he was given the reins to a team that had not won in a decade, whereas the Atlanta Braves had at least made the playoffs under Frank Wren.  Some could argue that this would mean Coppolella ran on a finer line than McKenzie because expectations and standards for the Braves were higher than the Raiders, but I would argue that the immense pressure under McKenzie to be the savior that would turn the Raiders organization around meant that he walked a finer line than Coppolella.

Raiders fans and fans of other NFL franchises typically have low patience when it comes to new leadership.  They want quick fixes.  After two 4-12 seasons in 2012 and 2013, the fans and the national media were all calling for Reggie McKenzie’s head. McKenzie was running on thin ice. Fortunately, Raiders owner Mark Davis was wise enough to realize that McKenzie had not been able to make many moves in free agency due to the salary cap situation that his late father, Al Davis, put the team in.  Mark Davis trusted the process, and look where the Raiders are now.  Hopefully, I will be able to say the same thing about John Coppolella and the Atlanta Braves in the near future.

CW: Trusting the process is a fun theory but requires patience, which is a hard commodity to find in any sport. Sam Hinkie couldn’t see it through in Philadelphia with the 76ers. At some point, it’s all about the results–and the Raiders results were garbage for over a decade. McKenzie needed a year like 2015 to save his job, but a year like 2016–pre-Carr injury, as we found out in the Wildcard game against Houston–makes him look like a genius. And it makes Davis’ trust in him look good in hindsight.

As much as I think we all feel confident in Coppy, he took a risk–tearing down a ‘competitive’ team that had a ceiling to instead bottom out for a few years in hopes of building a team with no ceiling but no promise of competition. The farm system Coppy and John Hart inherited was a mess and the team wasn’t really a contender in the traditional sense, but they were consistently playoff-adjacent. Without the money to go for free-agents and the prospects to trade for the final pieces of the puzzle, Coppy went for a full reshaping of the franchise, which we’re still in the middle of (although it looks more promising each time he swindles a rival GM in a trade). The Raiders played the long game with McKenzie and it worked out; how many years of hoarding prospects and building the system without much in the win column would Coppy get before the seat got warm?

I’ve had Carr on my mind a lot since the Houston game–that was a bad day where it was obvious how different the team is without him under center. A single baseball player not named Mike Trout can’t make that much difference on a day-in, day-out basis on the field… but the mindset of the team changed without him. Can you see a player on the Atlanta Braves roster that means that much to the franchise’s fortunes? Is that the Dansby Swanson role once he’s fully developed?

JP: In response to the first question, I believe that Coppy has another year or two without significant improvement in the win column left before the seat gets warm. It will all depend on how quickly our top pitching prospects can develop and be ready for the majors, as well as their production with the big club once they arrive. With Atlanta’s embarrassment of pitching talent in their farm system, it’s hard to see a scenario where none or hardly any of those arms find success in the majors. Because of that, Coppy is most likely fine for the foreseeable future.

At the moment, I do not see any Mike Trout-type players in Atlanta who impact the Braves’ fortunes to the extent you described. Obviously Freddie Freeman comes to mind, and Freddie is a phenomenal player, but I don’t believe he has the presence or leadership that dramatically impacts the mindset of the team like a Mike Trout or Derek Carr.

Sure it is possible that Dansby Swanson could become the next Derek Jeter, but we have not seen enough games with Dansby in order to determine whether or not his presence on the field and in the clubhouse is vital to the success of the Atlanta Braves.  However, this upcoming season will give us the chance to see what kind of a leader Swanson can be and how his presence on the field for an entire season impacts the team’s mindset.

CW: Football and baseball have dis-similar timelines not only as franchises build but also as they deteriorate. You can create a window to truly compete faster in the NFL, but it closes quicker, whereas only the richest teams in baseball can afford to reload rather than rebuild (and as many of them have found out, the quick fix isn’t always the best); the Cubs are the MLB contender best-suited to keep contending for years to come because they’ve blended excellent player development with spending smartly, Jason Heyard (probably) excepted. Three, five, 10 years down the line… what are the best-case scenarios here for the Braves and Raiders? How are the similar and different?

tl; dr: Which team is better built for the long haul and why, and is it easier for the Atlanta Braves to be built to last because that’s how baseball works?

JP: Obviously the best case scenarios for both teams is that they will have each won at least one championship. For Atlanta, the ideal scenario would be that they continuously find ways to turn young talent into quality contributors in Atlanta in order to stay competitive. The Cubs are an example of this idea as you pointed out. The St. Louis Cardinals’ model would also be one that I can see Atlanta following for the next decade.

As for the Raiders, the ideal scenario is that their core players in Carr and Mack are able to dominate the league and cement Oakland as a cornerstone franchise in the NFL.  The best thing that could happen to the Raiders is if they establish their players and coaches as having an unparalleled system, meaning that even backups and even third-stringers can perform well if called upon.

Take New England as an example. The Patriots have become a dynasty due to the system and culture established by Bill Belichick and company. Backups like Jimmy Garappolo and Jacoby Brissett are able to win in New England because of the system and culture in place in that organization. The Patriots organization represents the phrase “Commitment to Excellence” more than any other team in professional sports right now.

Next: Busy offseason? Just wait til next year

I’d probably agree with you in saying that the Braves are better built for the long haul. As you said, that’s how baseball works. Don’t get me wrong, the Raiders are better built for the future than most teams in football right now. But simply due to the nature of the economics and logistics of baseball, the Braves are built better for future success.