Way back before the 2018 NFL season,, a deal that would have a wide-ranging impact on the outcome of various football games. Chicago thrived, winning its division on the back of its defense, while the Raiders struggled to generate any pass rush and limped to a four-win season.
Universally, the deal was panned. Until the Sloan Sports Conference anyway, when a bunch of analytically-minded folks in the sports space decided to hand the Raiders a giant trophy as part of being named winner of the "Best Transaction" award.
Yes, the trade of Khalil Mack -- largely ripped by everyone,-- was considered the Best Transaction in all of sports in 2018 from an analytical perspective.
So, uh, why? Well, as Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey (one of the conference's founders and one of the voters) explained to Vic Tafur of The Athletic, it was in large part because of how valuable the panel of people perceive draft picks to be.
"Everybody else thought it was a terrible trade, but draft picks are very valuable," Morey told Tafur. "Analytics tends to fly in the face of popular convention pretty often.
"We don't care about what people say."
The funniest part about this story, by far, is that when Morey called Raiders team president Marc Badain to tell him they won the award, the Oakland president didn't believe him and thought Morey was pulling a practical joke on him.
"Marc thought I was making fun of him," Morey said. "I had to tell him several times that I wasn't kidding. I guess they took a lot of heat for that."
! Everyone ripped the Raiders for dealing an in-his-prime pass rusher like Mack, especially when Oakland's primary logic was that they couldn't pay Mack what he wanted to get in a deal. (The Bears quickly gave Mack a massive deal, after they traded for him.)
With the benefit of hindsight, we can definitely see the Raiders were holding firm on their price tag for Mack,after it was a new contract.
The Raiders did not get the picks they wanted, per se, because the Bears ended up being a much better team than they thought initially. Oakland said after the fact it chose Chicago as the best trade partner because the Raiders and Jon Gruden viewed the Bears as the most likely team out of the ones they were talking with to struggle in 2018.
But to that point, Morey noted that the Raiders are far more concerned with process than with result. The idea of giving up someone like Mack, as good as he is, for multiple first-round picks instead of paying him an exorbitant contract makes sense from an analytical perspective.
We saw how the Browns approached things in terms of stripping down their roster and acquiring assets. That sort of approach is exactly what the analytical community appreciates and it's ultimately what the Raiders did in trading Mack and later on when they dealt wide receiver Amari Cooper for a first-round pick to the Dallas Cowboys.
The irony here is that the Raiders took that approach last offseason and throughout the year but appeared impatient this year, deciding to aggressively pursue talent in free agency this offseason. They traded for Antonio Brown -- although analytics would probably appreciate that as well, considering the price, a third-round pick and a fifth-round pick -- and then gave him a huge new contract.
Oakland also made a splash by signing offensive tackle Trent Brown in free agency, as well as safety LaMarcus Joyner and wide receiver Tyrell Williams. All three got pricey free agent contracts, which probably isn't the type of decision that an analytics-based panel would appreciate.
The Mack trade will ultimately be judged by whatever the Raiders get in the draft with the picks they received. But even if that doesn't work out, they can always just point out that the process is more important than the results.